Culture is Not a Crime: 10 Years of Creative Commons

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This post originally appeared at

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

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
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

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.

The pragmatic critiques hold
more weight: A decade in, the organization and its licenses has achieved only
modest success in the courtroom. Creative Commons has been ported to over
70 jurisdictions globally
, it has only been upheld in a handful of
court cases

More important,
perhaps, is the cultural capital accrued by the principles that Creative
Commons champions. These concepts are taking root in the mass psyche, albeit
incrementally. They’re espoused by bestselling author Jonathan Lethem, whose Harpers essay “The Ecstasy of Influence,” a manifesto comprised of scraps
from other texts, makes a powerful case for the artistic value of preserving a
free, widely accessible, and endlessly mutable shared cultural heritage. Lethem

Artists and
their surrogates who fall into the trap of seeking recompense for every possible
second use end up attacking their own best audience members for the crime of
exalting and enshrining their work. The Recording Industry Association of
America prosecuting their own record-buying public makes as little sense as the
novelists who bristle at autographing used copies of their books for
collectors. And artists, or their heirs, who fall into the trap of attacking
the collagists and satirists and digital samplers of their work are attacking
the next generation of creators for the crime of being influenced, for the
crime of responding with the same mixture of intoxication, resentment, lust,
and glee that characterizes all artistic successors. By doing so they make the
world smaller, betraying what seems to me the primary motivation for
participating in the world of culture in the first place: to make the world

The free culture movement that
Creative Commons helped kickstart has provided legal support and ample
publicity to struggling
creators like filmmaker Nina Paley
. It’s been embraced by unlikely
institutions such as The World Bank, whose Open Access Policy requires that its
research papers are licensed under a CC Attribution license. News outlets such
as Wired and Al Jazeera release works of photojournalism to the commons, while
the likes of Naturerelease genomic research under the license.

As was the case a decade ago,
the future of Creative Commons and the free culture movement may be predicted
by developments in the open source community. In recent years, git, a
version control system for software development, has become a prevailing way
for coders to collaborate, share, and build upon each others’ work. The most
mainstream iteration is GitHub,
a public hub for developers to easily connect, collaborate, and iterate on
code. Using GitHub, modifying an existing project to serve your own needs or
goals is as easy as clicking the “fork” button.

Increasingly, GitHub is not only
hosting code. Designers are posting editable templates and Illustrator files to
the site, while GitHub Pages
hosts writing by forward-thinking bloggers, journalists, and authors.

The notion of a platform that makes it easy to create new
and modified versions of creative works, while retaining chains of attribution
back to those that have come before, may seem radical to some, untenably geeky
to others. But as Creative Commons has demonstrated for the past decade, software
development is a creative and collaborative process from which artists and
other cultural creators can learn much, to enrich their work by preserving and
building upon our shared cultural heritage.

Images by Tyler
and Dawn Endico, both licensed under (you guessed it) Creative Commons.

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