Creative Commons: the case against

No system to deal with human creativity can keep everybody happy all the time, and Creative Commons is no exception. In spite of all the successes we've mentioned so far, many people all over the world dislike it.

The most common criticism is that CC doesn't fight copyright, it just puts a nice, much friendlier face on it. CC leaves unchallenged the concept that property rights on creative works are a good thing, and unfairly favours the creators of culture over the consumers, as only authors decide what others can do with their work. Another common objection is that there are too many Creative Commons licences, which creates confusion and even serves to limit the free circulation of content.

Some people also worry that, since CC makes no distinction between alternative file formats of the same digital work, one could grab high-quality CC-licensed multimedia audio or video, mix them and only release for free a version in some lossy format. Some people openly fear Creative Commons.

More exactly, they fear that if you try to convert artists to CC who had never thought of copyrighting their works before, they may simply fall in love with the concept of making money through full copyright and stick to it. Last but not least, the majority of today's CC-licensed works are only available online, making them irrelevant in places where fast internet access is absent or too expensive.

Priscilla Maliwichi, a computer technician and free software activist at the University of Malawi, told us that "in Malawi, we don't have a Creative Commons movement, and personally, I am not interested in starting one. I do know, however, that in South Africa this movement is very hot, and I imagine that South African Creative Commons laws and practices may easily suit the Malawian context with just a few changes".

Mexico has a national Creative Commons website but, says Debian developer Gunnar Wolf "my impression is that there is very little done in Mexico about this. A couple of years ago, a group of lawyers who are sympathetic to CC translated and adapted the CC licences, but without particular results so far".

What does the rest of the world think?

We also got several confirmations of how weird and potentially risky it can be to preach CC outside western countries when we spoke to Carolina Botero and Lila Pagola, two members of the CC communities in Colombia and Argentina. Carolina told us that that "countries like Colombia have international commitments that oblige us to follow international IP laws, and our official institutions are highly dependant on this influence. In this context, proposing CC licences is a good idea, especially within educational, scientific or artistic institutions.

There is already a national repository for educational resources, and CC is used by our Biodiversity Information System. Social practices, however, are an entirely different matter (even ignoring, for simplicity, indigenous communities, which have an altogether different concept of property).

Initially, many authors and artists just don't understand why they would need something like CC. However, when we explain the legal concept, most of the time those people realise what they can do about control and making money and eventually go for full copyright, instead of the 'open' solution.

Lila told us almost the same things about Argentina: "Around here, advocating CC implies explaining how copyright should work to teachers whose monthly salary [is equivalent to] just one licence of Adobe Photoshop. In such a context, CC and copyleft really look like artificial problems, to say the least. Maybe for institutions it's different, since they are easily accountable, but for students and teachers photocopying work is so widespread as to be completely natural.

Asian attitudes

Anh Hung Nguyen, who's currently developing an e-learning program for disadvantaged children, told us: "Here in Vietnam, books are almost exclusively published by state publishers and don't adopt CC.

Most Vietnamese don't pay attention to licences, since they can get most things for free and are willing to violate them should they become an obstacle. In general, I haven't heard of any local projects or people that use CC, except for a few people who use CC for their photos on Flickr or Picasa. It seems that, CC or not, we don't have a lot of content to share over the internet".

Sasi Kumar, of FSF India, noted that in his country, "Education was historically confined to the upper castes. Where permitted, however, all works could be studied and used by anyone. The idea of copyright came from the west. Restricting knowledge is not part of our culture. As a result, people don't feel that it is wrong to take photocopies, for instance, of material they need, even if it is copyrighted. Thinking otherwise is, again, a result of western influence".

Indian journalist Frederick Noronha basically agrees with Sasi: "There is an overall culture of sharing knowledge here, even if this isn't called 'Creative Commons'. We had the launch of CCIndia in early 2007, but there seems to be little activity there… I think CC is a bit too conservative and too respectful of copyright issues. Copyright has not worked for us (in the developing world) for generations. Generally speaking, copyright in any form, including CC, doesn't fit in too well with Asian ideas of knowledge, since it enables those controlling knowledge and information over the rest, and we find it impossible to emerge winners in this game. It is a colonial law, not meant to serve the interest of the people of those parts of the globe that are not ahead in the information race! Why should we be as respectful to it, as, say, Lawrence Lessig is?"

Minhaaj Rehman, an educational consultant, open source advocate and contributor to Wikipedia and Wikieducator.com from Pakistan has even stronger opinions about CC: "it might be a solution to western problems, as it would reduce costs for western students subjected to exploitative laws. However, CC is impacting Eastern societies and less developed countries in a way that is exactly the opposite of what we want here. In Pakistan, pirating materials is a great, common way to distribute them to students who can't afford original versions, because it would take significant time and resources to re-create equivalent content of the same quality.

"Nobody in Pakistan knew about copyright, copyleft or CC a decade ago. Even when academics knew about copyright, they just didn't deal with it, primarily because of eastern tradition and religious injunctions of collectivism and open literacy. CC and copyleft movements have made it harder, here in Pakistan at least, for poor students and educators to use books. Sure, they inspired academics to copyleft their work, but at the same time, they convinced them that copyright, which should never exist in the first place, is good. Whereas content never belongs to anyone, as it comes from previous experience and incremental learning. Here in the east we need to abolish copyright, nothing less. That's why I don't think CC is good for developing countries. To me, even things like Richard Stallman's FSF accepting support from organisations like Unesco (which do nothing to fight the problems I just mentioned), or Wikipedia's profiteering by asking for donation of $6 million this year are proofs that both copyright and copyleft are partners in restricting human rights and freedom".

So, is CC worth it?

Despite the iniquities of the current copyright system, this writer at least doesn't think that abolishing copyright altogether would be a good thing.

I am also convinced that CC is not the solution to all problems but remains an excellent thing, in spite of its critics. CC can already contribute to a much more open culture and education for all those people who don't have any more urgent problem and gives (in the medium and long term, at least) much better opportunities for all.

Many of the limits of CC, and many of the problems that CC simply can't solve, come from one simple fact. We already explained that you can apply CC licences only to new, original works. Now, if the majority of existing creative works were in the public domain, (almost) everybody would be happy, but what actually happens is just the opposite: the overwhelming majority of today's culture is copyrighted and will remain so for decades.

In other words, if copyright (even for existing works) were simply reduced to a few years after publication (no more than 10), authors and artists would still be free to make money with their new works through copyright, copyleft, CC or any other system, but the community would still have plenty of good stuff in the public domain to choose from.

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First published in Linux Format, Issue 116

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