Archive: Issue No. 82, June 2004

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Creative commons

Creative commons

A spectrum of rights, not an imprisonment: 'Creative commons'

by Carine Zaayman

A contentious issue in the digital frontier is illegal sharing of music, video and other content on the Internet. The legal battle around Napster is perhaps the most famous example, but this site is by no means the only content-sharing network of its kind. In fact, peer-to-peer networks on which content is loaded and shared is so commonplace, that it has become simple to obtain any music, film or even software you want, if you know where to look.

Stated succinctly, the problem is this: traditionally, artists, writers, musicians or anyone involved in the creation of original material generally had to rely on companies for the publishing, marketing and distribution of their work. These companies are the agents responsible for the popularisation of the material, and of course, for generating income for the artists.

This industry of selling the works of others has proven to be a lucrative money-spinner. However, creators have suffered the loss of many of their rights, and even the control of the use of their creation, in the process. While companies often push the prices of material up, sometimes making it inaccessible to ordinary fans, creators frequently receive only a marginal amount of the money generated from sales, with most of it going to companies in the distribution chain.

With the proliferation of digital media in the production and distribution of material, whether music, comics, film or text, and the increasingly dominant role of the Internet in the establishment of virtual communities, these companies are facing a problem. Traditional platforms of distribution such as books, tapes, etc. which need to be sold in physical form, are no longer strictly necessary to access content.

Sophisticated systems of digital reproduction, the existence of the Internet as a space in which material is exchanged, and the different ethos regarding the sharing of work maintained within the culture, mean that publishers and distributors potentially face a loss of revenue, hence the Napster-like lawsuits.

One also has to bear in mind that the Internet is more than a network that extends traditional systems of communication and exchange: it is also one that opens up alternative ways of thinking about culture. Similarly, the possibilities of digital media are such that artists think differently about notions of originality, as is suggested by the cultures of sampling and hacking amongst others.

We are thus at a point in history where the old systems of distribution are proving insufficient and clumsy in the face of popular developments in culture and technology. And this is where the extremely useful 'creative commons' have seized their opportunity.

Established in 2001, 'creative commons' is fronted by a board of directors who are experts in the fields of intellectual property, cyberlaw, computer science and entrepreneurship. In December 2002, they introduced an alternative licensing system to that of the copyright. Where copyright (©) implies that all rights to copying, lending, selling and use of original material are reserved, the 'cc' (a mark meaning that the work is licensed under a 'creative commons' deed) principle essentially means that some rights are reserved.

This means that the creator can license their work (by following the simple steps on the website) to allow other users to use, sell or remix without having to obtain permission from the creator (because such a license suggests that permission has already been granted).

The parameters of what rights a creator wants to protect, are set up in the kind of license he or she applies to their work. For instance, a creator can specify where attribution is required, whether material can be used for commercial purposes, and whether derivative work is allowed.

The 'creative commons' licenses answer the dilemma of content protection in the digital age in a number of ways. A creator can decide for him or herself whether other people can use the material, and this choice brings control over the work back to the creator.

By allowing use of their work, creators are also making space for the popularisation of their work through re-use, as opposed to pristine original selling/ broadcasting and so on. This kind of popularisation through participation of users, is one that fits uniquely into the ethos of the digital age.

When content is licensed under one of its deeds, the 'creative commons' project lists the work in their own 'common content'. Music tracks are also hosted for free on the Internet archive. Thus, apart from stipulating rights, 'creative commons' provides a repository of free material.

Even though creative commons was established only a year ago, over one million works have been licensed under its agreements. Creators who have made use of the licenses include Detroit-based band 'The White Stripes'. Their album 'White Blood Cells' was remixed and a derivative album was subsequently released by a fan. MIT has also made some of its course content available in this way, and a university in Vietnam has started translating this material for their students.

The 'creative commons' licenses are very simple to use, and are legally valid. They are available in common language, as well as in legal code. In addition, 'creative commons' provide the script, which explains the rights reserved by the creator and the principles of 'creative commons'. This code need simply be pasted into the website that hosts the material.

Ars Electronica recently awarded 'creative commons' its highest accolade, the Golden Nica, and deservedly so. As opposed to traditional licenses, 'creative commons' is sensitive to the flow of material in the digital context, and provides a very useful alternative for anyone wanting to take part in the popular and potentially creative exchange of material.

The site explains everything very clearly and provides useful movieclips (as well as flash source files) to give you all the information you need. An extended search function and consistency of style make navigation very easy. Truly a valuable contribution to the sphere of online content and sharing, this is well worth the consideration of any artist working with material that can be digitally exchanged.