Ode to the Digital Commons, the Copyright conundrum

Paul Stacey, previously at Creative Commons and now Executive Director of the Open Education Consortium, shares how the digital age fundamentally changes the way cultural and creative industries work in a two-part blog series.

Digital makes it possible for all of us to be creators. With a camera in every phone we’re all photographers. Easy to use digital tools make it possible for us all to explore and develop our talents as writers, designers, printers, musicians, artists, and filmmakers. Being a creator is no longer the exclusive domain of a few. The digital age broadens creative participation to include the many. The number of creative works being produced, whether it be photos, videos, books, music or any other creative medium, has exploded.

In the digital age we are not only media creators we are our own sales, marketing and distribution. Digital tools make it easy for us to share and distribute our creative works. Access to digital works can be given to anyone anywhere. Copies can be easily made. Distribution can be global at the click of a button. The digital age provides a new means of going to market. A more direct means that the creator themselves can control, bypassing traditional gatekeepers.

More than creating and distributing creative works the digital age brings with it a social means for creators to engage with others around their works. Digital makes it possible for others to promote our work through likes, sharing, and reposting. Digital makes it possible for creators to develop a following, an audience. Digital makes it possible to find and collaborate with others in creating new works.

But perhaps the most radical impact of digital is on the economics of how cultural and creative industries work. Digital resources function under different economic rules than physical ones. In a world where prices always seem to go up, digital is an anomaly. Computer-processing power, storage, and bandwidth are all rapidly increasing, but rather than costs going up, costs are coming down. Digital technologies are getting faster, better, and cheaper. The incremental cost of storing, copying, and distributing digital goods is next to zero, making abundance possible. But imagining a market based on abundance rather than scarcity is so alien to the way we conceive of economic theory and practice that we struggle to do so.

As cultural and creative industries go digital they tend to stick to tried and true traditional business models. Typically these models treat digital works the same way as physical goods making them artificially scarce and charging for access and use. But slowly, new models are emerging. Models that take advantage of the digital age, inventing new ways of doing business and earning a living. The book, Made With Creative Commons explores this in-depth and profiles Opendesk as a case study.

The problem with Copyright

Despite the potential for abundance in the digital age, by default digital works are governed by Copyright laws. Under Copyright, a digital work is the property of the creator, and by law others are excluded from accessing and using it without the creator’s permission.

Copyright acts in opposition to what digital enables. Digital makes it possible to copy and distribute creative works freely. Copyright prohibits it. Digital makes it possible for global universal access and use of creative works. Copyright prohibits it. Digital makes it possible to easily modify and adapt works. Copyright prohibits it.

“In essence, copyright hobbles the unique benefits of digital.”

Paul Stacey, Associate Director of Global Learning, Creative Commons

Copyright curtails artistic expression and building off the works of others. Copyright increases costs, limits innovation, and slows advancement of everything from the sciences to the arts. While Copyright ostensibly seeks to protect the rights of creators it does so at the expense of the public and society. Copyright tilts the balance between public benefits vs individual benefits very much toward those of the individual.

By curtailing the benefits inherent in digital, Copyright also limits the potential for new digital markets, new players, new processes, new means of creative participation, production and expression. In the digital age where abundance is possible, Copyright creates artificial scarcity. Copyright keeps power and money in the hands of the few.

But people like to share. One of the ways we define ourselves is by sharing valuable and entertaining content. Doing so grows and nourishes relationships, seeks to change opinions, encourages action, and informs others about who we are and what we care about. Sharing lets us feel more involved with the world. The problem with Copyright, as David Bollier writes is “ Our natural human impulses to imitate and share - the essence of culture - have been criminalised”.

As a result, the public generally ignores Copyright and shares widely and freely. Rather than celebrating and enabling this broad participation in culture and creativity, governments and business have joined forces to try and prohibit it. Copyright durations have been extended. New digital-rights-management technologies in the form of locks, passwords, and controls prevent digital goods from being accessed, changed, replicated, and distributed. These controls are codified into law and offenders punished.

But slowly creators, businesses, and organizations involved in cultural and creative industries are starting to think differently and explore ways of operating that embrace the unique benefits of the digital age rather than hobble them. What if we see copying, distributing, sharing, and remixing as a good thing and allow it? What can I do in the digital model that isn’t possible in the traditional all rights reserved model? How can I use the unique possibilities of the digital age to design a new way of operating that empowers the user to improve on the work I’m sharing and collaborate with me? Going digital involves a complete rethink of all the processes and activities of the value chain including production, marketing, and the provision of service. It entails a different relationship with users and audience.

Read Paul’s second installment - Ode to the Digital Commons, embracing abundance

Words by Paul Stacey
Photography by Josh Worley, Graphics by Opendesk