Uncommon Law

Lawrence Lessig has pioneered a new approach to copyright

PHOTO: LAWRENCE LESSIG/PHOTO MANIPULATION: BRANDON PALACIO

Lawrence Lessig leads an unusual life for a Stanford law professor. He pals around with rock stars like Jeff Tweedy and David Byrne. Christopher Lloyd portrayed him in an episode of the topical political TV show, "The West Wing."

Why the fuss? Because Lessig, the founder of Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society, is spearheading the high-tech fight for what he calls "free culture." Lessig's approach is modeled on the free software movement, which promotes a software license that ensures that the source code for computer programs can be examined and modified without the control of proprietary software developers and without the payment of a license fee.

By culture, Lessig means art, literature, music, movies, and even science and technology. He's trying to liberate it as the founder and chair of the Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that lets copyright holders, from musicians to engineers, grant flexible use of their work. Since first being released in 2002, Creative Commons licenses have been used more than 50 million times, and the rate of adoption is growing. With the launch this year of an offshoot, the Science Commons, Lessig hopes to expand into the world of research. IEEE Spectrum contributing editor David Kushner talked to Lessig about his plans.

What is the Creative Commons?

You need a little background on copyright to see why Creative Commons is necessary and what it's trying to do. Copyright law, by default, gives creators all rights associated with their work. And when you talk about creative work online, this basically means the creator controls every use. Now, for some people, that's not what they want; they want people to read or access or share or remix or build on their work without asking permission first.... The problem is that the law, as it is now, doesn't enable this, unless would-be sharers and remixers contact the creator and clear the rights, that is, receive permission. So what we did is built a system that basically clears the rights up front. Rather than the default of "all rights reserved"--which is what copyright law means--the Creative Commons default is "some rights reserved," meaning the author has signaled through a Creative Commons copyright notice which freedoms [are given with] the content but also what rights are still reserved to the author.

What was the inspiration for the Creative Commons?

We thought this was important because technologists give the world these extraordinary technologies, not just to consume content but also to create content. The great thing about the computer is not [only] that it's the most efficient device for delivering and consuming content, it's that the computer is also the most efficient device for enabling and encouraging a wide range of people to be creators. Under the existing system of copyright law, though, there's no easy way to be a legal creator. What we wanted to do was to create a layer on top of the existing copyright law, a simple system to make it easy for people to be legal creators if they wanted to incorporate existing material.

What does Creative Commons do that copyright law doesn't?

Lawrence Lessig, creator of the Creative Commons

If you want to allow people to use and build on your work, you can go to our Web site, where you're given choices to pick a license. Do you want to allow commercial use? Do you want to allow derivative use or modifications of your work? And if you allow derivative use, do you want to require that others will release their work in a similarly free way?

Once you make those choices, you're given a license, and the license comes basically in three different forms. One form is what we call a "human-readable commons deed," which basically expresses the freedoms associated with the content in ways that anybody can understand. Number two is a legally enforceable license that enforces those freedoms in ways that courts will respect. And third is a machine-readable expression of the freedoms associated with the content, so search engines can begin to gather content on the basis of those freedoms.

This facilitates the permissions that the copyright system [requires] before you're allowed to build or share work. We've just made copyright law simple. Rather than have a lawyer sit there and clear rights for you, we've basically enabled you to clear the rights up front.

How does a Creative Commons license benefit the copyright holder?

Well, a lot of copyright holders benefit primarily by having their work made accessible and encouraging others to build on their work. The clearest example of that is the world of scholarship. As a scholar, I'm interested in people reading my article. I don't get paid when people copy the article. I don't get paid by journals that distribute the article. We support the open-access publishing movement in the context of scholarship, especially through our Science Commons project, because this is perfectly consistent with the desires of the author, which are basically to spread his or her work.

How can engineers benefit?

Engineers, of course, benefit from access to lots of great information and instructional stuff about what their engineering technology can do. And increasingly, they benefit from spaces that encourage a collaborative education around this stuff, such as Wikipedia. We provide framework licenses so you know that when you contribute to an ongoing educational process, the work will continue to be made available to others; it doesn't get locked up and taken away from you. It encourages those who spend an extraordinary amount of their lives building these common projects, like Wikipedia, in just the way the free software and open-source software movements have done with software.

We're not in the business of proselytizing, in the sense of telling people what they ought to be doing. But we did find that, especially in the context of science and engineering and academics, most people build upon and depend upon access to what we call "the commons," as well as build upon and depend upon access to proprietary [material]. You need a healthy ecology of both for the best to be produced, and if you don't have the commons, and you don't have any proprietary stuff, then obviously you're worse off.

Who else can benefit?

There's an extraordinary amount of content out there--for example, images on Flickr.com--that are licensed under a Creative Commons license. People use and reuse content that's consistent with our licenses, and that makes it easy for them to incorporate that content into their Web site. What Web site designers have increasingly been told by the legal departments in their operations is that you can't use content without permission. When they were first told that, they said, "You gotta be kidding." But increasingly, the legal people are not kidding. So to the extent they're not kidding, we've got tools to make it easy for designers to continue to be creative in their content but not violate the law.

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