Culture, Copyright, Commons

A report (2003) by Sandra Fauconnier about Wendy Seltzer talk on Creative Commons and Chilling Effects Clearinghouse.

Wendy Seltzer centered her talk around the subject of the "commons" and started her presentation by referring to the so-called "Tragedy of the Commons" - an expression coined by Garrett Hardin who stated that the commons in its original meaning (a field owned by the community) would inevitably become overgrazed. Seltzer argued that there is no danger for this in the "digital" commons because information is not naturally scarce. She pleaded for increasing access to overall knowledge and then described the threats that could be posed to the concept of "commons": propertization and control, digital rights management, transaction costs and claims of exclusive rights (like in the case of a parody).

Copyright is now the default; in the US the copyright term lasts 70 years after the death of the author. With new content, copyright is automatically assigned to the creator; attaching a copyright notice is not required. What if someone wants to make his/her work more widely available? For this scenario, Creative Commons was initiated. Creative Commons (CC), for which Seltzer has worked as an advisor, allows creators to choose a tailored license that states "Some Rights Reserved", not "All Rights Reserved." Four attributes can be chosen and combined: attribution of the work (the obligation to mention the creator's name), noncommercial (the choice whether the work may be redistributed for commercial purposes or not), no derivative works and share alike (a GPL-like statement that includes the notion of 'viral' copyleft in the custom-made license). These four attributes offer a series of combination possibilities. Apart from that, Creative Commons offers the user an identification of the work, a commons deed (or plain English description of the license), the legal code itself and an RDF description that can be incorporated in a web page and that is indexable by search engines.
Creative Commons initiatives are already applied in various initiatives, such as the most recent novel by Cory Doctorow, MIT OpenCourseWare and as an option in Movable Type weblogs.

Seltzer then described another project she initiated: the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse. When companies sense that a website owner might have committed a copyright, trademark or patent infringement against them, they often send a Cease and Desist letter - a solution which is low-cost and not time-consuming for them, and which often already shuts the contested activity down without further legal action. The Chilling Effects Clearinghouse collects these letters and annotates them, explaining the legal terms used. Seltzer demonstrated a few success stories where the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse succeeded in emancipating the website owner against the legal threat. The general aims of the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse are

  • collecting and analyzing these data
  • helping Internet users defend their rights
  • train Internet-savvy future lawyers
  • use these data to inform academic research, journalism, policy and litigation.

Both Creative Commons and Chilling Effects Clearinghouse have proven to be quite successful; Seltzer hopes that they might contribute to a "Triumph of the Commons," not a "Tragedy of the Commons" as Hardin once described.

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