On copyright, copyfleft and Creative Commons

I was contacted by Occupied Times (the newspaper of the Occupy Movement) for a piece about my book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people, and the campaigning I have done with disability organisations to raise our concerns about the way in which both the Government and the media discuss disability benefit cuts. All well and good – I was happy to write them a free article, as this is a subject close to my heart. I sent it off, with the usual sign-off that it was under copyright to me – particularly important if I wasn’t getting paid and might want to re-use in the future.

The editorial team loved the article, but there was a catch – they wanted it published under a Creative Commons licence. They said that to publish copyrighted work was against their principles – they only accept work that is ‘copyleft’. They added that the OT did not offer payment, but nor did it seek to acquire copyright, and it would respect the author’s moral rights of ‘integrity’ and ‘paternity’.

There’s a historical irony here. Occupy’s most famous London camp was near St Paul’s Churchyard, the birthplace of what we would probably call campaigning journalism today. In the late 18th Century, publishers, authors and booksellers clustered around the very area where the camp was. Ironically, then, radical publishers paid their pamphleteers and authors. Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, was funded almost exclusively by her radical publisher, Joseph Johnson. He believed in paying radical writers so they could keep writing. We have gone backwards since then.

Having seen so many of my friends, musicians and photographers, struggle as their work has been pirated and stolen over the internet and having read about the widespread fight amongst authors to protect copyright, I said I wasn’t happy with this. I read about the six different ‘licences’ for Creative Commons on the internet, and this emerging ‘copyleft principle’, and decided to pull the article from publication. As far as I am concerned, copyright protects journalists, authors and so on from people stealing hard-won ideas and work. I don’t see anything unprincipled in being paid for my work, or protecting it so I can be paid for it in the future. After all, I’ve written and campaigned on disability hate crime for five years on a low wage. Am I over-reacting, or is Creative Commons a licence, really, to publish other people’s work in a form where it can then be, and often is, stolen by unscrupulous plaigirists? I prefer copyright – it’s straightforward and assigns ownership to the right person – the author. Creative Commons is complex, murky and open to abuse, in my view.

Comments please – really interested in hearing both sides of this argument!

NOTE: Creative Commons licences vary but broadly speaking they permit any reader to re-use the work as the reader pleases, generally only for uncommercial purposes, and as long as its author’s moral rights are respected.

2 thoughts on “On copyright, copyfleft and Creative Commons”

  1. There are different creative commons licences that require different things. In general, creative commons is a way to spread information as easily as possible for the benefit of everybody. This does not exclude getting paid. However, it sets the parameters how the work can be shared or distributed (i.e. only non-commercial, attribution required, share-alike meaning any modified work must be shared in the same way etc). All other rights (except of the ones granted by the licence) remain with the author.

    If a non-comercial creative commons licence is chosen, nobody else is allowed to profit from any sharing or distribution of the work. If they want to do so, they have to obtain a different licence from the author like with royalities or other renumeration in oder to do so.

    So, no… creative commons is not a free for all. It has a particular purpose. It can through attribution requirement create publicity for an author that maybe is otherwise not available and lead to indirect income opportunities.

    Cory Doctorow publishes novels under creative commons and still makes a good living off his works, hence showing the usage of creative commons can be a good alternative business model.

    Does this work for everybody? Probably not. In the same way traditional ways of publishing did not work for everybody. It is a new way of doing things that for a lot of things work very well. In particular for works which are created collaboratively and which main purpose is the easy framework of collaboration and easy distribution (one example is documentation for open source projects).

    If it does not work for you, use other forms of licences. However, I think it is a very misguided view to think that creative commons is encouraging piracy. In fact, it does the opposite, it encourages instead of breaking the law by illegally infringing copyright. It allows to put sharing and collaboration into a legal framework were the current IP laws otherwisse are not sufficient and the operation of a different licencing scheme is not feasible.

    Also remember, that copyright is not a very old principle. All the classical works (literature as well as music and art) have been created in a world without copyright. This did not mean that creators were not paid. Copyright enforcement is not the only way of making a living, hence I also object to the notion that anybody who uses creative commons or sees it as a good idea is against the fair payment of creators or artists. It is just an alternative business model, and/or an good framework for works that are meant to be shared as easy as possible.

  2. I find it interesting that the people who favor Creative Commons are either employed in another field (technology, for example) or are tenured professors. Cory Doctorow is always brought up as proof that writers can make a good living without copyright protection, and that in itself convinces that we (writers in general) cannot – if it were possible, there’d be a lot richer pool of examples.

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