Defending the Commons

At the risk of being somewhat off-topic, I’d like to respond to John Dvorak’s recent column in PC Magazine calling the Creative Commons Organization and its licenses “…seriously dumb. Eye-rolling dumb on the same scale as believing the Emperor is wearing fabulous new clothes.”

Though technology freedom fighter Joe Gratz already responded masterfully to most of the inaccuracies and misconceptions Mr. Dvorak put forth, I want to take a moment to answer the question fronted in the original column, “What exactly does the Creative Commons Organization offer that standard copyright law doesn’t?”

To answer that question, we have to leave the world of law and enter the world of the common man.

Shockingly enough, most people aren’t lawyers. that goes double for most artists, writers and musicians. However, many creatives want to allow others to reuse their work with certain restrictions and,though they might know that copyright law gives them the ability to give away certain rights, they might not be certain how to do it.

Creatives wanting to share their work are left with three choices. First, they can do nothing and let others ask for permission, handling everything case by case. Second, they can hire outside legal help to write a policy for them. Third, they can attempt to write their own.

The first alternative is time consuming, the second one is expensive and the third is dangerous as it’s hard for someone without a legal background to write an ironclad policy devoid of loopholes. This makes it very difficult to set limits and grant permission, restricting both the spread of art and the flow of creativity.

That’s where Creative Commons steps in.

They don’t try to add, expand or subtract from copyright law. Rather, they try to simplify it for artists of all varieties that want to share their work. They offer a series of customizable licenses, licenses to which CC is not a part of, that are written in plain English, computer-readable format and legalese. It’s a safe and effective compromise between all three choices (others can always ask for permission to do what is beyond the bounds of the license) that is served up free to the community. All the artist has to do is answer a few short questions, tag the work in question and be done with it.

In the end, I don’t see CC as a solution to the complexities and problems with copyright law, but rather, the legal system. CC works within current copyright law and makes no attempt to change it. Other organizations have taken up that task, often working in parallel with CC.

Finally, I want to comment on Mr. Dvorak’s comments regarding fair use. The notion that CC is eroding fair use rights is ridiculous. Just read section two of the license if you don’t believe me:

2. Fair Use Rights. Nothing in this license is intended to reduce, limit, or restrict any rights arising from fair use, first sale or other limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright owner under copyright law or other applicable laws.

The truth, however, is that fair use is not a solid legal matter. Even the best legal minds agree it’s a gray area where the difference between fair use and infringement is often separated by a few words, seconds or pixels. It depends heavily on intent, quantity, situation and a million other variables. This isn’t because fair use rights are eroding, but because they were never very clearly defined to start with and, like many things in American law, are being sorted through on a case by case basis.

Regardless, CC does nothing to those rights and never could. In fact, the only thing a CC license can do is expand the rights of the reader, not take them away. A CC license is a grant of permission, not a removal of rights.

In the end, the only way you can really hate the CC is organization is to misunderstand it. That is, unless you somehow hate having more rights. Personally though, I pity anyone who feels that way and I certainly doubt Mr. Dvorak does.

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