I’ve been involved in some discussions lately about the meaning of “free” from several perspectives: audience, artist, reviewer, etc. One of the statements I was about to make in a comment was that I am trying to educate my readers about the importance of Creative Commons through my reviews and (in general) my website. Then it occurred to me: I hadn’t written anything about Creative Commons at all recently.

I have some references that I had filed away for an article, but I’ve been busy with enough other content on the site that I’d lost track of it. So, I am going to rectify this shortcoming now and start writing more regularly about Creative Commons and explain why it is important to me, to artists, and most importantly: to you.

I support Creative Commons for many reasons.  Some of them are the more commons ones that you hear: artists have an opportunity to promote their works.  It gives the audience greater access to the artists works.  It works towards the end of the archaic recording / publishing / film industry where artists are more often ripped off.  And so on.  But I don’t want to go into those reasons here and now.  They aren’t the reason YOU should care.

There are, in fact, many reasons why you should care, but today I want to get to one reason: Creative Commons corrects an issue with the so called “intellectual property” system (in this particular case we focus predominantly on copyright) that is actually damaging our culture, our heritage and our society.

The fact is, we are a society that prides itself on knowledge, innovation, and progress.  Notice that first item: knowledge.  Knowledge is contained in many things: music, books, technology, etc.  Our history is deeply intertwined with our literature, music and artistic expression.  For example, we have the transcendentalist movement of the 1800’s which rejected the intellectual and philosophical that were being taught at major universities such as Harvard.  We know that ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ is one of the most important works of that movement, and we can read it today, there are lots of copies of it available.

It is the knowledge of such past movements, and documentation of historical events (like World Wars I & II), and other items of information that informed our actions and progress today.  Now granted, not everyone is going out there and reading ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, not everyone has a need for it in his or her daily life.  However, would you not expect the leaders at all levels of our society to have that knowledge?  By leaders I mean our politicians, our teachers, philosophical and religious leaders, and others at all levels our society.

You would expect that a leader would use all of the knowledge we had gathered in the past when making an important decision, right?  I mean, certainly we wouldn’t go into a war without having all of the lessons that we have learned in the past, right?  We wouldn’t chose to implement a technology without having looked at all the documents regarding experiments with it in the past, right?  We wouldn’t reject a theory of how our planet’s weather patterns changed over time without looking at all the past records, right?  Of course, these are all hypothetical, non-specific examples of some of the types of things we should research.

Now, you might be thinking, “Well, our leaders can’t possibly wade through all of the information available all of the time, they need to focus on only the important information.”  And, to some degree that is true.  However, who is to say what information is and isn’t important?  Who makes the decision that Article A is important, and Book Z isn’t?

That would mean there should be other people, let’s call them the citizens, that should have the opportunity to evaluate the available information as well.  They should evaluate it, and be able to have a discussion on that information between themselves and their leaders.  In some cases, this would likely bring to the front pieces of information that were being overlooked before.

Doesn’t this all sound familiar?  I think I remember someone stating something about starting a conversation with society recently: “I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.” (Edward Snowden, via Mashable).

But, now, what if I told you there was a hole in the fabric of this information?  That there was a loss of knowledge over a given period of time that could, potentially, be removing some of the information that should inform our decisions as a society?  Would that surprise you?  Would that upset you?

It should.

A study conducted by Paul J. Heald of the University of Illinois determined that after initial publication many books and music, once they fall out of publication, tend to stay out of publication for many years before being published again.  What was the determining factor of when a work was re-published?  The end of the copyright term on the work, and it’s entrance into the public domain.

From the Abstract of ‘How Copyright Makes Books and Music Disappear (and How Secondary Liability Rules Help Resurrect Old Songs)‘:

A random sample of new books for sale on Amazon.com shows more books for sale from the 1880’s than the 1980’s. Why? This paper presents new data on how copyright seems to make works disappear.

According to an article in The Atlantic, “Editions of books that fall under copyright are available in about the same quantities as those from the first half of the 19th century. Publishers are simply not publishing copyrighted titles unless they are very recent.”

But, explaining that publishers are predominantly selling books that are current is only part of the story.  After looking at the data a bit, Heald was able to determine something further: there was a better chance of a book that had fallen out of copyright to be in publication, than a book that was 10 years old and had fallen out of publication, but was still under copyright control.

In other words, to use a pithy paraphrase: In general, books published before the 1930’s have a better chance of being in print today, than a book published in the last 70 years.  Which, to my understanding, means that because of copyright and the desire for the publishing industry to make it’s money on only the most current books, music, etc.

But wait, you say, why are books that are out of copyright more likely to be in print?  Simple: pure profit.  Since there is no intellectual property attached to an older work, and there is no one to claim royalties on a work, they are seen as pure profit machines.  Ever go into a Barnes & Nobles or other book store and see a series of “Classics” with the bookstore’s imprint on it, at really cheap prices?  You buy one of those books for $7 or $10, but guess what?  It only cost maybe $2-3 to produce, and all the profit goes to the company and no one else (ie, there are no royalties to pay out).

But wait, what does this have to do with Creative Commons?

What Creative Commons does is to attempt to (at least) partially fill-in the 70 year gap that is being created by copyright and other intellectual property laws.  When an artist uses a Creative Commons deed to modify their rights under copyright, they are making a work that will be available for the complete term of copyright, and then will pass into the public domain.

This means that the work, be it a piece of music, a book, an article, poem, image, or whatever will be available to reference.  It means that it will be available to be used by society in it’s discourse on issues.  It will be available to add to your knowledge, your perspective, or your entertainment.

It isn’t sufficient for an artist to make a free download of his or her work available, if it is under copyright.  Any work that is made available under copyright can fall into this 70 year black hole, depending on the whims of the artist or a corporation.  And in many cases, it’s not the artist’s whim, it’s a corporations whim.

Let’s be clear on something.  Just because an artist chooses to license his or her work under a Creative Commons license does not mean they should not be compensated for that work.  Far from it.  Artists need to have the means necessary to keep creating. If those means are monetary compensation, then it is obviously their needs that need to be satisfied for the benefit of themselves, their audience, and the society as a whole.

I believe that repairing the damage that copyright has done to our society is of critical importance.  Too much valuable knowledge, information and perspective and interpretation of our history is being locked away under copyright, only to be resurrected in the post-copyright market place.

This is why I believe Creative Commons is important.  Do you want to live with this black hole of knowledge and expression that has been cut-off from our society?  Do you want to have decisions being made without the benefit of all possible information being available to inform the discussion and decision making process?  Do you believe in the value of preserving our cultural expression?

Creative Commons is an attempt to repair the damage done to our culture by copyright. This is why YOU should care about the Creative Commons.

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Posted by George De Bruin