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The capabilities of the 'Creative Commons' licence are a threat to readers

By Richard Chirgwin - posted Thursday, 3 June 2004

For those who don't like the copyright regimes of the world, a new star is dawning: the Creative Commons licence. Championed by American lawyer and philosopher Lawrence Lessig, the Creative Commons is a very liberal licence designed to give creators a different way to publish their work. It bestows many more rights upon the consumer than copyright; but even so, I fear it.

Anyone looking for reasons to listen to Lawrence Lessig rather than me would have little trouble finding them. Lessig is a many-lettered lawyer; I started an English degree that I couldn't afford to finish. Lessig is famous, and his words are read by millions; I'm not and mine aren’t. Lessig has made important contributions to the philosophy of freedom on the Internet; I once read a collection of Nietzsche's works. Lessig is the chair of the Creative Commons, an important contributor to the development of the Creative Commons licence. I can barely find enough time to contribute to the things I must.

And so on.


Still, I'm about to ignore Bill O'Reilly's famous advice (he was a cricketer who played with, but didn't much like, the epitome of Australian cricket fame, Don Bradman). I'm going to – excuse me – piss on a statue.

Even though I have a strong belief in the importance of Open Source Software; even though the Internet is a vital and powerful force in the world, and even though I take a liberal attitude to the copyright I hold over my own writings – I don't like the world the Creative Commons offers.

When people rise up in defence of copyright, they usually do so either because they're speaking on behalf of the powerful owners of copyright, or because they're in the thrall of the arguments of those same people. I'm not: I'm just a small specialist journalist in a small corner of the world.

There's no doubt that copyright, as it is now practised, is flawed. It draws both power and income out of the hands of the people who produce the works, even though those works are so valued by the music industry (for example) that it will sue hundreds of individuals and alienate millions of its own customers, trying to defend itself against the evils of file copying.

The power that large publishers hold is disproportionate to anything they create, in and of themselves; hence Disney's wish to keep Mickey Mouse for another 20 years holds sway in the face of any benefits that shorter copyright periods would offer to the rest of the economy.

Many writers, Lessig among them, have argued that copyright is flawed and, because of the influence of wealthy special interests, deeply corrupted. My defense of copyright is a matter of my own feelings about democratic philosophy, not economics.


I take exception to the Creative Commons licence precisely because it's a licence – and while I am prepared to live with the fact of software licences, and applaud the existence of various forms of Open Source licences for software (the GPL, the BSD, and so on) I don't want a world where one day the practice of licensing is applied to all sharing of information, of any kind.

Today, if I buy a book, I form two relationships. One of those relationships is transient, one endures.

The first relationship is as a customer of a bookstore (and by extension, a printer, a publisher and a distributor), with rights attached to that status. The book has to fit its description to some degree; it has to be of merchantable quality in its manufacture; the people selling it must have the right to sell it; and so on. The first relationship is brief. Once I own that book, it is property. I can do as I please with it. If it offends me, I can burn it. Nobody can even criticise me for doing so; it's my book. I'm not a committee or a band of thugs, I'm not stealing copies of the book to burn, nor making a public statement. The only restrictions placed on what I do with that book are imposed by law.

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Article edited by Stuart Candy.
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About the Author

Richard Chirgwin is editor of CommsWorld.

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