Creative Commons Is Rewriting Rules of Copyright
Tuesday, March 15, 2005
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- When Chuck D and the Fine Arts Militia released their latest single, "No Meaning No," several months ago, they didn't try to stop people from circulating free copies on the Internet. They encouraged it.
They posted the entire 3-minute, 12-second song and its various vocal, drum and guitar components online and invited everyone to view, copy, mix, remix, sample, imitate, parody and even criticize it.
The result has been the creation of a flood of derivative work ranging from classical twists on the hip-hop piece to video interpretations of the song. The musicians reveled in the instant fan base. They were so pleased that they recently decided to publish their next entire album, due later this spring, the same way, becoming the first major artists to do so.
"No Meaning No" was released under an innovative new licensing scheme called Creative Commons that some say may be better suited to the electronic age than the hands-off mind-set that has made copyright such a bad word among the digerati.
So far, more than 10 million other creations -- ranging from the movie "Outfoxed" and songs by the Beastie Boys to the British Broadcasting Corp.'s news footage and the tech support books published under the O'Reilly label -- have been distributed using these licenses. The idea has even won the support of Hilary Rosen, formerly of the Recording Industry Association of America, and Jack Valenti, the past head of the Motion Picture Association of America, who became known for their aggressive pursuit of people who share free, unauthorized copies via the Internet.
Interest in Creative Commons licenses comes as artists, authors and traditional media companies begin to warm to the idea of the Internet as friend instead of foe and race to capitalize on technologies such as file-sharing and digital copying.
Apple Computer Inc. gave many reason to be optimistic. Music lovers who once spent hours scouring the Internet for free, pirated copies of songs are now showing they are willing to pay for online music; the company says it is selling 1.25 million songs, at 99 cents a track, each day.
Rare is the consumer electronics company or music label that is not experimenting with something similar. Sony BMG, Universal Music Group, EMI and Warner Music Group, for instance, inked deals to distribute songs on a fee-based download service run by Wurld Media, a Saratoga Springs, N.Y., peer-to-peer software company.
At the same time, many of the innovators who touched off the file-sharing revolution are seeking to win corporate support for their work. Shawn Fanning, who as a teen developed Napster, is now working on software that would let copyright holders specify permissions and prices for swapping. Vivendi Universal is a backer.
Perhaps the most significant cooperative effort, however, is the set of innovative new licensing schemes under which "No Meaning No" was released.
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."