Why I Choose Creative Commons BY-SA

People have been asking…

“Why are you not using copyright” or “why would you let people copy your stuff?” Well, I am using copyright (despite my opinion of it) because Creative Commons is a copyright license and it is my right to distribute and share my work in any way I choose. In other words: it is my right to give you rights.

For those of you who want the short version feel free to simply watch the graphic below. I didn’t create it (in the way we typically think about creation). I manipulated a static slide from a presentation distributed on the internet and added items at the beginning and end. I “adapted” or “expanded” or “stole” or “borrowed” or add your own term from the idea(s) in the presentation and the graphic in the presentation to make something new with that preexisting material.

For those interested in the longer explanation of how I came to decide that this type of license is important you can read the whole post. I’ve been doing art for a while now but it was, strangely, software that got me here. In fact, if you know me and wonder why I do the things I do concerning software, this post will partially serve to address that as well.

Moving Graphic explaining it all…

Some Words

It all started with software…

What started out as a need to find and use some no cost software (Firefox and OpenOffice) steadily turned into GNU/Linux toe tipping, then a full-fledged GNU/Linux operating system install, growing interest, then hobby, and finally turned to several subtle forms of activism.

I grew tired of not being able to open documents my students composed on older versions of software. I grew even more tired of not being able to open files from students who didn’t drop the cash to have the “official” word processor and instead used the one that came “free” with their operating system.

…and continued into the law…

My new interest in software slowly became activism because of the problems I saw my students facing with proprietary software. Indeed there were (and are) issues relating to software. One of the most startling legal leaps from computers to art was the RIAA’s lawsuit-parade against music sharing (or as they would have it: Piracy and Theft). Computers + Internet + Innovation + Artistic Content led (some say inevitably) to Lawsuits + Copyright + Courts.

One of the outgrowths of the internet was Napster which was a new way to copy music and share it with others over the internet quickly and easily. Damaging responses from the content owners (read: not the artists) quickly followed. One of the most damaging responses was for the music industry to sue their own customers. Another damaging response was DRM. DRM can be applied to digital content you purchase (though the industry would like to redefine “purchase” as “license”) meant to prevent you (the computer user) from using your computer in the way you desire.

Proprietary formats demonstrated the problem with DRM (at its core) when I found myself recreating my entire digital library from the disks I owned because of the proprietary format I had originally used to encode the tracks. I can’t tell you how happy I was to have never purchased DRM’ed content at that moment. You see I care about music. I buy it, I love it, I listen to it, and I am willing to part with lots of hard disk space to listen to it on-the-go at full quality. The problem came when I was moving from a Mac back to Windows. At the time Windows couldn’t read the proprietary music file format used by Apple… so I had to start over. This time I sought out and intentionally used the FLAC format because I didn’t ever want to experience this problem again. My files were literally locked away from me by a proprietary format.

…and then (surprisingly) found art…

The free/open source software movement tended to use a specific form of license for their code. It can be summed up in the four freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

It turns out that artistic enterprises could benefit from similar ideals. Little did I know that some artists I already loved like Jonathan CoultonCharles Mee, and Radiohead were already adhering to some of these ideals in one way or another. Mee offers the text of his plays online and encourages others to steal from them. Radiohead gave away their music as pay-what-you-want without a record label directly to their fans. Jonathan Coulton gave away his music using a Creative Commons license. Many other artists are doing the same or similar.

Nina Paley, an important filmmaker and cartoonist, translated the four freedoms of software into the four freedoms of free culture:

  1. the freedom to use the work and enjoy the benefits of using it
  2. the freedom to study the work and to apply knowledge acquired from it
  3. the freedom to make and redistribute copies, in whole or in part, of the information or expression
  4. the freedom to make changes and improvements, and to distribute derivative works

I’m not going to get into why not all of the Creative Commons licenses (there are several) are fully supportive of Free Culture (as others have addressed that issue) but I do find that the free culture supportive CC BY-SA license more fully embraces the brief four line ideal Lessig used in his recent presentation, “Freeing Culture,” as the above appropriated graphic from his presentation demonstrates.

I really do appreciate the existence of Creative Commons licenses as they provide artists with an opportunity to really embrace the present age of the internet and allow new amazing art forms to flourish. These new forms spring forth from our increased ability to connect across artificial boundaries. In fact, they spring from our ability to copy. Creative Commons licenses try to balance the insanity of current copyright law (Lessig has called the governmental response to the internet “absurd”) with the reality of the world we live in (every computer is a copying machine).

…and liberated this artist from the burden of “originality.”

It is fitting, then, that I end with Nina Paley’s stunning post “The Cult of Originality.” I won’t repost the content of the piece here because it is aided so beautifully by images. In some ways the sentiment in that post can be distilled to Minute Meme #2: All Creative Work is Derivative. I strongly suggest you encounter both works (written/drawn and animated photographs) because they both free the artist from the fallacy of originality. We all create from the things around us. That includes people, art, events, inventions and other things that add up to the great inexpressible bibliography we call our mind. Our influences are innumerable and our sources inexplicable.

This honesty about influence in art is freeing. You don’t need to pretend that you drink wine and channel a deity while near your keyboard for a certain number of hours each day. You can freely take and steal things from your culture instead. You can let it infuse you. Creative Commons helps allow you to channel your culture, allow your culture to channel you, and watch culture itself multiply.

If you’re one of those guys who doesn’t pay for music we’re gonna have a problem…

No. We won’t have a problem. I pay for my music… I just choose to obtain it in non-proprietary formats without DRM and through inoffensive mediums. To that end this tech enthusiast only buys used CD’s from local shops (surprised?). Sometimes I listen to Pandora. I purchased a non-DRM download of Girl Talk‘s Feed the Animals in FLAC recently. I don’t buy this stuff to rip and share with everyone via P2P networks either.

I respect and obey copyright to the extent I understand it. You should too. I would love to live in a world where copyright made enough sense for non-lawyers to comprehend it (since that is what we apparently need to be able to do until the law changes). Part of the problem is the fact that there is no penalty for the holders of copyright to get it wrong and send cease and desist letters to anyone (like artists) for anything (including art falling under “fair use”). Sites like YouTube don’t have the resources to review every video on their site or even examine each cease and desist letter to ensure they’re not censoring free speech when they take videos down. This is how copyright breeds censorship. So should we get rid of things like YouTube? No. There are too many great things happening there.

The below video is a good example of all of this:

The [small] finish

Some of you will undoubtedly consider me an extremist. That’s fine. Some of you will accuse me of trying to destroy art, music, theatre, film, and (most importantly) artists themselves. In that you are wrong. I create, promote and value art. I think that art is ultimately too important to be owned by anyone (especially people other than the artist) for over a century (as copyright law currently allows).

No book should be “out-of-print” in a digital world because that concept just doesn’t make sense anymore. Old films shouldn’t be decaying in cans because copyright law financially prevents interested parties from restoring and preserving them. Parts of our culture are literally disappearing and disintegrating (Nina explained this somewhere). These cultural artifacts fade from our history and our historical record because of our outdated copyright laws. None of that even takes into account the amount of new art being removed from the internet with bogus DMCA claims. None of that even takes into account the amount of art that never even gets created because the artist is too afraid (or not even allowed) to employ their own culture in their art for fear of being sued by a confusing system that was never built (or extended) with artists in mind.

I donated to the Musopen project on Kickstarter. This project was set up to fund new recordings by great orchestras of public domain works (Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky) and release the recordings themselves into the public domain. This would mean that we could all listen to these great works, use them in our videos and for our productions, copy and remix and distribute them to others. Most of these composers have been dead for over a century.

I’d say it’s about time.
Some people don’t agree.
I don’t understand those people.
Hopefully now you understand me.

Some Primary Sources (or, the stuff that I know has influenced my thoughts on the subject in addition to the links above):
Cartoonist/Activist/Filmmaker Nina Paley
Writer/Activist Cory Doctorow
QuestionCopyright.org
The Electronic Frontier Foundation
Lawrence Lessig
Free Software Foundation
Richard Stallman
…and inevitably other people and sources.
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7 responses to “Why I Choose Creative Commons BY-SA

  1. Woo! Yay! Thanks for loving your audience, and culture. And thanks for the props. Here’s a little comic strip that summarizes the “Cult of Originality” essay – feel free to embed/copy-share/remix etc.:
    http://ninapaley.com/mimiandeunice/2010/10/29/927/

    • Kyle Reynolds Conway

      Nina, thanks so much for visiting and commenting. Sita Sings the Blues is wonderful. I was able to download the ISO from the web, burn it on a DVD, show it in a cinema course I taught with 450 students, and then give the DVD away to a student who wanted it. I asked them during the next class period who had recommended the film to someone else and over half of them had. Thanks so much for doing the film, releasing it as you did, and helping others understand a concept that at first glance seems crazy. Your book is on my Christmas list.

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