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September 15, 2005 Newsletters | RSSxml
March 2003 issue
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Some Rights Reserved
Cyber-law activists devise a set of licenses for sharing creative works
By Gary Stix
Image no longer available. The full versions of this and other articles from the print edition--including all graphics and sidebars--are available for purchase at Scientific American Digital.
In a book published in 2001, Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig decried the threat to the Internet from both large media interests and burgeoning intellectual-property laws. In Lessig's view, the Internet should serve as a commons, a medium that encourages creativity through the exchange of photographs, music, literature, academic treatises, even entire course curricula. Lessig and like-minded law and technology experts have now decided to go beyond making academic arguments to counter the perceived danger.

On December 16, 2002, the nonprofit Creative Commons opened its digital doors to provide, without charge, a series of licenses that enable a copyrighted work to be shared more easily. The licenses attempt to overcome the inherently restrictive nature of copyright law. Under existing rules, a doodle of a lunchtime companion's face on a paper napkin is copyrighted as soon as the budding artist lifts up the pen. No "�" is needed at the bottom of the napkin. All rights are reserved.

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The licenses issued through Creative Commons have changed that. They allow the creator of a work to retain the copyright while stipulating merely "some rights reserved." A user can build a custom license: One option lets the copyright holder specify that a piece of music or an essay can be used for any purpose as long as attribution is given. Another, which can be combined with the first, permits usage for any noncommercial end. Separately, the site offers a document that lets someone's creation be donated to the public domain.

A copyright owner can fill out a simple questionnaire posted on the Creative Commons Web site ( and get an electronic copy of a license. Because a copyright notice (or any modification to one) is optional, no standard method exists for tracking down works to which others can gain access. The Creative Commons license is affixed with electronic tags so that a browser equipped to read a tag--specified in XML, or Extensible Markup Language--can find copyrighted items that fall into the various licensing categories. An aspiring photographer who wants her images noticed could permit shots she took of Ground Zero in Manhattan to be used if she is given credit. A graphic artist assembling a digital collage of September 11 pictures could then do a search on both "Ground Zero" and the Creative Commons tag for an "attribution only" license, which would let the photographer's images be copied and put up on the Web, as long as her name is mentioned.

Lessig and the other cyber-activists who started Creative Commons, which operates out of an office on the Stanford campus, found inspiration in the free-software movement and in previous licensing endeavors such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation's open audio license. The organization is receiving $850,000 from the Center for the Public Domain and $1.2 million over three years from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Some legal pundits will question whether an idea that downplays the profit motive will ever be widely embraced. Creative Commons, however, could help ensure that the Internet remains more than a shopping mall. For his part, Lessig, who last year argued futilely before the U.S. Supreme Court against an extension of the term of existing copyrights, has translated words into action. Now it will be up to scholars, scientists, independent filmmakers and others to show that at least part of their work can be shared and that a commons for creative exchange can become a reality in cyberspace.

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