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Creative Commons Is Rewriting Rules of Copyright

The licenses are the brainchild of online theorist Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford University law professor.

Lessig argues that the current system of copyright laws provides little flexibility -- either you give up all permissions for use of your work or you withhold everything. He proposed a solution: a set of copyright licenses that would allow artists to choose to keep "some rights reserved" rather than "all rights reserved."

Apple Computer reports that its iPod download store is selling 1.25 million songs each day, at 99 cents per track. (Des Jenson -- Bloomberg News)

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They could, for instance, choose to allow their works to be enjoyed and copied by others for any purpose, restrict such activity to non-commercial use or allow use of portions of the work rather than all of it. To that end, Lessig co-founded the nonprofit Creative Commons, whose aim, as he describes it, is to "help artists and authors give others the freedom to build upon their creativity -- without calling a lawyer first."

What began as an offbeat legal experiment is now prompting people to reconsider the notion of copyright.

"What we're doing is not only good for society but it's good for us and our business because we get our music out," said Brian Hardgroove, 40, the co-founder of Fine Arts Militia and the band's bass player.

The way Lessig sees it, art has always been about stealing, recycling and mixing: Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin were said to borrow from each other's brushwork. The 1990s hit "Clueless" with Alicia Silverstone was a modern-day adaptation of Jane Austen's "Emma."

Technology has given the world an unprecedented ability to digitize works, copy them, take them apart and put them back together again. But Lessig said he worries that the extension of copyright laws is keeping many works out of the public domain, hampering creativity. When the Constitution was written, copyrights covered 14 years, extendable to 28 years. Now, with the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, these rights last until an author's death plus 70 years.

Lessig's goal with Creative Commons was to create a body of digital work, which he calls "artifacts of culture," for the public domain, accessible to all.

In the year since the licenses were unveiled, a steady stream of works beyond popular music and videos has joined the Creative Commons public domain archive: material for more than 500 Massachusetts Institute of Technology classes, audio of every U.S. Supreme Court argument since 1950 from the Public Library of Science, the archives for Flickr's photo-sharing site, and Cory Doctorow's futuristic novel "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom."

The book's first hardcover run was a sellout -- 10,000 copies in all -- in bookstores, but the number of free electronic copies distributed was much greater. Half a million copies of the science fiction novel were downloaded.

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