Culture is Not a Crime: 10 Years of Creative Commons

| 12/7/2012 2:30:06 PM


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The future of the cultural commons looked dim in December 2002: Napster had been shuttered a year earlier, while record labels treaded warily into selling DRM-locked music online. The FCC dismantled regulations forestalling the consolidation of media ownership. And as the housing bubble inflated, privatization — of media, public space, scientific and technological research, even the military — became the watchword of the day.

A decade later, the cultural commons remains threatened, but stands on somewhat firmer ground. The record industry abandoned its futile efforts to lock music to users or devices, a costly lesson movie studios and book publishers seem determined to learn for themselves. An emerging generation of cultural producers acknowledge that “good theft,” as Austin Kleon puts it, is a fundamental part of the creative process. And Creative Commons — a once heretical notion to develop a copyright system for cultural works based on the principles of open source software development — is celebrating its tenth year.

Founded in 2001 by Lawrence Lessig, then a Stanford Law professor, and a board of directors that included Duke Law School’s James Boyle and Eric Saltzman of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Creative Commons announced its first copyright licenses on December 16th, 2002. In an announcement, the organization’s Executive Director Glenn Otis Brown stated “One of the great lessons of software movements is that the choice between self-interest and community is a false choice. If you’re clever about how you leverage your rights, you can cash in on openness. Sharing, done properly, is both smart and right.”

The organization — and the larger free culture movement in general — is not without critics, now and then. Some are intent on rehashing arguments about the dubious economic and artistic value of retaining inalienable and irrevocable rights to intellectual property. Purists take exception to licenses that state “some rights reserved.” More pointed critiques question the efficacy and impact of Creative Commons, observing that the licenses remain untested in many courts, are often embraced by creators as their careers are either on the ascent or descent.

But anyone holding their breath for the Rolling Stones or Michael Bay to embrace Creative Commons might want invest in ventilators. Meanwhile, the purists’ definition and parameters of what constitutes free culture remain situated, as such notions often do, at the fringes of culture and academia.

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