Creative Commons: The boundaries of intellectual property

By Dwight Deugo

[Ed. Note: Longtime Java Report Editor Dwight Deugo recently reported to us on some of the more stimulating chatter heard at last fall's OOPSLA conference. Although some time has transpired since the actual event, we thought you'd like to hear about it.]

The October 2003 OOPSLA conference featured an opening keynote by Stanford University's Larry Lessig that provided attendees with an inspiring talk outlining the boundaries of protection intellectual property should set. Lessig argued that today's current extremism defeats these limits, creating an environment where creativity is increasingly constrained. He then described Creative Commons (, a non-profit corporation founded on the notion that some people may not want to exercise all of the intellectual property rights the law affords them.

Did you know that everything you create, be it a Web page, doodle, scribble, code or music, is automatically considered copyrighted material -- whether you include the copyright symbol or not? I can only speak for Canada and the U.S., but it wouldn't surprise me if this were the case all over the world. This means that, by default, no one can use your work without asking.

However, at Creative Commons: "We believe there is an unmet demand for an easy yet reliable way to tell the world 'Some rights reserved' or even 'No rights reserved.' Many people have long since concluded that all-out copyright doesn't help them gain the exposure and widespread distribution they want. Many entrepreneurs and artists have come to prefer relying on innovative business models rather than full-fledged copyright to secure a return on their creative investment. Still others get fulfillment from contributing to and participating in an intellectual commons. For whatever reasons, it is clear that many citizens of the Internet want to share their work -- and the power to reuse, modify, and distribute their work -- with others on generous terms. Creative Commons intends to help people express this preference for sharing by offering the world a set of licenses on our Website, at no charge."

The problem is that there is no easy way to announce that you intend to enforce only some of your rights, or none at all. At the same time -- and again, because the copyright notice is optional -- people who want to copy and reuse creative works have no reliable way to identify works available for such uses. Creative Commons wants to provide tools that solve both problems: a set of free public licenses strong enough to withstand a court's scrutiny and simple enough for non-lawyers to use, but yet sophisticated enough to be identified by various Web applications.

Creative Commons offers a set of copyright licenses free of charge. You can use these licenses to help tell the world that your copyrighted works are free for sharing -- but with certain conditions. For example, if you don't mind people copying and distributing your source code as long as they give you credit, there is a license that helps you say so. If you want the world to use an application you built, but don't want them to profit off it without asking, there are licenses to express that preference. At the Creative Commons' Web site, you can find licensing tools that enable you to mix and match such preferences from a menu of the following options:

* Attribution -- Permit others to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work and derivative works based upon it only if they give you credit.

* Noncommercial -- Permit others to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work and derivative works based upon it only for non-commercial purposes.

* No Derivative Works -- Permit others to copy, distribute, display and perform only verbatim copies of the work, not derivative works based upon it.

* Share Alike -- Permit others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs your work.

Once you've made your choice, you'll get the appropriate license expressed in three ways:

1. Commons Deed -- a simple, plain-language summary of the license, complete with relevant icons.

2. Legal Code -- the fine print that you need to be sure the license will stand up in court.

3. Digital Code -- a machine-readable translation of the license that helps search engines and other applications to identify your work by its terms of use.

Creative Commons will help you dedicate your work to the pool of unregulated creativity known as the public domain, where nothing is owned and all is permitted. In other words, it will help you to declare "No rights reserved."

As Creative Commons puts it, the world is full of extremes: "Too often the debate over creative control tends to the extremes. At one pole is a vision of total control -- a world in which every last use of a work is regulated and in which 'all rights reserved' (and then some) is the norm. At the other end is a vision of anarchy -- a world in which creators enjoy a wide range of freedom but are left vulnerable to exploitation. Balance, compromise, and moderation -- once the driving forces of a copyright system that valued innovation and protection equally -- have become endangered species."

However, Creative Commons is working to create a balance: "We use private rights to create public goods: creative works set free for certain uses. Like the free software and open-source movements, our ends are cooperative and community-minded, but our means are voluntary and libertarian. We work to offer creators a best-of-both-worlds way to protect their works while encouraging certain uses of them -- to declare 'some rights reserved.' Thus, a single goal unites Creative Commons' current and future projects: to build a layer of reasonable, flexible copyright in the face of increasingly restrictive default rules."

As you might have guessed, portions of this column are based on text from the Creative Commons Web site and licensed under a Creative Commons License that states the condition of attribution, which I just did. It's that easy!

OOPSLA 2003 in review

The OOPSLA 2003 conference (October 26-30, 2003) in Anaheim, Calif., was jam-packed with tutorials, workshops, DesignFest, the Educators' Symposium and the Doctorial Symposium. IBM sponsored the workshops -- which were free to attendees -- and also sponsored two Eclipse events. The first event was an IBM poster and reception on Sunday that allowed attendees to meet some of the Eclipse Innovation Grant recipients who are using Eclipse in creative software, educational and research projects. The second event was an Eclipse plug-in reception that invited attendees to meet some of the Eclipse development team. Sun Microsystems also sponsored a reception inviting people to find out more about proposed Java specifications and language changes being developed through the Java Community Process (JCP).

The conference featured invited talks, many of which had open source as an underlying theme. Tim O'Reilly, from O'Reilly and Associates, challenged developers to adapt to a continuing paradigm shift where the killer apps of today are Web-hosted applications like Google and Amazon, rather than PC-based software packages. IBM's Eric Gamma provided a state of the union address on Eclipse, an open-source universal tool platform for "anything and nothing in particular." Sun Microsystems' David Ungar described several paradoxes that language designers create when they pursue particular goals and lose sight of the underlying flaws. And Gerald Labedz, from Motorola Labs, described how emerging distributed computing systems could mutate into the communication systems of the future.

OOPSLA is full of new things to learn and offers many venues for participation, including technical papers, practitioner reports, expert panels, intriguing invited talks, demonstrations, exhibits, posters, participant-led workshops, conferences-within-a-conference, informal "birds-of-a-feather" sessions and plenty of social opportunities for networking (or just mingling).

Help me to "Pay It Forward" for next year. Tell three people about OOPSLA and get them to tell three more, and so on. With your help, we can make OOPSLA 2004 the best OOPSLA ever.


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