The Creative Commons is an American-gone-international nonprofit organization launched in 2001. The goal of the project is to, in their own words – “[provide] free, easy-to-use copyright licenses to make a simple and standardized way to give the public permission to share and use your creative work–on conditions of your choice.”
Creative Commons was a movement spearheaded by scholar Lawrence Lessig with the goal of creating a rich base of public-accessed assets, images, and media. The movement commonly associated with the project is termed the “Copyleft”, so say the developers behind GNU, an operating system sponsored by the Free Software Foundation.
The philosophy behind creating this aggregate of common-use media is to enable and enrich media itself. The project itself believes that the best way to improve mass media is to make materials and the media itself more easily accessed.
Recently; the “Rijksmuseum”, a Dutch art institution, made all of its archived works freely available online. The case study, published in 2014, details the steps the team made to making their artwork collection available by means of the Creative Commons. Their business plan was to allow the downloads of high quality images for free, while charging for the highest quality professional copies. The Rijksmuseum later shelved the plan in favor of allowing all of its images to go to “market” freely. In spite of the easy/free-access images, the museum has claimed that interest hasn’t dwindled.
The Creative Commons allows its contributors to supply their works according to the policies they choose. These policies determine how and under what provisions their uploaded materials may be released. When you choose to upload your media content, you are asked to choose the guidelines that restrict its usage.
The default, no-holds-barred, laissez-faire, whatever-happens-happens license is the “Attribution” license. This means that anyone using the image must attribute its creator when re-purposing it. Under this provision alone, you can create a commercial work as long as the original creator is credited.
Other restrictions may be applied to insure that your media is only used by your standards. Non-commercial licensing prevents those who re-use the media from making profit off of its use. Non-derivative licensing prevents the appropriation or re-invention of the original image.
These are important distinctions to make when discussing copyright law. Creative Commons is not an anarchistic “everyone for themselves” cesspool of “infinite free resources.” Instead, it is an equitable system that ensures that those who contribute are doing so under their own agency and their own personal desire.
So therefore, the principal of Creative Commons is to allow those to create and supply their media for the common good. You still own what you create, but on your terms, you can allow others to use it or disallow its re-appropriation. The fallacious idea of “you no longer own what you create” should be carried out with the rest of the trash when you consider for a moment that when you supply your work, you decide under what restrictions it can be used by. This is a tenet of Marxist theory, thinkers like Antonio Gramsci opposed commercialism and dependence on capitalist resources. The founder of Creative Commons, Lawrence Lessig himself, believes that freely-accessed public resources (media or otherwise) contribute to a more enriched and educated society. The philosophy behind CC spans generations as a result.
But not everything can be so noble and charitable. There is an exceedingly large history of legislation and copyright difficulties with copyright law and the Creative Commons. Following the death of actor Bela Lugosi (famed for his portrayal of Dracula), the surviving members of his family sued Universal Pictures for the use of his appearance. After a long and lengthy court case, the Lugosis were awarded 70,000 dollars and the precedent was set, image rights would be restricted to the subject’s lifetime and rights would not be passed to that person’s heirs following their death.
And more to the point of the finicky copyright law beneath the Creative Commons, we are begged the question if the immediacy and ease of access to these resource “cheapen” themselves somehow. Allow me to illustrate: Photographer Walker Evans creates a series of photographs in the heat of the Great Depression, depicting the faces of Americans who struggled to get by. Decades later, a woman by the name of Sherrie Levine co-opted these photographs by simply taking the photograph again.
In this form of appropriative art, a Creative Commons license would have removed meaning from these photograph. The whole point behind Levine’s actions was to turn the dialogue around on “authenticity.” To do that, Levine had to cross a line and effectively plagiarize the original photographs. If Walker Evans’ photograph was licensed to be redistributed, Levine’s act would just be another instance of reproducing work under the providence of Creative Commons’ licensing. Years after Levine, a man named Michael Mandiberg did the same to Levine’s art.
Barring the reproduction of a certain work, and ignoring that rule created a polarizing piece of appropriative art, and opened a dialogue. Ethically questionable? It was, but it addresses the idea of art in the public domain.
So then, when someone or something is represented in a work under Creative Commons, who owns the right to the subject? Bela Lugosi, had his image been licensed under the non-commercial license, would not have been subject to the same issue of copyright law following his death. Roland Barthes’ philosophy on the image gives insight into the more metaphysical nature of what may be within an image.
Bela Lugosi is represented in the movie “Dracula” and his image is associated with that movie nearly exclusively. When the Lugosis sought action against Universal Pictures for misappropriating Bela’s image, they must have operated under the assumption that Bela’s image was already tied to that of Dracula. Bela’s image is not him, it is a representation of himself. When his family took action to prevent his image from being used, it was already known that his image was no longer attached to any living being.
So therefore, I’m tempted to draw my conclusion thusly; Creative Commons is a resource that allows for collectivist contributions in the forms of art and other media. At the same time, adding your work to the Creative Commons is moderated by flexible licensing and content rights. Prior to its existence, image rights and representational rights in media were difficult to exact in many cases. Now that we have a resource whose licensing system operates as freely as you wish it to, the same issues may not be so commonplace.