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Creative Commons redefines intellectual property use

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The extension of copyright laws via the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, is leaving fewer works in the public domain where they can be freely used and traded. P2P networks have demonstrated that presenting a work for unlimited copying can help generate exposure for unknown musical groups or other artists seeking the widest possible exposure for their work.

Current law copyrights creative material automatically whether or not the creator intended it for restricted use. It is very difficult to know what material can be freely used but a creative solution to this problem is now on the digital horizon.

A nonprofit intellectual property conservancy, called the Creative Commons, has been formed to help artists set more generous terms for their works. Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, who is chairman of the Commons, is hoping that it will help artists and authors give some or all of their intellectual property rights to the public for free.

Details of the Creative Commons project were presented recently at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in Santa Clara.

According to its creators, the Commons will release a software application this fall that permits a work to be copied under certain conditions. The Creative Commons Web site ( will offer a selection of custom licenses that allow artists to indicate, in a machine-readable format, how their work can be used. The licenses set terms for copying and distribution of various types of digital material from music to photographs and can indicate whether the work can be used for commercial or noncommercial purposes.

Under this system, potential users of digital (and physical) material could go to the Creative Commons Web site and search for the terms under which they can be used. The licenses offered by the Commons will have machine-readable tags (metadata) that allow search engines, file-sharing applications and digital rights management tools to recognize these licensing terms when attached to the desired material.

The Commons also allows creators to donate creative property into a public trust that encourages further sharing of the data.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Internet Archive and, are helping the Commons identify how this licensing metadata can be used within content delivery systems and search applications. In a statement, executive director of the Commons, Molly Van Houweling, noted that the aim of the project is, "Not only to increase the sum of raw source material online, but also to make access to that material cheaper and easier."

As the entertainment industry attempts to enhance the value of its intellectual property by restricting use, it is incumbent on independent artists to pursue innovative ways of sharing their work.

Appropriating and adapting works in the public domain is a deeply embedded tradition that gives rise to dynamic art. Three cheers to the legal scholars and Web publishers who have generated the Creative Commons. I hope this system sets a new standard for the location, exchange and creation of new digital works.

As a writer, I plan to make use of it.


Ann Harrison is a technology reporter in San Francisco. She can be reached at

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