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Arts : The © is silent

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Feel like remixing Spielberg, or vice-versa? Creative Commons wants to help

Chances are, you’ve heard tell of The Grey Album, the riotously popular underground “mash-up” project that barnstormed the internet in 2004, whipping up enough racket and controversy to get itself promptly served with a cease-and-desist order from London-based recording giant EMI. If you haven’t, a quick primer: Two years ago, operating under the handle “Danger Mouse,” then-unknown DJ and producer Brian Burton released a 12-track dilly of an unauthorized musical potpourri, blending vocals from rapper Jay-Z’s multi-platinum The Black Album with instrumentals from the Beatles’ iconic The White Album (get it?) to create such unlikely composites as Grey’s “Track 5,” which pairs the lyrical virtuosity of “99 Problems” with the mania of “Helter Skelter.” The response was immediate: Adulation and repute came swiftly to Burton, but so did legal retribution. The patently unlawful album is now listed for sub-rosa download at sites like Illegal-Art.org and Bannedmusic.org, but largely unavailable elsewhere.

Clearly, Grey represents an open-and-shut case of copyright infringement, and such an outcome is to be expected.

Far less expected, then, have been the notably less-than-condemning reactions of those closest to the perceived injury: Damon Dash, then-head of Roc-a-Fella Records, which released The Black Album, told the Associated Press in 2004 that Burton should’ve secured permission for the project, but added, “I think it’s hot. It’s the Beatles. It’s two great legends together.” (Roc-a-fella took no action against Burton.) And despite the smack-down by EMI, which owns the rights to the affected Beatles recordings, Sir Paul McCartney turned a sly trick at the 2006 Grammy Awards, joining Jay-Z and rap-rock outfit Linkin Park in a Danger Mouse-esque live performance of “Yesterday.”



Below are the four most basic Creative Commons conditions, or “deeds,” which may be mixed and matched to create a number of licenses offering various levels of protection. (Example: A work bearing the Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share-Alike license allows non-commercial copying, distribution, display and remixing, but only if the original creator is named, and new works are likewise CC-protected.)

Attribution: Others may duplicate, distribute, display, and perform the protected work, as well as modify it or create new works derivative of it (if not prohibited by another CC license), but must credit the original author in all cases.

No Derivative Works: Others may duplicate, distribute, display, and perform the protected work, but may not modify it in any way or create new works derivative of it.

Non-Commercial: Others may duplicate, distribute, display, and perform the protected work, as well as modify it or create new works derivative of it (if not prohibited by another CC license), but only if the purpose of such activity is not primarily commercial.

Share Alike: Others may create and distribute new works derivative of the protected work, but only if these new works are released under a license identical to that which protects the original work. (Share Alike, then, cannot coexist with the No-Derivative-Works deed, as Share Alike specifically governs derivative works.)




Such apparent artistic equanimity — enthusiasm, even — in the face of what is plainly extralegal tampering suggests a question: If a creator of intellectual property, regardless of reputation, wishes to offer his or her work to be shared freely among or even altered by the unwashed masses, oughtn’t he or she be able to do so without enduring extensive legal proceedings or surrendering the work entirely to the public domain? Further, consider: What if there were a vast network of musicians, writers, cartoonists, painters, filmmakers, photographers, all collaborating and making their work available to each other — music for a soundtrack, photographs for a book, duets between singers who’ve never met — and then, what if the heavies got into the act?

This is the future posited by the folks at Creative Commons, another project you should’ve heard about by now, but probably haven’t. Founded in 2001 by Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, the San Francisco-based corporation has developed a set of free licenses that are designed to work within existing copyright law, allowing copyright holders to relinquish certain rights, while holding others.

“What we’re trying to do is give people more choices for how they allow their work to be used,” says Eric Steuer, a former editor at Wired Magazine and now the creative director of Creative Commons. “Our ideal situation is just people around the world understanding what it means to be a copyright owner.”

Under present copyright law, a work automatically becomes protected the instant it is created in tangible form; once it is drawn, typed, photographed, filmed, et cetera, no one but the copyright holder may reproduce or sell copies of the work, import or export it, present or display it, create variations on it, or grant or sell these rights to another party. Under Creative Commons, Steuer says, the author may dispense these rights at his or her leisure.

“You still own the copyright,” he says. “You’re not giving up anything except what you want to give up.”

CC licenses are based on combinations of any of four basic conditions: attribution, a no-derivative-works clause, a no-commercial-use clause, and a stipulation termed “Share Alike,” whereby any works derived from the borrowed work must be released under an identical CC license. For instance, Pearl Jam recently released a music video for its song “Life Wasted” under a Creative Commons “Attribution-Non-Commercial-No-Derivative-Works” license, meaning anyone may copy, post, or distribute the clip — so long as they give the band credit and do not use it for commercial purposes — but no remixes or “mash-ups” (combination-based alternate versions) may be made. The video is available as a free download from Google Video until June 1, when it goes whole-hog copyright.

Los Angeles-based filmmakers Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, and Andy Samberg (known collectively as “The Lonely Island”) began making online digital comedy shorts in 2001, releasing many with a CC “Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share-Alike” tag, at the suggestion of Schaffer’s younger brother, Micah. The license allots viewers all the freedoms of the Pearl Jam license, but also allows for remixing, as long as attribution is made and any derivative works also are stamped with the Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share-Alike designation. The license, says the younger Schaffer (who serves as the group’s webmaster and sometime spokesperson), is a good fit for the guys’ sensibilities.

“The Lonely Island really embraces remix culture,” he says, pointing out that the shorts, some of which sample other works, are in turn remixed by fans on a regular basis. “Having Creative Commons on there exposed it to new people.”

Something, indeed, must have clicked, as the trio now works in New York as part of NBC’s Saturday Night Live (if you haven’t heard of The Grey Album or Creative Commons, surely you must’ve caught a glimpse of Samberg throwing down on “Lazy Sunday,” a.k.a. the Chronicles of Narnia rap). While Micah is quick to add that the Island’s success is a result of much more than its affiliation with CC, he says that’s “definitely part of their story.”

It is to be expected that any hint of loosening of copyright laws might not sit easily with the record labels or motion-picture studios that feather their nests with royalty payments, but it’s interesting to note that, at least at this point, CC’s loudest opposition seems to come from critics who say that its licenses are not free enough.

Benjamin Mako Hill, a software programmer and Free-Software activist who describes himself as something of an “info-hippie,” says that Creative Commons hasn’t drawn much ire from large media corporations because it isn’t bending the rules enough.

“Their heart is clearly in a good place in some sense,” he says, “but they’re unwilling to make any sort of commitment, because `that’s how you` make enemies ... What they’ve done ... is they’ve built popularity on the back of not making a strong statement of freedom.”

Hill says Creative Commons took the principles of its many-years’ predecessor and partial inspiration, the Free Software Movement — which advocates completely unrestricted use, duplication, alteration, and redistribution — and softened them, for a more popular but less effective philosophy of choice. Steuer might, in a way, agree.

“We’re not trying to force anyone,” Steuer says of CC. “You don’t have to use it for all of your work. You don’t have to use it for any of your work.”

Hill says that that’s the problem.

“They’ve bought short-term success at the price of long-term change,” he says. “And I think that’s sad.”

Nonetheless, Hill says, he remains “on good terms with those people,” and licenses much of his work through CC. Why?

“Because they’re the best licenses out there right now,” he says. “Are they tactically wrong? Yes. Are they unethical, immoral people? No.”

Meantime, Creative Commons continues growing. In 2004, the corporation added an intriguing Developing Nations license, which artists can use to allow royalty-free access to their work in countries deemed “developing” by the World Bank, while retaining full copyright in the rest of the world. In 2005, CC launched its Science Commons subsidiary, which is aimed at fostering freer collaboration in the scientific research community. Currently, Steuer estimates that there are around 60 million works worldwide under Creative Commons licenses.

And some of them aren’t too far from home.

“What I love about it is, there’s a recognition that contribution is valuable, community is valuable,” says San Antonio filmmaker and videoblogger Michael Verdi. “I want my work to be seen ... that’s why the heck I do it ... If `people are` moved to do something with it, remix it, mash it up, respond to it, then hell, yeah — all the better.”

In other words: In an increasingly digital world where things don’t always fall so neatly into black or white, Creative Commons, perhaps, allows for shades of Grey.


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