Creative Licensing Scheme Grabs Artists Attention

An intellectual property licensing scheme known as Creative Commons brings copyright flexibility by giving artists more control.

Is the intellectual property licensing scheme known as Creative Commons picking up steam?

The answer, it seems, is a cautious "yes." And that—despite the organizations demurring—could have political implications.

"Its picking up," Commons director Glenn Otis Brown says. "The last six months, we feel like its a completely different organization."

The licensing schemes popularity is clearly growing, increasing by a steady 50 percent every fiscal quarter for the past year, according to the Commons traffic and other records. More than 4 million sites—of the 5 billion searched regularly the Web—have some kind of license.

The most recent public-relations push came after Wired magazine helped organize a benefit concert for the center, now housed in San Francisco with Mitch Kapors Open Source Applications Foundation.

Its a stark contrast from the license launch party held in San Francisco in December 2002. Attended mostly by computer people and their artsy friends, the launch was pretty much ignored by anyone who wasnt already hip to the idea first formulated by Stanford professor Larry Lessig.

By contrast, the New York party was underwritten by a fancy publishing outfit (Wireds parent is Conde Nast, which publishes Vogue and The New Yorker) and featured a bevy of celebs, including musicians David Byrne and the Beastie Boys. It came on the heels of the news that Robert Greenwald, the producer of the documentary "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdochs War on Journalism," has released his film under a Creative Commons license.

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The current copyright scheme is an all-or-nothing proposition. Users must pay a predetermined fee for use, regardless of what they plan to do with the material or their audience. By contrast, Creative Commons licenses allow flexibility. Artists can give away some rights—permission to copy a song and use it on a school project, for example—and keep others. The idea is to permit student use of a work for free but keep the right to charge a higher fee if, for instance, Coca-Cola wanted to use that same song.

"Our model is completely dependent on copyright, says Brown, who claims no interest in commenting on the need for changes in copyright licensing schemes. Nevertheless, anytime a well-known artist embraces the Creative Commons license, the idea of changing current law gets a quiet endorsement.

"I think its practical," says Danny Weitzner, technology and society domain leader at the World Wide Web Consortium. "Its building on the open-source model, which is saying, We all have a way to collaborate."

The Creative Commons licenses—and there are plenty to choose from—suggest a variety of ways in which writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers can control how that idea is used by others. The scheme establishes a shorthand—besides financial negotiation—for use, Weitzner says.

And as evidence of the ideas popularity, he cites a recent decision by Congress to require the National Institutes of Health to make the papers and studies it funds open and free to the public, not just available through journals or other costly or limited-circulation publications. "Theres beginning to be a kind of larger, open-access movement, Weitzner says.

As you might expect, recording industry representatives in Washington are less sanguine about all of this openness. "There are constantly people who think the Internet is the death of the record companies—thats just foolish, an industry spokesman says, pointing out that many musicians so favored by the Creative Commons crowd wouldnt be known at all if they hadnt been bankrolled, advised, produced and financed by record companies in the first place.

The decision to use a Creative Commons license is the artists, a spokesman for the Recording Industry Association of America notes, adding that that should be the proper course of events. Thats a dig, of course, at folks who download for free, people whom the RIAA regards as thieves because they dont ask for permission. But its also a tacit admission that the record companies and the artists might not be in agreement on all of this licensing stuff. And frequently, the artists dont hold the copyrights to their work.

That could be important as debate on the law moves forward. Whether or not Creative Commons has truly launched a grass-roots effort to change the system remains to be seen. But clearly, theres movement out there. Warns Weitzner: "If you dont give people some guidance, most of them will do whatever they want." Technology and Politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. You can read her musings on politics and technology every day in her Politics from Left to Right Weblog.

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