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Event Report: Creative Commons @ OpenMusicMedia (London)


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Another month and another chance for the good and the great of London’s Digital Music scene to huddle up in an East End pub, share a few shandies and bounce around a few ideas. This is thanks to the organizational efforts of Jonas (Last.FM) and Dave (Sound Cloud) who co-ordinate and host these sessions which have seen a steady and growing attendance over the past year or so.

With last month’s refreshingly lofty discussions of music archival projects (link) still fresh in our minds, it was most welcome to see the theme for September introduce more fairly off-beat organizations, namely, the Creative Commons charity group. The night’s guest speaker was Joi Ito, the CEO of Creative Commons

“Creative Commons is a non-profit corporation dedicated to making it easier for people to share and build upon the work of others, consistent with the rules of copyright. We provide free licenses and other legal tools to mark creative work with the freedom the creator wants it to carry, so others can share, remix, use commercially, or any combination thereof.”

Or in the words of Ito himself; “We’re a lawyer prevention service” who are trying to limit “failed sharing” and “make the internet more friendly to copyright”.

Founded in 2001 with the generous support of the Center for the Public Domain (link), Creative Commons is led by a Board of Directors that includes cyberlaw and intellectual property experts Michael Carroll, Molly Shaffer Van Houweling, and Lawrence Lessig, MIT computer science professor Hal Abelson, lawyer-turned-documentary filmmaker-turned-cyberlaw expert Eric Saltzman, documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, Japanese entrepreneur Joi Ito, and educator and journalist Esther Wojcicki. In 2008, Lawrence Lessig stepped down as CEO and chairman of Creative Commons. Joi Ito replaced him as CEO, with James Boyle taking over as board chair. The rather unfortunately named Caterina Fake also joined the board. In 2009, Esther Wojcicki became board chair.

So far so good. But what does Creative Commons actually offer the aspiring artist? The questions for the OpenMusicMedia centered around the following:

What role does Creative Commons have to play within the music industry?
Does CC mean artists are just giving away music for free and no one makes any money?
Is CC just making the existing licensing structure for the music industry even more complex?

‘Some Rights Reserved’
Creative Commons is trying to fill the gap that exists between “All rights reserved” and “No rights reserved.” By using CC’s facilities, artists are allowing for some uses of their creative works. The organization identifies four major ‘License Conditions’:

1. Attribution (BY)
You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work — and derivative works based upon it — but only if they give credit the way you request.

2. Share Alike (SA)
You allow others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs your work.

3. Non-commercial (NC)
You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your work — and derivative works based upon it — but for non-commercial purposes only.

4. No Derivative Works (ND)
You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of your work, not derivative works based upon it.

Creative Commons licenses are expressed in three different formats: the Commons Deed (human-readable code), the Legal Code (lawyer-readable code); and the metadata (machine readable code/HTML). There is no need to sign anything to get a Creative Commons license and hence there are no direct lawyer’s fees. Good news for many.

What it offers
The organization states that it now manages over 130m licensed works in 8 jurisdictions and supports 56 languages (Arabic arrives next month). In 2008, Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails released the Ghosts I-IV instrumental collection under CC’s BY-NC-SA license. All very good for Trent to share some of his instrumental warbling with the world, but in fairness he’s made his big wedge already. In fact, it can be argued that Creative Commons licenses are actually most appropriate as a means by which established artists can more safely give away viral/extra content, but that does seem to rather go against the founding spirit of the organization.

So what about other younger or less obviously commercial artists? What does Creative Commons offer them?

Well, in principle, it offers them the opportunity to place some of their work onto the open creative market but with improved traceability relative to simply placing a raw track on YouTube, MySpace or Spotify. Presumably, any recognition gained from the resulting 3rd party works (remixes, digital/physical distribution, live performances, mash-ups, film soundtracks, TV adverts etc.) would come back in the form of fans, label attention, recording contracts or even offers to play bar mitzvas. It’s like attaching a very thin line to your creative files before throwing over the side – you’re more likely to sense the nibbles if and when they happen, especially in the digital music arena. That being said, Ito’s example of rabid manga fans policing copyright infringements on behalf of their favorite illustrator didn’t give me a huge sense that much could be done if the forces of evil got hold of your work. They may have their hearts in the right place, but they’re hardly copyright lawyers.

This raises the odd situation where File Sharing is turning some kids into criminals, and open-copyright collectives such as Creative Commons is turning some of them into cops. In reality the same kids would probably be both.

Interesting scenario.

Where it falls a bit short
Aside from the obvious lack of serious monitoring or enforcement of its regime, Creative Commons also issues ‘non-recoverable licenses’. What this means is that what artists distribute under their auspices stays out for as long as someone has and is sharing copies of the work. Artists can enter into other simultaneous commercial agreements for the same work after-the-fact, but at that stage it’s honestly a bit too late to be thinking safe monetization and I doubt many potential licensees would touch the work as a result. Best, perhaps, to err on the side of caution and go for the more restrictive license conditions offered.

That is, unless you’re 34, living at home, delivering pizzas for a living and still recording in your basement. In that case, you might as well go for it, go for the most open option available and hope some 23-year-old ad agency brat uses your tune in the next Baby Gap campaign.

It won’t make you rich, but it just might get you some live gigs at their mall openings.

Personal Note: I’d like to thanks Jonas of Last.FM for his friendly and enthusiastic organization of these OMM nights. Seems he’s off travelling the world for a year or so, so I am sure I can speak for everyone who has attended in wishing him nothing but the best on his journey. We only hope that Dave will continue the great job in running these most welcome evenings for London’s digital music scene.





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