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John Degen: On Creative Commons and the future of the sharing economy

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creativecommonsThis coming weekend, one of the luxury limos of the sharing economy will park itself on Lower Simcoe Street in Toronto. The Creative Commons Global Summit takes place at the Delta – and it is not free. The $250 (U.S.) all-access pass appears to be sold out, but if you’re willing to volunteer your time for eight hours during the conference, you can still get in for only $100. Enjoy.

Creative Commons is a 16-year-old organization staffed and advised by many of the high-profile leaders of the free culture movement. It exists primarily to encourage alternative copyright licenses that promote sharing and re-use – often referred to as “some rights reserved.” The founder of Creative Commons, Harvard legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, literally wrote the book on free culture (2004’s Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity). On the Creative Commons advisory board sit leaders for Wikipedia, Tor, and the Free Software Foundation.* The many, many well-paid academics and legal theorists in the Creative Commons community all appear dedicated to increasing free access to creative content.

I like it when people who don’t really have to worry about money turn their attention to helping those who do. But who is Creative Commons helping, exactly, and is it actually working? The theme of this year’s Global Summit is What Next? I find myself wondering, “What So Far?” Sixteen years is, like, two centuries in Internet time. Facebook was launched at Harvard three years after Creative Commons, and wasn’t really a global platform for another two years after that. What exactly has Creative Commons been doing during its lengthy tenure? Where is our free-culture utopia?

Creative Commons currently boasts that “over 1 billion CC-licensed works exist across millions of websites,” making it, I guess, the McDonald’s of content. Okay, that’s a big number. But are those works regularly used for anything other than layering search-based advertising on top of them for someone else’s profit? When was the last time you actually read a book that was not protected by traditional copyright? Like most folks, I’ve tested out Creative Commons–licensed content, but quality and certainty brought me back to paid models.

Are the much-touted sharing and creating qualities of Creative Commons licenses – remixing, repurposing, sharing-alike – really creating a substantial alternative to all-rights-reserved copyright protected works? And if so, what good is it doing for all of us? This is about the commons, right, and we’re all the owners of the commons? So where is our stuff? And where’s all the new free stuff that is supposedly being built from the old free stuff? I mean, I know there are a lot of free videos on YouTube and all, but why then do YouTube superstars sign very traditional publishing deals and plunk a © on their books when it’s time to make some sales?

The actual economic and cultural impact of all this sharing is hard to discern. Creative Commons’s home page includes a search function, but I can’t figure out how to use it in such a way that tells me, for instance, just how many books are CC-licensed rather than protected by traditional copyright. When I input the search terms “free books,” I’m not taken to a comprehensive listing of texts under Creative Commons licenses. Instead, I get standard Google search results pointing to books about the open-source movement, and a free audiobook deal for signing up to Audible.com (owned by Amazon). So, it appears Google and other high-tech monoliths are the direct beneficiaries of CC’s search algorithm, such as it is. By the way, Creative Commons is headquartered in Mountainview, California (home as well to the Googleplex), but they claim to not have an actual office. So who’s picking up the mail for them in Mountainview?

Let’s assume there are a bunch of CC-licensed books in the world and Creative Commons just hasn’t figured out how to find them all. Between the two collections – freely shared works, and protected works – which camp do you suppose contains the most read, most accessed, most re-used, the most referenced, and the most influential for our culture? I strongly suspect protected books win that particular contest hands down, and will continue to long after my own copyrights expire.

A new crowd-sourced book from the Creative Commons folks, entitled Made with Creative Commons: A Book on Open Business Models is set for release (having raising just more than $65,000 on Kickstarter). Promo for the book proudly celebrates “creators who care about more than just the bottom line.” You know, unlike all us other cultural workers who are just in this game for the gobs of money we make. If you want this book for free, wait for the global e-release on May 5. Or you can buy it for $18 on Amazon right now.

To be clear, I think authors and publishers should be free to make strategic business decisions about their creative work, and that includes engaging with sharing models if they so choose. To prove a point about a decade ago, I widely shared a PDF of my own novel, The Uninvited Guest. Having done that, and having since looked deeply into the all-consuming maw of the sharing economy, I would never advise the use of a CC license on professional content. Not only are CC licenses dogged by controversy about misuse and poor interoperability, they are pragmatically impossible to revert. Something about closing the barn door comes to mind.

What’s next for the sharing economy? Realism, one hopes.

* In the spirit of sharing and free information, I have used the Wikipedia entry on Creative Commons for most of my research.

John Degen is executive director of the Writers’ Union of Canada, and chair of the International Authors Forum, serving and representing more than 650,000 authors worldwide. He is a poet and novelist with three published books, and writes regularly about authors’ rights and copyright.