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The Truth About Creative Commons

By Bob Leggitt  |  10 July 2022

"Expecting creators to unilaterally renounce capitalism whilst everyone else drives it right off the speedo, is not anti-capitalism - it's anti-creator."

If you've never before published content on a Creative Commons licence, have you ever wondered what happens when you do? If so, I have a cautionary tale coming up at the end of this post. But before we get there, I want to pull up the floorboards and explore the reality of Creative Commons. Who's behind it, who does it really help, does it make creators more successful, and is it good for creators in a legal sense?...

WHAT IS CREATIVE COMMONS?

Creative Commons is often considered to be a grassroots drive to transform the world of content into a caring, sharing utopia of free knowledge and media, helping creators win wider success through licencing that shares the love in all directions.

But if you delve into the epicentre of Creative Commons, you actually find its driving organisation is a donation-nagging, Google and Amazon-funded, Mountain View-based NGO, established by Silicon Valley lawyers and cosily ensconced within the same cybertech lobbying circle that's spent the past two decades trying to trample copyright and patent law into oblivion.

So is Creative Commons really there to help creators, or is it there to help the tech industry? Does it seek to reward creators for their work? Or does it seek to strip them of a lifetime of intellectual rights in one rash, unnecessary action, so that Big Tech can freely monopolise the world's creative output for its own purposes?

"With a concept like Creative Commons, where the publishing rights are communal, ownership is dictated by reach. That is, the most visible publisher effectively becomes the owner of the content."

THAT OL' TRICK BAG

Creative Commons came into being in 2001, with the aim of porting the Free Software Foundation's GPL software licencing freedoms across to creative content such as music, photography, art and writing. From the start, the project was anchored deep in Silicon Valley, and run by lawyers and tech engineering personnel. Also from the start, CC sought to cater for search engines - producing metadata that would allow the likes of Google to recognise CC-licenced work automatically.

The people behind this initiative were intelligent. They, more than anyone, would have understood that letting machines recognise watered-down licences would let machines prioritise watered-down licences. Which would, by nature, let machines discriminate against work with robust copyright protection.

We've already seen search and tech brands discriminating against robust copyright in favour of CC. For example, Google relentlessly prioritises the Creative Commons site Wikipedia over the more specialised source sites from which it cribbed its information. Indeed, Google has steadily buried those more specialised source sites deeper and deeper in its results, leaving Wikipedia with a virtual monopoly on most entry-point knowledge searches.

That's the level of bias we see when only a minority of creators agree to CC's terms. Just imagine what would happen if creators had adopted CC in much higher volume. It's not hard to envisage that robust copyright would have been algorithmically filtered out of the search results altogether, effectively killing off creators' rights as the remaining content producers migrated to CC in order to be found online at all. I would suggest that the Silicon Valley lawyers behind Creative Commons foresaw exactly that circumstance, and specifically planned for it. It could still happen.

"The absence of a CC licence does not, in any shape or form, prevent you, the creator, from sharing your work."

The actual Creative Commons licences launched in January 2003, with Cory Doctorow becoming the first author to release a book on one. Creative Commons the org has made much of the success that Doctorow has enjoyed since, but to cite this as an endorsement for Creative Commons licencing ignores three key facts...

We should also note in red marker that Doctorow was not just a random author who happened to be intrigued by CC. He was involved with the Creative Commons team themselves, and worked on the launch of CC, and was a Director at CC at the time his first novel was re-licenced (Cory Doctorow's Medium article is notably paywalled). It would be ridiculous to imagine that his re-licencing was an impartial decision without incentive, and yet that's how it's usually spun. Note also, that even as a "Creative Commons ambassador", he still left the book on standard copyright for over a year.

Doctorow has also admitted sales for the work he releases in electronic format do not compare well to sales for authors selling in the same format with robust copyright. That's only to be expected, since most people won't pay for something they can get for nothing. But Creative Commons itself is rather less forthcoming with that fact.

Perhaps most dramatically of all, Cory Doctorow has admitted (Cory Doctorow's Medium article is notably paywalled) that for fourteen years, Creative Commons licences were a legal disaster waiting to happen...

"The first three versions of the Creative Commons license contained a small, significant oversight, one that now exposes millions of people to effectively unlimited legal risk."

So, with one or two inconvenient facts unearthed, we can conclusively answer one of the opening questions. No, Creative Commons licences do not make creators more successful. Creative Commons licences make creators less successful.

But that has not stopped Creative Commons from trying to persuade us, the creators, that in a world where content is currency and the Internet is wall to wall with unauthorised re-posts, we somehow need help to give content away for free.

The notion that content creators should work unpaid, whilst every other link in the contributions chain pockets a fee, is woven into the fabric of Creative Commons.

"BuT tHiNk Of ThE cHiLdReN tHo..."

A primary tenet of advocacy for Creative Commons is that education needs content to aid learning. No sane being would dispute that. The question is: why is it, as always, the content creator who is expected to contribute without any compensation, whilst other contributors are paid by rigid default? Do teachers work for nothing? No. Do builders build schools for free? No. The anti-copyright movement persistently uses this guilting and shaming tactic against creators - and only creators - who exercise their right to collect payment from consumers who can be considered deserving.

In his book Free Culture, Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig used precisely this guilting and shaming tactic when discussing the "if value, then right" theory of copyright management. He vilified a representative of creative artists for wanting them to be paid...

"[The "if value, then right" theory] is the perspective that led a composers' rights organization, ASCAP, to sue the Girl Scouts for failing to pay for the songs that girls sang around Girl Scout campfires. There was "value" (the songs) so there must have been a "right" - even against the Girl Scouts."

"Even against the Girl Scouts." What does that mean? Are there certain groups in society who should not be charged for what they consume? Who else is part of this special exemption category? And once that's been established, can someone pass the message on to Apple, so everyone in this special category can have a free iPhone? Can someone tell the ISPs to stop charging them for Internet access? Can someone tell the petrol station to stop charging them for petrol?"

Lessig notably did not castigate the day camp for charging each of the Girl Scouts $44 a week, which was two thousand, two hundred and eighty-eight times as much as the $1 a year that ASCAP proposed to charge the entire camp for music rights. Yes, the founder of Creative Commons vilified a performing rights nonprofit for pressing a charge of ONE DOLLAR for AN ENTIRE YEAR's worth of copyright-protected music performance.

He also forgot to check his facts, since there was never a lawsuit, or a proposed lawsuit. One might have thought, since Lessig is a lawyer himself, that checking these particular facts would be quite easy. Maybe not checking them was just more convenient to his narrative.

But more broadly, Lessig knows as well as anyone else that we live in a capitalist society, in which value converts into cash. Expecting creators to unilaterally renounce capitalism whilst everyone else drives it right off the speedo, is not anti-capitalism - it's anti-creator.

It doesn't matter how laudable the cause. If other providers get paid, creative providers have exactly the same entitlement to collect.

But as we'll see, the aims of Creative Commons stretch far beyond merely "educating the world".

THE CREATIVE COMMONS DEAL

Creative Commons offers us, the creators, a deal. It dresses this deal up in all sorts of rhetorical gymnastics, so allow me to strip away the glitz and present the raw subtext...

We, the content creators, do the work; Creative Commons boasts about how many of us it's persuaded to work for free, and Creative Commons gets financially rewarded for bringing the world all that free shit WE made. Capitalism at its very finest.

And, indeed, at its most hypocrital... Here's how copyright conditions apply to Creative Commons' own intellectual property...

"You cannot (without our permission) print your own buttons and t-shirts using CC logos, although you can purchase them in CC’s store."

Link for the above.

See what we're dealing with? The architects of copyright degradation are only really interested in degrading other people's copyright. When it comes to intellectual property that they can convert into cash, suddenly the utopian, caring, sharing dream, flies straight out of the window. True, a lot of CC's output is distributed on a CC licence. However, there's a clever sleight of hand here, because if you analyse that content, you find it's actually promotion and/or propaganda. Basically, stuff they can't sell, and which either they or their bedfellows need people to read. When they can sell it... Well, we've already seen how restrictive their terms become.

CHARITY BEGINS AT... GROAN

Creative Commons presents itself as a "nonprofit charity", and there's now almost a bottomless pit of these so-called "nonprofit charities" bidding for your cash around the ballpark of digital rights.

But when you stroll into their back yard, you find they're a far cry from a traditional charitable org. Charity traditionally serves the needy. But these NGOs are much more insterested in serving themselves, and their primary donors. They're not handing out money to struggling creators who earn £5 a job in digital sweatshop marketplaces. Instead, they're chucking the cash at lawyers and lobbyists whose long-term aim is to wipe copyright off the map altogether.

For example, among the initiatives Creative Commons have funded with donation money that YOU, the CC creator, earned them, is a website called Copyright Exceptions. It's run by a group called Communia Association, whose blurb declares...

"We seek to limit the scope of exclusive copyright..."

What a surprise. Money from an anti-copyright lobby-financier like Google ending up in the hands of NGOs that "seek to limit the scope of exclusive copyright".

But it gets better. One of the members of Communia Association just happens to be... Guess who?... Creative Commons. So in funding this project, CC is basically donating money to itself. Who needs Jesus when you have charities like that?

Further, it was almost instantly possible to establish that multiple other members of Communia Association receive funding from Google. And some such Googlehorns appeared rather shy when it came to identifying themselves... One of the members was listed as Free Knowledge Advocacy Group EU. Hmmm, how intriguing. Never heard of them before... So I visited their website... Which actually turned out to be... Wikimedia Brussels.

In case you've lived on Mars for the past two decades, Wikimedia/Wikipedia is a top tier anti-attributionist, anti-copyright campaigner and paid Google stooge, whose entire parasitic, small-website-destroying gravy train is built around the theme of milking the digital working class for free shit.

Once you dig into all of this, what you find is the usual circle of anti-copyright lobbyists, bankrolled by the biggest anti-copyright architect of them all: Google.

But this lot only want to empower creators to give away their shit for the purpose of education and goodly expansion of knowledge tho, right?

Oh no. The Copyright Exceptions website is charting the progress of various schemes to erode copyright protection, and one such scheme is called: "Exception or limitation for text and data mining". Quite literally, this little gem, if adopted, quote...

"[A]llows any user to reproduce works and other protected subject matter, as well as to extract the contents of databases, in order to perform text and data mining for any purposes."

Is that funding from Amazon starting to make sense yet?... Let me ask you: who does all of this backend wrangling sound like it's empowering? Does it sound like it's empowering the impoverished creator, who has a low profile and struggles to make ends meet? Or does it sound more like it's empowering massive tech corporations whose data-mining business model rides on the back of free and openly distributed content? I'm not gonna lead you on the answer. You know the answer.

CREATORS DON'T NEED CC LICENCES - BUT BIG TECH DOES

Now that we've taken a step towards finding out who Creative Commons really are, who their cosy circle of mates are and what they're up to, let's consider: what is the actual point of Creative Commons licencing? Whom does it benefit?

The best way to assess that question is to look not at what happens when Creative Commons is present, but at what happens when it's absent...

Does the absence of a Creative Commons licence in any way hinder you, the creator, in authorising third parties to use your work?

No. You can authorise anyone you wish to republish your work, at any time. You can even explicitly encourage them to do so. Tweets don't come on a Creative Commons licence, but if an influencer shouts "RETWEET THIS!", two thousand, four thousand, ten thousand, even fifty thousand people will often do so. No member of that influencer's audience ever says: "I can't RT that - it's not on a CC licence." The absence of a CC licence does not, in any shape or form, prevent you, the creator, from sharing your work.

But does the absence of a Creative Commons licence in any way hinder Big Tech in helping itself to any content it wants to exploit for advertising profit?

That's a very firm YES! Big Tech is not legally entitled to copyright-protected content. True, it can use the DMCA 512 clause to dodge liability for unauthorised republication when the uploader is a third party. But upon notification of infringement it must still remove that content from its Web properties. In order to give itself real carte blanche on content, what Big Tech really needs is for creators to sign away their automatic rights. That's precisely what Creative Commons is all about.

If you just want to drive a message to a bigger audience or build a personal brand, it makes much more sense to offer your content for free to specific publishers with existing audiences. You only grant rights to known quantities, you get reliable attribution, and you may establish some useful contacts. Taking this route also encourages you to think much harder about what you're giving away, how you're giving it away, and to whom you're giving it away. It pushes you to think long term. Creative Commons doesn't. It's just a pretty badge until people start doing things you never foresaw. And believe me, you cannot foresee everything.

So the truth is that the people who really need Creative Commons are not the creators, but the consumers. You, as a creator, are given automatic rights to control the spread of your work. Not necessarily stop it - just control it. What if a political organisation you vehemently oppose adopts a piece of your work, for which you've signed away your copyright control? You can't stop them exploiting your hard work for a cause you abhor.

Nowhere else in life would you ever consider voluntarily signing away your statutory rights. And that's precisely what you're doing when you publish under Creative Commons.

Creative Commons licences are irrevocable. That is, you cannot later approach someone who re-published your work through Creative Commons, tell them you've changed your licence, and demand that they take the content down. Well, you can, but they're legally entitled to ignore you.

If you are a creator, there is absolutely no need to waive any of your default intellectual rights - and certainly not for the lifetime of the work. This is purely a system of handing free donation money to the anti-copyright collective, and free advertising fodder to Big Tech, whilst the digital working class are given a worthless pat on the head for accepting their traditional reward of sod all.

THINK OF THE FUTURE

This is very much NOT a post that says "don't allow people to use your work or spread your message". It's a post that says "do not give up your right to decide WHO is able to use your work". Because if you give up that right, indiscriminately, for life, you have no way to decline permission for your content to be used against you.

Could your content be used against you? Of course. New technologies are popping up all the time. Twenty years ago you could have published your biometric data without really worrying. Today, the game has changed, and numerous forms of biometric data can be exploited in nefarious ways by third parties. Most people who unthinkingly published biometric data in the early 2000s have long since taken it down. But if anyone had published on a CC licence and a third party had chosen to republish, there would not be a thing that person could now do to get the data offline.

"This is purely a system of handing free donation money to the anti-copyright collective, and free advertising fodder to Big Tech, whilst the digital working class are given a worthless pat on the head for accepting their traditional reward of sod all."

There will be readers who consider this post completely unhinged. Or an attempt to stifle free speech - as Google and its puppet show like to portray any strong assertions of copyright protection. But it really makes two main points...

A CAUTIONARY TALE

I myself made the mistake of allowing some of my music to stream on a CC licence. It wasn't because I chose that licence. It was because the now closed platform on which I posted the songs required all submissions to be posted under CC conditions. A problem in itself, but with hotlinkable music-streaming options extremely thin on the ground, I took the plunge...

I did think twice before posting, but I figured that I could always delete when I no longer wanted the songs online. I believed that a third party would be unlikely to re-host the tracks on their own domain, because many years back when I posted, bandwidth limitations were still prohibitive for smaller publishers, and the platform allowed hotlinking, so third party publishers could save their bandwidth by hotlinking to my original upload. Therefore, if I deleted, it would take down the third-party shares, and the content would disappear.

However, when the platform closed down, the music on it was unexpectedly "donated" to a larger resource, which, unlike the platform on which I'd originally posted, gave me no means to delete. I lost control of my own music, with zero compensation, and there wasn't a thing I could do to get it back. Not only that, but because I'd signed up to the platform with an old username I no longer use, and the receiving platform simply attributed to the usernames, the attribution doesn't even recognisably identify me anymore.

The music is now effectively owned and gatekept by a member of the anti-copyright cartel. And it could not be more clear to me that this is precisely the endgame that cartel sought to engineer when they clubbed together to mobilise the grand scheme of Creative Commons.

The takeaway is - and I can't stress this strongly enough... With a concept like Creative Commons, where the publishing rights are communal, ownership is dictated by reach. That is, the most visible publisher effectively becomes the owner of the content. Big Tech and copyright-bustin' cronies like Wikimedia and the Internet Archive want us to think that Creative Commons helps the little people get recognised. In truth, it does the opposite. The bigger the Web presence you have, the more you stand to gain from Creative Commons. And it'll be other people's work you'll be gaining from - not your own.

Let this sound a warning to everyone who is tempted by that cute little CC badge. You are granted statutory copyright protection for a reason. Do not sign it away.


Bob Leggitt.