May 22, 2005 · Lessig
Last December, Billboard published a piece by its legal affairs editor, Susan Butler. The piece opened with a quote from Michael Sukin, “founding member of the International Association of Entertainment Lawyers,” saying that Creative Commons had emerged as a “serious threat to the entertainment industry.” The piece then asserted:
The nonprofit organization–also known as Creative Commons–urges creators to give up their copyright protection–which lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years under U.S. law–by selling their copyrights to the commons for $1,according to its Web site. In return, the authors receive certain rights that they can use for either 14 or 28 years, or they can donate all rights to the pubic domain for everyone to use.
The “movement,” Sukin stated, had “spread like a virus” and “U.S. copyright income” could be at risk.
The hyperbole from Mr. Sukin — a lawyer — was funny. But what struck me in the article was the assertion by Butler that “Creative Commons urges creators to give up their copyright protection” in exchange for $1. I couldn’t begin to understand what she was talking about. Obviously, our licenses enable artists to choose to waive certain rights — while retaining others. (Remember: “Some Rights Reserved”). But they are licenses of a copyright; they couldn’t function if you had “give[n] up” copyright protection. The vast majority of creators adopting Creative Commons licenses keep commercial rights, while giving away noncommercial rights (2/3ds). It’s hard to see how waiving noncommercial rights would do anything to “U.S. copyright income.”
So I contacted Butler to ask her what she was talking about. We connected over email, and she said she’d check into it. She then pointed me to the Founders’ Copyright, which indeed does offer $1 in exchange for someone limiting a copyright to 14, or 28 years. I had frankly forgotten about the way the Founders’ Copyright functioned, mainly because nothing we do today has anything to do with that license, as Evan pointed out in his birthday wish for the still-born license. As far as I knew at that point, precisely 3 works have been licensed under this license (my own books). O’Reilly is processing more. But to describe the work of Creative Commons as this is either to listen to Mr. Sukin without checking the facts, or not to care about the facts. You could say, for example, that Billboard is a publication that publishes letters to the editor, and that would technically be true. But obviously, though technically true, it would be a totally false characterization of what Billboard is.
I therefore suggested the story should be corrected. It wasn’t. Instead, a month or so ago, we learned that the same writer had been assigned to write an “indepth” story about Creative Commons. I thought the idea a bit odd. I raised its oddness to the magazine. According to their standards of truth, what Susan Butler had published before was correct. They were confident that she would produce the same again.
That, of course, was my fear as well.
The Billboard piece is beautifully written — indeed, it has a cadence to it that is masterful. There’s a tide — in and out — of good, crested with criticism, all building to the part that got Matt so angry — as he put it, the suggestion that Creative Commons “kills people with AIDS.”
Yet it’s very interesting to map the structure of the argument. The piece has some quotes from me, and Hal Abelson in support. It quotes two people opposed. One of the two is Mr. Sukin again. The other is David Israelite, president of the National Music Publishers’ Association.
Israelite doesn’t actually say any about us. He’s worried about the people we hang around with. As he says,
“My concern is that many who support Creative Commons also support a point of view that would take away people’s choices about what to do with their own property.”
And later, Butler reports,
“Israelite says that often when people give away their own property under a Creative Commons license, ‘it is really an argument why others should be forced to give away their property.’”
I love it when people tell me what my argument “really” is. The whole premise of Creative Commons is that artists choose. We give licenses to creators. How exactly empowering creators is “really an argument why others should be forced to give away their property” is bizarre to me. By this reasoning, when Bill Gates give $20,000,000,000 to help poor people around the world, that’s an argument for socialism.
Sukin’s criticism is even more bizarre. Butler quotes him as saying “Lessig and his followers advocate a shorter copyright term.” The link this point has to Creative Commons is left obscure by the author. The RIAA believes it is appropriate to sue kids for downloading music. They’re supporters of Creative Commons. Does it follow that Creative Commons supports suing kids for downloading music? There are a wide range of supporters of Creative Commons, many of whom disagree about many matters fundamental. I should think that’s a virtue of Creative Commons, not a vice.
There is one part to the piece, however, that does bothered. Not the dramatic flair at the end (this is Hollywood, remember. What would a story be without a villain killing a victim with AIDS in the end). The extraordinary part to me was the following:
The brief, which proposed affirming the appellate decision against RIAA and MPAA members, described the Creative Commons as a group with an award-winning project endorsed by many, including ex-RIAA chief Rosen and former MPAA leader Jack Valenti. It also listed as supporters the artists whose music was on the Wired CD.
The piece then goes on to describe an apparent conversation that Butler had with Rosen, in which Rosen apparently objected to how she understood how her name was used. The reporter thus becomes actor, stirring up a controversy about whether the target of her piece has misbehaved.
Here’s the brief. As you’ll see when you read it, we mention Rosen and Valenti in the section titled “Interest of Amicus” — a part of an Amicus brief which explains who the organization filing the brief is. What we say is this:
“The project has been endorsed by former MPAA president Jack Valenti, and by former president of the RIAA Hilary Rosen.”
No where in the brief do we suggest that Rosen or Valenti supported the argument we make in the brief. What we assert is that they endorsed the “project” — which they have.
More extraordinary is the statement about the artists who were on the Wired CD. Again, here’s what Butler wrote:
“[The brief] also listed as supporters the artists whose music was on the Wired CD.”
Here’s what the brief says:
“As part of a feature about Creative Commons, Wired magazine has released a CD with 16 tracks licensed under a Creative Commons license by artists including, among others, the Beastie Boys, David Byrne, Gilberto Gil, Chuck D, and Le Tigre.”
Notice, the brief says nothing about the artists being “supporters” of Creative Commons. It simply lists who was on the CD. Butler’s statement — that we listed them “as supporters” — is just false.
Now you might think, well, cut her a break. She’s just a journalist writing for Billboard. But again and again, Butler reminded me that she had in fact been a practicing lawyer. Her editors indicated the same. So I don’t quite know how to understand a lawyer who can’t read an amicus brief — or for that matter, a lawyer who doesn’t know the difference between putting something “into the public domain” and licensing it. These could well just be mistakes, of course. But they are surprising from someone with the experience she has.
The fair criticism of the article is that we don’t do enough to warn people, or to push them to consult a lawyer first. That’s a good point, and we’re thinking about ways to enable referrals, and to do more than we already do to educate. Help here would be greatly appreciated.
It’s also true, as Butler says, that there’s a “blurring” between Creative Commons and the views of people like me (though my view of course is far from the view criticized by Israelite). I’d love — really really love — to find someone to replace me who might erase such a blur. I am not Creative Commons. It was not my idea. I am just devoting as much time as I can to push its message, and the tools it enables. I’d be very happy to find a way to spend less.
My favorite part of the article is the quote from Cary Sherman at the RIAA. God bless that man. As he is quoted,
“If a creator wants to dedicate his work to the world or wants to allow others to use it with the promise to credit the author, there has been no mechanism in place to provide public notice,” RIAA president Cary Sherman says. “The Commons approach would basically solve this problem.”
Exactly right. We’re giving artists free tools. What they do with them is their choice. There are many who believe, as Butler quotes Andy Fraser to say, that “[n]o one should let artists give up their rights.” “Let.” Read that word again: “let.”
In my view, it is the artists who have the rights. And no one should take the role of deciding what we “let” artists do. Neither should anyone interfere with artists doing what they think best. Of course, and again, education is key. No one should be tricked. No one should waive rights without understanding what their doing. But neither should anyone think themselves entitled to wage war against artists doing what artists choose. Or if they do want to wage such a war, then let’s at least be open about the paternalism in the position. If we’re not going to “let” artists select Creative Commons licenses, then are we going to “let” them sign recording deals? Because I promise you this: there are many many more artists who are upset with their recording deals than with the spread they’ve enabled using Creative Commons licenses.
Butler’s first article stated that Mr. Sukin is “lobbying” against Creative Commons. It’s time we have an open conversation, Mr. Sukin. I challenge you to the sort of duel decent people engage: a debate. Let’s let both sides be heard, and let’s then “let” the artists decide.