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A Creative Commons Conspiracy?

Dmytri Kleiner gave a presentation as part of oil21.org in its new premises the Wiederaufbau für Kreditanstalt, titled “Copyfarleft & Copyjustright – 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 Hill, Towards a Standard of Freedom: Creative Commons and the Free Software Movement.

The substance of Dmytri’s argument is that whilst copyleft licenses such as the GPL are about users’ rights, Creative Commons (CC) is about producers’ rights and is not concerned with building a commons in the traditional sense – where it functions as an economic resource – at all. Instead Kleiner sees CC as an operation whose objective is to muffle the conflictuality expressed through the various expressions of anti-copyright culture which were incubated in the 80s but were massively bolstered by the emergence of the online environment and the opportunity it offered to move from critiquing the theory of copyright to a rejection of its control.

Whilst agreeing with much of the substance of the criticism of CC, I shy away endorsing what seems like a pretty tidy theory whereby CC was instrumentally created to quell the rising tide of anti-copyright. For example I’d argue that as soon as it became clear that the gate-keeping role of distributors of cultural works was in crisis, it became obvious to many people that there was an opportunity for many other cultural producers to get a part of the limelight, and that this would necessarily take place on terms which were different to those traditionally imposed by the cultural industries. Standard copyright provisions in this sense represent the inherited form of industrial regulation, designed by and for those with a stake in the old organization of cultural production. Lawyers of course wondered how they might manufacture themselves a role as advisers on rights issues, and offering an a la carte menu specifying permissions and reserved rights was an obvious way to do it. I know this because the idea occurred to me, too. So something like CC was always going to be born, it is a child of its time, a zeitgeist.

There is also a more historically specific and contingent aspect to all this. CC is Larry Lessig’s project to a significant extent, and has been the locomotive of his own views which are wide-ranging and not limited to the field of copyright. Co-founder James Boyle, for example, appears puzzlingly AWOL when it comes to ideologically contextualizing CC. CC came into the world after Larry’s defeat in the Eldred case and many years spent pushing a narrowly legalistic agenda, whose objective had been to persuade nine supreme court judges to adopt a conservative scheme of interpretation to overturn the legislature’s capitulation to Hollywood lobbying embodied in amongst other laws the Sonny Bono Copyright Term extension Act. By 2000, failure in court had called time on this strategy and it was time for a new one. Lessig confessed his errors in Free Culture and moved on: CC was the result. In addition 1999 had seen the explosion of p2p onto the landscape of legal conflict, and it was clear that somewhere down the road there would be a challenge to these technologies under one or another theory of secondary liability for copyright infringement. In such a situation it would be necessary to demonstrate that these technologies had substantial non-infringing uses. The last time a major case was fought on this issue involved the video cassette recorder in Sony v Betamax, where the fact that there existed some producers of broadcast television materials which did not object to copying, and some uses – “time-shifting” materials for later viewing – considered legitimate, cumulatively brought the technology within a space where it was allowed to exist even if it could be used for purposes infringement.

Millions of people are today using CC licenses that permit the reproduction of their ‘content’, such that any means of digital communication can have a significant non-infringing use. If one is searching for an instrumental explanation for the establishmnet of CC, I think this is it. And it has been successful, at least to the extent that when the Grokster et al. went down in the Supreme Court, they went down on the basis of a completely different theory than that used in Sony, a precedent most of the judges simply skirted around.

Ok, I started with the intention of writing about another aspect of Dmytri’s talk but got distracted. Tomorrow, I’ll be writing about the proposal for an anarchist GEMA (the German collective rights organization similar to ASCAP).

November 20, 2007 - Posted by | /, berlin, copyright, licenses, oil21

1 Comment »

  1. Have you written anything on the “conflicts in Argentina related to pharmaceuticals and biotechnology”?

    Comment by colono | November 22, 2007 | Reply


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