What Information Wants
by James Patrick Kelly
* * *
I believe that the first time I mentioned Creative Commons (CC) https://creativecommons.org/faq/ here was in the February 2005 installment, entitled “Afraid of the Darknet.” Those were sunnier times for the internet, when all was play and promise and the darker shadows of social media had yet to cloud its future. Creative Commons, if you haven’t heard, is a non-profit organization of the copyleft movement https://copyleft.org, which seeks to make information more accessible by bringing it into the public domain, or commons. It offers an alternative to copyright, which reserves all uses of information to whoever owns it. Note that under copyright, those who create information do not always own it, as when Michael Jackson bought the rights to the Beatles songbook https://www.biography.com/news/michael-jackson-paul-mccartney-beatles-music-catalog. Later Sony bought those rights from Jackson’s estate.
Using a series of licenses https://choosealicense.com, CC allows owners to grant various usage rights to anyone who wants them. It’s a way for a writer/owner like me to post stories on my website http://www.jimkelly.net that you can read online or download to your computer or even send to your cousin in Kalamazoo. I use a couple of CC licenses. Most of the files on my website are covered by the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/ license. This means you might use the text of my October 2014 Asimov’s story “Uncanny” http://www.jimkelly.net/stories#/uncanny posted on my site as you see fit, provided that you attribute it to me (Attribution) and don’t charge anyone (Non-Commercial) for what you do with it. You can even modify it, say by recording it in audio or translating it into Italian or making a short film (Share Alike), as long as you attribute and don’t charge. I’m more restrictive with the audio of my short novel King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats http://www.jimkelly.net/king-of-the-dogs-queen-of-the-cats-1, which has an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/. Under this license you can listen to and share the reading but you can’t alter it (NoDerivs), in part because there is another creator involved, my friend and narrator Stefan Rudnicki https://skyboatmedia.com/the-golden-voice/.
* * *
Does this strike you as complicated? Me too! But nobody said it would be easy to unwind copyright, which in its current state fences in so much of our shared cultural landscape. The problems with copyright have been exposed by the digital revolution, which exploits the internet as the world’s most ruthless copy machine. Way back in 1984, Stewart Brand http://sb.longnow.org/SB_homepage/Home.html famously told us that information wants to be free. (Jim’s note: what he actually said was “Information almost wants to be free.” Hear him say it in this amazing video of a historic conversation https://www.gettyimages.in/detail/video/at-the-first-hackers-conference-in-1984-steve-wozniak-and-news-footage/146496695 between Brand and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak http://woz.org).
Aside from anthropomorphizing an abstract concept, the economics of “information wants to be free” are kind of wonky. How, for example, do we account for the cost of creating information? Dazzled by dreams of a post-scarcity virtual utopia, early netizens (like me) were busy handwaving such problems away. Does anyone remember that back in the day, the online version of the New York Times was free, subsidized by the print version? But who wanted to pay for molecules when pixels were free, especially when newspaper ad revenues were following readers online? When the Times went behind a paywall in 2011, some said it would never work https://boingboing.net/2011/03/17/new-york-times-paywa.html. As it turned out, the Times has flourished, even as both the print and online versions of other newspapers withered. And here in our own genre, “free” online ’zines continue to put economic pressure on print ’zines like Asimov’s and Analog.
But there is no going back to the good old days of publishing. We have all become too accustomed to accessing the amazing bounty of the net without opening our wallets. For content creators and information wranglers, there has to be some way to mitigate the corrosive nature of “free” on the markets that pay us for our work. The CC licenses are a tool to give some rights away while retaining others. As I type this there are some 1.6 billion works licensed under CC.
Of course, this is not the way I was brought up as a young writer. The notion of giving stories away for free was anathema. Might exposure to some free fiction prompt readers to pay for others? The common wisdom was something like, “What do you mean, work for exposure? Don’t you know that people die from exposure all the time?” I remember the late Harlan Ellison http://harlanellison.com scolding those who of us who dared betray the fellowship of SF writers by giving our stories away, as in his famous and profane rant “Pay the Writer” https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=mj5IV23g-fE. But although exposure doesn’t pay the bills, accessibility is an important part of a career these days—in SF or any creative endeavor. In order to meet the challenge of ubiquitous free content, some have turned to crowdfunding to supplement traditional income sources. And readers have responded as nimble writers have sought to supplement their earnings on familiar platforms such as GoFundMe https://www.gofundme.com Indiegogo https://www.indiegogo.com and Kickstarter https://www.kickstarter.com. Patreon https://www.patreon.com is the particular favorite of many of my writing pals.
* * *
After I’d plastered my website with various CC licenses, my attention wandered to newer, shinier digital innovations. So I missed the launch of the Creative Commons Zero Public Domain Dedication CC0 1.0 https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/ in 2009. Anyone who dedicates a work using CC0 relinquishes all their copyright and related rights, allowing anyone to use it for free. This includes copying and changing it, either commercially or not.
The public domain https://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/public-domain/welcome/ is so misunderstood, manipulated, and often disregarded in these modern times. You probably know that when the copyright term on a work runs out, it passes into public domain. Over the years, there have been many “readjustments” to the length of that term. Once upon a time (1909), copyright began on publication and ran for twenty-eight years, with an option to renew for another twenty-eight. When these terms ran out, the work would “fall” into public domain, where it could be used by anyone any way they wanted. This is why you can publish a sequel to The War of the Worlds http://sfreviews.net/wotw.html from the viewpoint of the Martians or team up Oz’s Scarecrow with Wonderland’s Mad Hatter to solve crimes. But in the 1970s, with 1928’s Mickey Mouse http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1859935,00.html teetering perilously on a cliff above the dreaded public domain chasm, Disney (lobbied) sprinkled Congress with fairy dust https://alj.artrepreneur.com/mickey-mouse-keeps-changing-copyright-law/ —not once, but twice—with the result that you will have to wait until 2023 to mess with the Mouse.
Other than falling into public domain, how else can work be “freed”? Before 1988, if you published it without copyright, it would automatically be in public domain. But after the Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berne_Convention_Implementation_Act_of_1988, all works are by default copyright protected. This is why I keep telling beginning writers that they don’t have to worry about anyone stealing their unpublished high fantasy decalogy and claiming it for their own. These days, in order to put work, either new or existing, into public domain, you might announce that you are doing so through an anti-copyright notice https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-copyright_notice. But the problem is that the public domain is a nebulous concept legally and not universally accepted. And just where do you file your anti-copyright notice? Which is why Creative Commons Zero was . . . well—created. This may sound like a distinction without a difference, but CC0 is a rights waiver and makes no claims to be an irrevocable release into the public domain. (Jim’s note: there are quiddities of the law involved here that are way above my pay grade to explain.)
* * *
Several years ago as I clicked around the net looking for column fodder I began to notice a number of links to amazing giveaways. For instance, this: Metropolitan Museum Initiative Provides Free Access to 400,000 Digital Images https://www.metmuseum.org/press/news/2014/oasc-access. And this: Smithsonian Open Access https://www.si.edu/openaccess. And here’s another: The Rijksmuseum Open Data Policy https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/data/policy. These caught my attention mostly because I’m a museum fan; rarely do I visit a city without a tour through its art showcase. This should have tipped me off to what I was missing about Creative Commons Zero, but I didn’t make the connection until I started writing this column. Come to discover that all sorts of institutions are making some or all of their image collections available under CC0 licenses. To double back to those links, this means that you can use El Greco’s spooky and surreal View of Toledo https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436575 from the Met as the cover for your next horror novel or 3D print a dozen copies of the Smithsonian’s Life Mask of Abraham Lincoln https://3d.si.edu/object/3d/abraham-lincoln:2b4a081a-9ea1-4b0c-b1c3-6f5389da3244 (circa 1860, sans beard) for your friends or make Rembrandt’s The Night Watch https://www.rijks museum.nl/en/rijksstudio/works-of-art/masterpieces/objects#/SK-C-5,1 into oven mitts—only please don’t do that! The list of museums and galleries that have adopted the open access model http://creativelawcenter.com/museums-open-access-images/ continues to grow, in this country mostly, more slowly in Europe. Great Britain is one notable holdout; the British Museum continues to claim copyright of its hoard https://www.britishmuseum.org/terms-use/copyright-and-permissions. One way to find CC0 content is on the CC Search site https://search.creativecommons.org. You can also click to see the many image collections offering this free content. They include not only museums but also many other websites containing files released under a mix of CC licenses, like the World Register of Marine Species http://marinespecies.org (23,716 images), Flickr https://www.flickr.com (349,021,635 images), Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page (23,749,024 images), Flora-on https://flora-on.pt (55,010 images), and the very cool SVG SILH https://svgsilh.com (276,966 images), to name just five.
* * *
I’m giving the final word here to my friend and digital guru, Cory Doctorow https://craphound.com. In a 2010 essay, Saying information wants to be free does more harm than good https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2010/may/18/information-wants-to-be-free, he lays out the goals of those who believe in copyright reform for the digital age, goals that I share. “IWTBF has an elegant compactness and a mischievous play on the double-meaning of ‘free,’ but it does more harm than good these days. Better to say, ‘The internet wants to be free.’ Or, more simply, ‘People want to be f
Copyright © 2020 James Patrick Kelly