February 26, 2005 · Lessig
Bill Thompson calls himself a critical friend of Creative Commons, which in my world, is the only kind of friend one wants. But I can’t escape thinking we’re having an argument when there’s nothing to argue about (again, a common feature of the very best of friends).
Bill believes in moral rights. He thinks Creative Commons doesn’t. Or more precisely, he thinks Creative Commons the collective, or me the individual, doesn’t “care” or “understand” moral rights. Instead, he thinks we think copyright “is simply an economic matter.” That is “US hegemony,” Bill insists (please put that word on the list of eliminated words when the revolution comes), which neither he, nor anyone, should “accept.”
As someone who has been strongly criticized for strongly criticizing the US (even on foreign soil no less!) I’m all for eliminating US “hegemony.” But there’s just a simple misunderstanding here that we (CC) needs to do a better job addressing.
Creative Commons offers free copyright licenses to artists and creators. The purpose of the license is to enable the artist or creator to mark his or her copyrighted work with the freedom he or she intends the work to carry. Those “freedoms” are the exclusive rights that copyright grants the copyright holder which the law permits the copyright holder to waive. The design of the system is to be automatic. No contract, or meeting of the minds, is intended. It is simply a license that says “if you use my copyrighted work in ways that would otherwise infringe my exclusive rights, I won’t sue you if you have abided by this license.” (The law makes everything ugly, but anyway, that’s what it does.)
Moral rights — which are not “European” but in fact common to the US/UK tradition and the European tradition (in our tradition, they are called “author’s rights,” and the great text on this is Lyman Ray Patterson’s Copyright in Historical Perspective) — don’t admit of such easy manipulation. In many jurisdictions that protect moral rights, you can’t just automatically give away the moral right, without knowing something about how, or in what context, the work is to be used. For those jurisdictions then, a Creative Commons-like mechanism just wouldn’t work. Such a mechanism couldn’t succeed, in other words, in effecting an agreement about such moral rights. Creative Commons is a hammer. This is glass blowing.
So our response to these jurisdictions is simple: we don’t purport to affect the moral rights at all. They are left as they would be, because our tool can’t effectively do anything about them. Thus, it is not because we don’t “understand” moral rights that we don’t do anything about them. It is instead because we precisely understand that our tool, given the law, can’t do anything about them.
Thus, to say that we think there’s only one tool in the area of copyright and moral rights is, I think, to have it backwards. Those who would criticize Creative Commons for not “solving” the “moral rights problem” are the ones who think there is only one tool. We’re the first to admit that we have a hammer, and you need a glass blower, so please don’t consider our tool to be the tool you need if negotiating, or respecting, or understanding, moral rights is your objective.
Now this isn’t the case in every jurisdiction that protects moral rights. The contours of the law are different in different countries. Thus in some countries, we have been able to craft the license to give the author the power to grant both copyrights and moral rights. But in strong moral rights jurisdictions, that simple is not possible using the device we have crafted.
So again, I don’t see how this is us “dismissing” moral rights. (Does aspirin dismiss cancer just because it can’t cure it?) And I don’t see how narrowing our focus means we don’t “care” about moral rights, if indeed you believe that a tool such as ours can’t, in some jurisdictions at least, do anything about moral rights.
And finally, I don’t see where I’ve ever said anything against moral rights. No doubt, they restrict the freedom of authors — at least those authors who would like a simple way to alienate the rights. So too does the ban on slavery restrict the freedom of workers — but you wouldn’t think I support slavery just because I remark this obvious fact, would you? Indeed, in many contexts where I’ve been asked, I’ve said that the moral rights tradition has actually proven to be an important check on the power of publishers — something we’ve forgotten in our own tradition. But none of that is to criticize, or to advise that countries change their law.
So yes, Creative Commons will not, at least in some jurisdictions, deal with moral rights. Nor will it cure cancer or end poverty. But if it is unclear to anyone, let’s be clear about it: We don’t therefore not “care” about cancer or poverty. We don’t therefore “dismiss” those problems. We just understand — as everyone should — that the tools we’re spreading can only do so much.
Finally, about Bill’s claim that I think that copyright, as distinct from moral rights, “is simply an economic matter.” I’m sure Bill got this from one of our conversations. He’s a careful journalist (unlike the journalists he associates with). But I must not have made my point clearly, because the sense in which he offers the statement is different from what I mean. I do believe that “copyright” is “simply an economic matter” — meaning that the rights originally protected by copyright were protected for economic reasons. That again does not deny that there are other rights — read Patterson to see the rich set of “author rights” that existed at the time of our Founding. I wouldn’t say that were simply “an economic matter.”
But I do believe that copyright was about economics. And I continue to believe copyright is important, primarily for economic reasons. But that again is precisely why we wanted to create a simpler copyright, for the many many creators who either are not creating for economic ends, or who believe that control over their creativity is not a necessary means to their economic success.
Free law is the tool we created. A tool to enable people to achieve something at the legal layer, just as iChat enables people to achieve something at the application layer. But as iChat isn’t for everyone, or at least, for everyone for any end, neither is CC. I would not advise Britney to put her music under a CC license. I would advise Gilberto Gil to. Tell me what you’re trying to do, and I’ll tell you whether we’ve got a tool for you. (That’s of course, rhetorical. Please don’t tell me. There are briefs, and filings, and classes, and family that demand the time that answering questions would take.)