Lawrence Lessig

Lawrence Lessig

Posted: July 10, 2010 06:16 PM

ASCAP's attack on Creative Commons

What's Your Reaction:

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) has launched a campaign to raise money from its members to hire lobbyists to protect them against the dangers of "Copyleft." Groups such as Creative Commons, Public Knowledge, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are "mobilizing," ASCAP describes in a letter to its members, "to promote 'Copyleft' in order to undermine our 'Copyright.'" "[O]ur opponents are influencing Congress against the interests of music creators," ASCAP warns. Indeed, as the letter ominously predicts, this is ASCAP's "biggest challenge ever." (Historians of BMI might be a bit surprised about that claim in particular.)

As a founding board member of two of those three organizations, and former board member of the third, I guess I should be proud that a 96 year old organization would be so terrified of our work. And I would be -- if there were anything in this fundraising pitch that was actually true.

But there is not. Creative Commons, Public Knowledge and EFF are not aiming to "undermine" copyright; they are not spreading the word that "music should be free"; and there is certainly not yet any rally within Congress in favor of any of the issues that these groups do push.

I know Creative Commons best, so let me address ASCAP's charges as they apply to it.

Creative Commons is a nonprofit that provides copyright licenses pro bono to artists and creators so that they can offer their creative work with the freedom they intend it to carry. (Think not "All Rights Reserved" but "Some Rights Reserved.") Using these licenses, a musician might allow his music to be used for noncommercial purposes (by kids making a video, for example, or for sharing among friends), so long as attribution to the artist is kept. Or an academic might permit her work to be shared for whatever purpose, again, so long as attribution is maintained. Or a collaborative project such as a wiki might guarantee that the collective work of the thousands who have built the wiki remains free for everyone forever. Hundreds of millions of digital objects -- from music to video to photographs to architectural designs to scientific journals to teachers lesson plans to books and to blogs -- have been licensed in this way, and by an extraordinarily diverse range of creators or rights holders -- including Nine Inch Nails, Beastie Boys, Youssou N'Dour, Curt Smith, David Byrne, Radiohead, Jonathan Coulton, Kristin Hersh, and Snoop Dogg, as well as Wikipedia and the White House.

These licenses are, obviously, copyright licenses. They depend upon a firm and reliable system of copyright for them to work. Thus CC could have no interest in "undermining" the very system the licenses depend upon -- copyright. Indeed, to the contrary, CC only aims to strengthen the objectives of copyright, by giving the creators a simpler way to exercise their rights.

These licenses are also (and also obviously) voluntary. CC has never argued that anyone should waive any of their rights. (I've been less tolerant towards academics, but I have never said that any artist is morally obligated to waive any right granted to her by copyright.)

And finally, these licenses reveal no objective to make "music free." Nine Inch Nails, for example, have earned record sales from songs licensed under Creative Commons licenses.

Instead, the only thing Creative Commons wants to make free is artists -- free to choose how best to license their creative work. This is one value we firmly believe in -- that copyright was meant for authors, and that authors should have the control over their copyright.

This isn't the first time that ASCAP has misrepresented the objectives of our organization. But could we make it the last? We have no objection to collecting societies: They too were an innovative and voluntary solution (in America at least) to a challenging copyright problem created by new technologies. And I at least am confident that collecting societies will be a part of the copyright landscape forever.

So here's my challenge, ASCAP President Paul Williams: Let's address our differences the way decent souls do. In a debate. I'm a big fan of yours, and If you'll grant me the permission, I'd even be willing to sing one of your songs (or not) if you'll accept my challenge of a debate. We could ask the New York Public Library to host the event. I am willing to do whatever I can to accommodate your schedule. 

Let's meet and address these perceived differences with honesty and good faith. No doubt we have disagreements (for instance, I love rainy days, and Mondays rarely get me down). But on the issues that your organization and mine care about, there should be no difference worthy of an attack.

Meanwhile, you can read more about Creative Commons here, and support its response to the ASCAP campaign here.


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williamdoust   5 minutes ago (11:23 AM)
I can't believe ASCAP doesn't get CC !!! it's about adding choice and flexibility to your portfolio of content - what ever route you wish to take.
stretta   10:45 AM on 7/14/2010
Creative Commons strengthens Copyright.

Prior to Creative Commons, there was no alternative for artists to signal their intentions to other artists. The default, even without registering your work, is All Rights Reserved. Therefore, in today's remixing world, this gives people an excuse to second guess artist's intentions. Creative Commons removes that excuse.

With the option of Creative Commons, the intent of the artist is always crystal clear. All Rights Reserved means All Rights Reserved. Thank you Lawrence for everything you've done and everything you're doing. Creative Commons is a powerful tool for creators.
Pkamp2   09:27 PM on 7/13/2010
Not sure why ASCAP thinks that Creative Commons is such a threat to them. Regardless, I do not think they can stop the inevitable march toward the simplicity that Creative Commons enables in licensing.
tone711   09:52 AM on 7/13/2010
If you do sing a song in at a public event, don't forget to pay the performance fee!
Jonathan Ewald   12:09 PM on 7/13/2010
That has nothing to do with Creative Commons.

Creative Commons is a licensing system for those musicians and artists (like myself) who do not want/need money from our art, but keeps others like ASCAP and individuals from making money off of what I do.

See, let's say you want to play a song that is licensd thru Creative Commons at whatever public event. As long as you give credit and don't repackage and sell that song yourself, you are fine.

No, ASCAP is freaking out because making and distributing OUR OWN music has become a lot easier to do without the involvement of the recording industry, including ASCAP and BMI and others. It used to be that if I wanted to make my own recording, I'd have to pay for a studio to record and edit and master my music, have to pay ASCAP or others to license it, have to pay CDBaby or others to make the media (CD), and have to pay a label to distribute and sell it. All of that has changed in less than a decade: I don't need a studio, I can record in my basement on my laptop and get as high quality. I also don't need to pay recording engineers to run the equipment, edit the recordings, or master the finished produkt. I don't have to make CDs, I just burn mp3s. I don't need to pay a label to distribute my music, I just put it on the web...
Jonathan Ewald   12:13 PM on 7/13/2010
...More pertainently, I don't have to pay ASCAP to license my music and collect usage fees and royalties. I can do it myself thru Creative Commons... and since I don't need usage fees or royalties collected, it works out wells as a simple protection.

ASCAP's case is bu11$h!t. It's a play to try to smear Creative Commons, Copyleft, etc with the hope that this will boost revenue to ASCAP... which incidentally will never ever be seen by any of the so-called "artists" involved; any increased revenue will most certainly go to lawyers and executives, those same exact figures who are completely ancillary and removed from any sort of creative process.

Nick Terzo   08:49 AM on 7/13/2010
Remember, Larry, same organization that withdrew support for my conference unless I threw you under the bus as our keynote speaker.

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