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Creative Commons: some rights reserved

Licensing puts copyright in the hands of artists

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“So basically, we want to free Mickey.” McGill Law Professor Tina Piper delivers this line into her microphone as a projection of Mickey Mouse behind bars hovers to her right. We are at Pecha Kucha night at the Société des arts Technologiques (SAT) on St. Laurent.

Piper’s presentation deals with Creative Commons, which is a license designed to let artists share their work easily and legally, as well as to allow copies, modifications, and remixes. Artists can choose which legal rights they wish to retain; this means that they can control how their work is used. The Creative Commons website allows the licensor to easily select the conditions of their license. The artists can control how their work is used, how it is to be attributed, and whether the licensee can modify the work.

Pecha Kucha, a Japanese phrase meaning “the sound of conversation,” is a rapid-fire series of presentations. Every presenter shows 20 slides, projected on several large screens, for 20 seconds each. So far the room has heard and seen presentations from the world of fashion, music, computer games, civil engineering, and architecture.

Piper begins her presentation on Creative Commons by detailing how the Disney Corporation influenced U.S. copyright law in order to keep Mickey Mouse from losing its copyright and going into the public domain.

Another set of images flashes across the screens. First, a large white circle, which Piper explains represents the unregulated use of copyright that has occurred in the past. A tiny, imperceptible orange space in the middle represents the area where copyright was considered relevant before the Internet emerged.

In the next slide, the orange has almost completely covered the white. “This is how much activity copyright covers now,” Piper says.

The exploding use of digital technology and the Internet has made recent conceptions of copyright incredibly powerful. Copyright law now has jurisdiction over anything created by anyone at any time.

By the same token, it has also made copyright law incredibly easy to break. “If you have a computer and a cable modem, you possess the ultimate tool for violating copyright,” said radio host Jim Lebans in his recent CBC Radio documentary Who Owns Ideas?

At the same time, copyright laws are being aggressively expanded. “Over the last 60 to 70 years, copyright and patent have only moved in one direction legislatively…. They’ve only expanded outwards,” said James Boyle, Duke Law Professor and Chairman of the Board of Creative Commons, on CBC. Piper explains to the crowd that copyright now lasts “basically forever.”

Though the laws regarding the use of copyrighted materials are getting stricter, an artist who uses a Creative Commons license can ensure that anyone using their work will be safe from prosecution.

Mash-up DJ Girl Talk has built a nest in the midst of this controversy. He creates tracks almost exclusively from samples of popular (copyrighted) songs, and has released them, to much critical acclaim, through the label Illegal Art. Each song links together recognizable hooks, playing with the listener’s expectations and creating a multi-layered experience. He doesn’t pay, or attempt to get permission, from anyone holding the copyrights on the songs he samples. As a result, his whole canon exists in a legal grey zone.

Creative Commons licensing brings this artistic exchange within the legal system. The laws are just as strict, but an artist can choose to make them less so. “What we hope to do is get this licensing out, have people using the licensing, and when there is this body of practice, the law will change,” concluded Piper.

Currently, there are an estimated 130-million Creative Commons-licensed works. The popular site Flickr puts a Creative Commons license on all the photos posted on the site. A menu allows the creators to easily change the attributes of their license. Many indie labels and e-book publishers freely distribute materials using the Creative Commons license. With Creative Commons’ licensing, creators and artists who believe in the free flow of information, and who want to share their work, now have many easy and legal ways of doing so.

Back at the SAT, a quote from Sir Isaac Newton flashes on the screens across the room: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” Piper traces this quote back to a very similar statement made by someone a year before Newton. She traces that back to another quote, and again, and again. Piper’s point is that art is built on past art and that nothing is completely new.

In a time of ever-evolving copyright laws, one wonders whether the myth of the solitary genius – the poet in the cave – will soon be cast aside altogether.