The internet as a commons

Since the beginning of the “information revolution” there has built up a tension between the rights of the owners of information and other intellectual property and the practical ability and desire of others to exploit that property using the developing technologies. This tension heightened considerably with the popularisation of the internet and the web as it has become ever easier to “download” and “share” (ie to copy and redistribute or republish) content.

Information wants to be free

“Information wants to be free” is an expression meaning that people should be able to access information freely. It is often used by technology activists to criticise intellectual property laws that limit transparency and general access to information. Critics say that such laws conflict with the potential development of a public domain of information.

The iconic expression is attributed to Stewart Brand, who, in the late 1960s, founded the Whole Earth Catalog and argued that technology could be liberating rather than oppressing. Its earliest recorded use was at the first Hackers Conference in 1984, where Brand told Apple founder Steve Wozniak:

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

Copyright vs the commons

The idea that the internet was a “commons” in which creativity could flourish was developed by then-Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig in his 2001 book, The Future of Ideas. The internet protected a commons on which the widest range of innovators could experiment, but, manipulating the law for their own purposes, corporations established themselves as virtual gatekeepers of the internet while Congress, in the pockets of media magnates, rewrote copyright and patent laws to stifle creativity and progress.

In 2001, with Hal Abelson and Eric Eldred and the support of the Center for the Public Domain, he founded the Creative Commons, devoted to expanding the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share.

He developed his arguments in Free Culture (2004). Digital technologies have extended the reach of copyright law and are regulating activities that the original legislators never dreamed of restricting. “In a digital age, copying is as natural as breathing.” Every web page view is technically a copy, regulated by copyright law, a situation which was unintended and is totally inefficient. He proposed that distribution for commercial purposes rather than simply the act of copying were the appropriate thing to “tax” with copyright legislation.

In Remix (2008) Lessig further developed and refined these arguments. His central theme was that the current copyright regime is so at odds with the 21st century context in which it operates that we risk criminalising an entire generation – the net generation – who are growing up with the means to consume, remix and create and publish media in ways unimaginable even 30 years ago, yet with the permission to do less even than consume according to the 20th century industry models. Saddled with arcane laws of whose reach they may be unaware, and which, if acknowledged, they cannot understand and cannot respect, our children do what comes naturally, what seems fair to them – they “break the law”.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons copyright licences provide a simple, standardised way to give permission to share and use creative work. They forge a balance inside the traditional “all rights reserved” setting that copyright law creates and are now in wide use, particularly on “sharing” sites such as Flickr (photo-sharing) and the like.

“The combination of our tools and our users is a vast and growing digital commons, a pool of content that can be copied, distributed, edited, remixed, and built upon, all within the boundaries of copyright law.”

The types of CC licences are as follows:

  • Attribution (CC BY) is the most accommodating of the licenses offered, requiring only a credit for the original creation.
  • Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA) is often compared to “copyleft” free and open source software licences, requiring only a credit and a licence for the new creation on identical terms.
  • Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND) allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC) allows non-commercial sharing and adaptation with credit, but not necessarily on the same terms.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA) allows non-commercial sharing and adaptation with credit and under the identical terms.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND) is the most restrictive licence, allowing non-commercial sharing, with credit and no change.

Whilst CC licences grant valuable freedoms, it is of course important to comply with the licence terms. All licences require an appropriate attribution in accordance with the owner’s requirements. A model form of attribution is used below (explained here).

Recent developments

As of 2021 there were an estimated 2 billion works licensed under the various Creative Commons licences; the Flickr photo-sharing site alone hosts over 460 million CC-licensed photos.

Creative Commons’ own search engine, CC Search will soon be joining WordPress who will maintain and further develop it, extending its scope to other types of material. Catherine Stihler, Creative Commons CEO, says:

“Our index of images totals over 500 million, and the meta search we built for audio and video allows broad discovery of those content types from other services. There is unlimited potential for what early on was referred to as the ‘front door to the Commons’.”

Nick Holmes is editor of the Newsletter.

Image: “Furggelen afterglow” by Lukas Schlagenhauf (cropped) is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0