Joi Ito wants to revolutionise the internet. His vision is of a world unperturbed by a complicated, costly and outdated copyright system, where everybody can collaborate and share content on the web as they wish.

He doesn't want to get rid of copyright, he just wants you to be able to adapt it to your needs. He wants to build a sharing economy.

Ito is the CEO of Creative Commons, the nonprofit organisation that's creating and overseeing the use of free-of-charge licences and tools to ensure content creators can easily mark how they'd like their works to be used online.

Its collaboration with the World Wide Web Consortium could have a significant impact on how we deal with rights on the web: it could automate the licensing and make it machine-readable. "We work very closely with the W3C to create RDFa, which stands for Resource Description Framework in attributes," Ito explains.

"It allows you to put Creative Commons Rights Expression Language, or ccREL, inside of HTML and XML, so anyone can mark each object with the copyright and other attributes associated with the object directly in the markup. It will help greatly in searching for open content, doing proper attribution, allowing people to copy and paste stuff directly from the web and making it easier for software to keep the rights metadata attached.

"Our hope is that it will be widely adopted by people who make services, tools and content for the web. For web design this is really important. You used to have to put Creative Commons in the comments page, which is really stupid. Now you can wrap each object with the rights, and we'd love it if web designers started using valid RDFa to express the licences."

Already Slideshare is using RDFa to express its Creative Commons licences, as does the Creative Commons License Generator, but Ito stresses that RDFa can be used to express more than just copyright.

And so other key adoptors include Facebook (which uses RDFa for its new Open Graph protocol), Google, Tesco, Drupal and the White House, which has announced plans to make increasing use of RDFa (check out rdfa.info, wiki.creativecommons.org/RDFa and the RDFa primer at www.w3.org/TR/xhtml-rdfa-primer). However, it's still a recommendation and there's no news on when it will be included in the spec for HTML5.

Ben Adida, chair of the RDFa Task Force at the W3C, claims that "for all practical purposes, RDFa is already part of HTML5" and that it "probably doesn't matter" that the theoretical discussion around which spec it's included in, core HTML5 or an add-on, is still up in the air. However, HTML5 editor Ian Hickson recently admitted that RDFa still seems to have "some pretty serious problems".

Be interoperable

Today, about 350million pieces of content are licensed under Creative Commons in more than 50 jurisdictions. The biggest part, over 135million images, is taken up by Flickr. Other high profile users of Creative Commons licences include the White House, Nine Inch Nails and Al-Jazeera, which has put all of its Gaza footage under Attribution only. And last year Wikipedia migrated all its content over to a Share Alike licence.

"Wikipedia existed before Creative Commons," Ito says, "and they were using the GNU Free Documentation licence from the Free Software Foundation, which wasn't perfect for wikis because it's meant for printed books.

"The biggest problem was that it didn't have interoperability, so you couldn't mix it with Creative Commons Share Alike and then relicense it, because both require relicensing under their own licence. So it took about four to five years, and we got the Free Software Foundation to agree a time limited window, where wiki projects could convert from GFDL to Creative Commons. And then there was a board vote, and then a whole community vote at Wikipedia to decide whether they should switch. It took a very long time!"

In the past Ito had to convince people to use Creative Commons licences, but the opposition he previously experienced is waning.

"There are many new businesses using Creative Commons and for some it's a central part of their business model. We're not 'anti-business'. Like the internet, Creative Commons creates interoperability and lowers friction.

"This causes some businesses or business models to become less relevant. This is true for just about any technology and important social advance. I believe that business will overcome its own opposition to Creative Commons or that business will perish."

The biggest challenge now is to get people to use Creative Commons licences correctly. "It's like writing valid HTML – most people can't do it," says Ito. "It's important for us to try to get key players like the White House to use Creative Commons and RDFa in a very valid form.

"We're really trying to focus on being an infrastructure player and on making sure that the legal and technical stuff works. Because 99 per cent interoperable is like zero! We need to make sure everything is precise so we spend less time advocating and more time executing. I'd like Creative Commons to become so standard that everybody uses it and we're just the custodian to make sure it doesn't fail."

Ito believes the potential of the non-profit organisation for business, society and the environment is massive.

"Every layer – Ethernet, TCP and World Wide Web – created an explosion of innovation," he enthuses. "It created start-ups and non-profits and all kinds of socially beneficial disruption. I think that Creative Commons will also mark an explosion of innovation that will happen on the content level. As an investor, for instance, I can't invest in many of the music companies because of the risk of copyright litigation. And there are a lot of really interesting sharing business models that just can't happen because Creative Commons isn't widely adopted yet. Once it is, there is a whole bunch of neat things that can happen."

You're inclined to believe Ito. He's one of the most influential people on the web. His LinkedIn page lists no less than 35 jobs and involvements. One of the companies he's most passionate about is music streaming venture thesixtyone.

"It's looking at music from the perspective of the fans and independent musicians, not of the distributor or the record label like most other music sites," Ito says. "This is really a place where the musicians participate and interact with the fans."

Getting funding

For a prolific investor like Ito it must be frustrating having to go around and beg for Creative Commons funding. The organisation still has no real business model.

"We kicked around ideas like citations," says Ito, "which is a big problem for Wikipedia, for instance. People take a picture from Flickr, post it and then the original photographer will change the licence and tell Wikipedia to take it down. Creative Commons licences are perpetual – we don't want people to change the licence. It's important to be able to take a snapshot and say 'This content was available under this licence on this day'.

"Things like that may have value and may be something that we would build a business around, but we're still thinking about it. It would be great to have a revenue stream, because personally going around and doing fundraising every year is a lot of work.

"On the other hand, we always want to make our licences available for free and have the widest adoption possible. There is an inherent difficulty in coming up with a business model when you're trying to give everything away."

Ito continues to travel the world to talk about open innovation. One of Creative Commons' most recent tools, CC0, enables a copyright holder to waive all their rights, including attribution. It's as close to public domain as possible and already having a big effect on how science and education work.

If Ito's vision becomes reality, the culture of sharing made possible by Web 2.0 was just the first step.

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First published in .net Issue 204

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