kNOw Future Inc.

law, technology and cinema, washed down with wine

A Commons for Creators or Consumers?

This is an article I wrote in early 2003 for film-makers, reprinted here as a prelude to some remarks on work recently undertaken by my friend Mako to develop a ‘definition’ for ‘Free Culture’. Rather than semantic quibbling, the fight over its meaning goes to the heart of the conflict over the future production of culture. Une traduction francaise est disponible ici. C’e’ anche la versione italiana.

From Anti-Copyright to the new Commons

The legends ‘anti-copyright’ appeared first in the late 1980s in DIY music fanzines. The music industry was in the midst of a jihad: “Home Taping is Killing Music!” they screamed, a time not unlike now in sun. Meanwhile, in a not so distant universe, programmers had moved from rejection to subversion of copyright laws, experimenting with the General Public License propounded by the GNU project. The license returned freedoms taken away from users by copyright and required that those who built upon this code make their own source code available in turn. This quality is what gives the ‘copyleft’ license a ‘viral’ quality. Licenses protect the user from legal action so long as the terms and conditions are observed no contact with the ‘author’ is required. You are free to reuse provided every modification and improvement becomes available to all.

Barnraising in Illinois

Following the completion of the GNU/Linux operating system in 1992, the GPL’s fame spread like wildfire and began to spawn imitators in domains outside of software. Artists, writers, musicians and film-makers created a babel of different licenses granting to users rights that were taken of them by a copyright law in constant expansion. These licenses were inconsistent with one another and none managed to galvanise a sufficient community to start a movement akin to what occurred in free software. This wasn’t surprising; text, music and video each have their particularities and cannot be treated as being the same as software. But the GPL taught a lesson: by putting things in common it was possible to change the way software is produced, build the only serious opposition to the Microsoft monopoly and stop the continual theft of programmer’s knowledge through employment contracts that gave companies exclusive control over the final program.

Cut to 2002. Creative Commons is formed to bring this idea of freedom to culture. It is not the first, but sponsored by Larry Lessig and many outraged at copyright expansion, it quickly becomes the most succesful. The core of the project is a software engine that produces custom licenses on the answers to three questions:

  • does the producer insist on the association of their name with the work (“attribution”)? (automatic in later versions of the license)
  • is it available for any form of reuse or only non-commercial activity?
  • can new (derivative) works be created from it and if so under what circumstances?

Two Visions

Two divergent and clashing conceptions in the use of CC licenses become evident.

The first employs them as instruments designed to guarantee access.The ‘commons’ that this model aspires towards is one based only on consumption. Universal reception is approved but all other rights are reserved, especially control over context and reuse. Only non-commercial use is permitted. Sometimes no derivative works are allowed due to a desire to protect the integrity of the text or video.

The second focuses on amassing a large stock of common materials for whose use no-one’s permission is required. The fear of commercial appropriation is put aside for the hope of contaminatory insinuation into the mainstream thus integration with commercial products is permitted. But all new (derivative) works must be available to be used themselves – it’s the GPL for culture and it relies upon the sharealike clause – I share if you share.

Thus the potential emerges for a material base of raw materials that can be continually reworked, improved upon and exploited in any number of ways. Contributors are assured that their work will not be appropriated unilaterally. Other works infected by sharealike become collective resource and a form of indirect income like free transport, access to education and housing. At a moment of both generalised precarization and restraints on expression it provides a rare guarantee.
Licenses as Media

The success of the GPL was not based only on legal force; its goals were simple and it provided a clear way for people to share their work with others without fear of being ripped off. In this sense the license is a media itself and a community around which others sharing a dissident idea about how to produce can gather. The two different visions contained in CC make this more difficult. This tension undermines its mobilizing power; there cannot be a creative commons community where 75% of the users nominate terms that neither facilitate new creativity nor provide access to the economic resource for self-sustenance, which is what the term commons historically refers to.

Possible Futures?

Systems of video-sharing such as V2V and New Global Vision offer a vision of a different mode of production for audio-visual works, but will never reach their full potential – sharing footage shot globally, conducting interviews for one another, remixing narratives – until clear rules governing cooperation emerge as shared values. The construction of a true commons means building and securing a shared archive of materials to both allow us to be sustainable in the present, and capable of superceding thecurrent limits to our productive capacity in the future. The price of the freedom proffered is the relinquishment of the will to control.


February 17, 2007 - Posted by | /, copyright, licenses, social cooperation


  1. […] the critique of Creative Commons”. Those interested in such critiques may be interested in a short piece I wrote in 2004, as well as a much more substantial and articulate essay written by my friend Mako […]

    Pingback by A Creative Commons Conspiracy? « kNOw Future Inc. | November 21, 2007 | Reply

  2. […] A Commons for Creators or Consumers? « kNOw Future Inc. – Two divergent and clashing conceptions in the use of CC licenses become evident. The first employs them as instruments designed to guarantee access.The ?commons? that this model aspires towards is one based only on consumption. …nThe second focuses […]

    Pingback by Links for February 5th | united diversity | February 6, 2008 | Reply

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