The Creative Commons Debate

This post is a response to a comment made on my last post, in which I requested that readers respect my Copyright. The commenter responded with a discussion about Creative Commons, and how it is the wave of the future for writers and creatives to share their work freely. I want to be clear that I fully support Creative Commons as an idea that may be appropriate and useful for some people. However, the commenter called those of us who protect our traditional, copyright-based intellectual property old-fashioned, locked down, on the losing side of history, and implied  that we were somehow selfish for not making our decades of work and training available for free to the entire world. The commenter thinks royalty-free shared content is the wave of the future. I’m thinking — not so fast, buckaroo.

Dear Commenter: Yes, the writing and publishing worlds are changing drastically, but I’ll wait a while yet before I start to worry about my writing income drying up. The death of publishing has been announced every year since I started in this biz more than three decades ago. The old nag still has some miles in her.

Of course, things are changing. I’m seeing huge new opportunities for creatives to take control of their work. I’m definitely seeing a more challenging financial environment, especially for newcomers. I’m seeing lots of free (and royalty-free) content. What I am NOT seeing is a high volume (exceptions exist) of marketable, high-quality, royalty-free content. And of course, some of what looks free isn’t: Just because a writer isn’t being paid by someone to write doesn’t mean there is no economic value to the endeavor.

For example, writers might be supported by grants, advertising, commercial interests, affiliate product sales, etc., or might be looking to build a public relations platform, develop a loss leader to drum up business, or build an academic reputation. It’s easy for those folks to give their stuff away. Indeed, professors have always “given” their writing away (to academic journals and the like). Their money comes from elsewhere; “giving away” their academic journal articles helps them get that money.

And MUCH of what is truly free is free because there isn’t much value in it, commercial or otherwise. (Of course, there are exceptions; there always are.) No one seems to want to pay for your newest creation, but you want to get it out there? Put it up for free. Throw it at the wall. See what sticks.

Lots of people sit on the sidelines and boo and hiss at those who “sell out” but I have this nagging little feeling that those boos and hisses are as much about jealousy and frustration as they are the result of some high minded idealism. Here’s a little test: Try waving a nice book publishing or recording contract check in front those folks and see how quickly how many of them jump ship! All that rhetoric about being on the right side of history and the moral benefits of Creative Commons, and sharing and creative community — it all goes out the window with a big enough check.

It’s a lot like what we see with self-publishing and the writers — usually those who haven’t yet found a traditional publisher — who extol its virtues. They put an e-book out, maybe distribute it for a low cost or for free; maybe one in a hundred has some modest success. Now let’s say a traditional publisher takes notice: I mean, really, how many creative types would say, “Well, no thank you, Random House, I really don’t want that six-figure advance; I’ll just stay with the self-publishing thing/Creative Commons deal and give my work away for the good of humanity if you don’t mind.”? Yes, there may be some outliers — idealists, rebels, free-thinkers, visionaries — who would turn up their noses at a nice sized publishing deal but as a rule? I’m thinking they’re signing those contracts as fast as they can find a traditional, moribund, lost-in-the-tides-of-history, low-tech pen.

I’m as excited about self-publishing and independent music production as the next guy, because it will work for my projects that DON’T work for traditional publishers. But am I giving up on traditional publishers? Hell, no!

I still BUY books and music because much of the good stuff I want isn’t free. Also, I believe in supporting the artists who create good work. So I put my money where my mouth is, so to speak: I buy CDs (yes, CDs — I’m THAT old fashioned) by local musicians (sometimes I buy even if I am not that wild about those musicians), and I buy books by local writers and art by local photographers.

Don’t get me wrong: I think there’s a lot of value in Creative Commons. I don’t doubt that a few people who are giving away work for free are giving away work of real value. Many fine younger artists are taking this path to get the word out, and the cross pollination and energy of an exchange of ideas creates an incredible synergy. But let’s be realistic: Do we really think that these people don’t want to be paid for their work? Giving it away is often simply a matter of creating a long-term marketing and career development plan.

It is, however, getting more difficult to break into the arena of the creative fields where people pay you upfront for your work. The barriers to entry are as high as I’ve ever seen them. In a sense, that’s where the free stuff comes in: People put their stuff out on creative commons or on free sites or for low prices and just try to get noticed. Then they move up to monetizing. OR they become hobbyists. OR find another way to support themselves. OR marry rich. Those are the choices.

The financial models, technology, and distribution channels are changing, yes. The financial situation, in particular, is challenging: Monetizing the Internet is a difficult endeavor, and traditional outlets are hemorrhaging money, advertisers, and readers. But traditional copyright-protected, royalty based work isn’t going anywhere: The last music book contract I looked at (that was last week) had a clause about “all rights in all technologies now or yet to be invented in the universe or any universes yet to be discovered” — or something pretty close to that, and I am not exaggerating. They are grabbing those rights because intellectual property still has VALUE. 

The good stuff floats to the top, which is where the money is. There is still demand for good creative work that people will pay for — just like they pay for TV, even though there is “free TV.” (I think — I don’t actually have TV reception in my house, so I don’t know — there still IS free TV, right?)

People — at least SOME people — still want quality. And there lies the hope for those who want to monetize creative careers. I take issue with the contention that crowd-sourced material is as good as anything out there that people have to pay for. I won’t argue about the perception of the value of anyone’s work in particular — as I have said, there are always exceptions. I WILL say that much crowd-sourced royalty-free material is crap, and even when there are golden nuggets in it, it is difficult to wade through because of the noise to signal ratio. I can tell a self-published book at sight. I barely even have to open it to know it hasn’t been properly developed, designed, edited, and proofread. Same with many self-produced, self-recorded, self-mastered, self-engineered CDs. (Of course, a lot of stuff you pay for is crap, too; worse, a lot of people today can’t tell and don’t care.)

So intellectual gatekeeping is also in a process of change: How that shakes out in the future will also determine what is available for free — and who pays for what.

I don’t object to the Creative Commons concept at all: I can see where it can make sense and where it can produce some good stuff. It addresses some HUGE flaws in our current Copyright system. It can give beginners some experience getting their work out and talked about; it can share ideas from thought leaders who are monetized in other ways (universities, think tanks, etc.) It may indeed be (and I hope it is) a wave of the future — but I do not think it will be the only wave.

What it is is a CHOICE. Both Creative Commons licenses and traditional copyrights have a role to play in the new digital intellectual marketplace. One is not ethically superior. One is not moribund and dying. One is not lame-brained and naive. One is not hard-hearted and selfish. It is the creator’s choice to use one or the other, or both. And that is the most important thing of all.

4 thoughts on “The Creative Commons Debate”

  1. Karen, I felt like writing more, and I sincerely hope you take this only as a respectful and valuable intellectual discussion. I mean in no way to mock or belittle your views, only to address them fairly and philosophically. This is a very significant issue in the world of teaching and writing, of course.

    To summarize/clarify:

    The world would be better off if we paid you to write your articles and release them as Creative Commons than if we pay you and let you keep your absolute copyright control. I’m not against you getting paid. If we look at what is in the public interest, the answer is simply: the reasonable minimum that gets valuable creative works to be made. Once incentives (including some level of copyright controls) are enough to support creative works, any further restrictions on access and use are purely in opposition to the public good. It is good for music teachers, good for music students, and good for society as a whole to be able to take ideas like your article and copy, alter, and improve them. We just need to give you adequate respect and compensation somehow. The idea of copyright as a fundamental right of authors is baseless. It exists only as one means to achieve the goal of encouraging valuable creation.

    I’m not suggesting anyone violate the law or your wishes. What I’m really suggesting is that we acknowledge these issues and see them fairly. You could still insist on defending your copyright while admitting that it is an imperfect and flawed solution, rather than implying that it is a black and white issue of fundamental rights, right and wrong, and property etc. It’s just very complex, of course. Surely you wouldn’t actually suggest that any of your ideas in the article in question were fundamentally original, right? Only the precise wording and collection. The idea of “intellectual property” is totally problematic.

    The reason people should respect your wishes in this case are because:
    •they fall in line with current legal standards (though legal does not necessarily mean ethical)
    •there are Creative Commons resources as alternatives from authors who have granted more permissive use of their work
    •we haven’t yet figured out an optimal, reliable compensation model for authors contributing to Creative Commons, so you can’t be blamed for defending your income as part of the traditional publishing world

  2. Well, when someone starts paying for all this, you can get back in touch.

    Although I very much doubt I am ever going to be willing to allow my work to be amended and “improved” by random people in a crowd. (Not that it can’t be improved — and not that improvements and great suggestions can’t come from the crowd, but any improvements are going to be under my control. Sorry, but that is where you and I are simply not going to see eye to eye. You want to write a better article, do it. Use mine as a source. Or use it as an example of what NOT to do. Quote from it (within the limits of Fair Use). Critique it all you want. Post comments till your fingers fall off. But changing it? Adding stuff? “Improving it” — forget about it.)

    In the meantime, I will retreat to my moribund traditionalism and put the food on the table that my creative efforts have helped to pay for.

    And Aaron, no offense, but I think we’ve beaten this horse into the ground. My readers are interested in other topics than this one, which started, as you recall, with a simple request not to reprint my content without permission. It’s a valuable topic, but for the purposes of this blog, it’s finished.

    (I might take it up again on my blog, where a more indepth discussion would be more valued by the readers there; tell you what: When and if I do that, I’ll send you a note and you can post all you like. Maybe we’ll even do a debate, if you can lose the “I’m on the ethical highground” here thing.)

    Anything further, you might want to post on your own blog.

  3. Thanks, Karen. To be honest, I think what really happened is I confused your two blogs… I forgot about the distinction as I was just perusing my misc reading. Sorry about that. Respectfully, Aaron

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