Skip to main content

Where Copyright Fails, Open Licenses Help Creators Build Towards a Future of Free Culture

October 23, 2014

Where Copyright Fails, Open Licenses Help Creators Build Towards a Future of Free Culture

One of the convictions that drew law professor and former EFF board member, Lawrence Lessig, to co-found Creative Commons was that a narrow and rigid application of copyright law made no sense in the digital age. Copying digital information over long distances and at virtually no cost is what the Internet does best; indeed, it wouldn't work at all if copying wasn't possible.

If all online copying requires permission—a worldview that Lessig has termed permission culture— then a huge part of our modern systems for conveying and creating knowledge will always require explicit and prior permission to operate to avoid risk of future lawsuits. It is permission culture that leads to absurd results such as the criminal charges levied against Diego Gomez for sharing an academic publication with colleagues online.

Creative Commons—and by extension, the broader open access movement that often relies on Creative Commons licenses—pushes back against this worldview, in favor of an alternative vision of free culture, in which creative and knowledge works are freely exchanged, and where demanding permission for re-use and sharing can be the exception, rather than the rule.

CC helps copyright law serve its real purpose, making sure that a system intended for narrow permissions and exceptions does not impede  the freedom to share. Creative Commons and similar open access licenses use copyright law to assure users that they have the liberty to copy and share works, and depending upon the choice of license by the author, also the copy to modify them and to distribute modified versions. (Free and open source software licenses work in a similar way.)

But however clever this is, should we be using copyright law—a regulatory system that many believe defaults to requiring authorization —to help guarantee access to knowledge and freedom to share? Some individuals particularly in the free and open source software community have answered “no.” These free and open source software developers reject outright the authority of copyright law to govern the use of the code that they write. This has led to the phenomenon of so-called POSS (Post Open Source Software), whereby developers simply commit their code to openly available code repositories like Github, and express their disdain for copyright law by deliberately refraining from choosing a license. Unfortunately, this practice casts the reuse of the code into a legal grey zone. Code that is not clearly licensed can be confusing for would-be users, because the default assumption is that most copying and reuse will be infringing if the author hasn't permitted it.

In recent years a crop of software licenses have also emerged, such as the Unlicense, and others under more colorful names, that seek to reconcile the fact that programmers and many of their users don't care about copyright law, with the reality that other users of software, and judges, do. For creative works, the CC Zero license serves a similar purpose. Just as the rest of the Creative Commons licenses are an attempt to reflect the desire of authors to do away with the “permission required by default” model of copyright, these licenses attempt to recreate for works the same freedoms users have over material that has passed out of the realm of copyright into the public domain.

These sorts of public domain dedications and licenses are a good compromise, and an important addition to the existing pantheon of free culture and open source licenses that preceded them. As Creative Commons board member Michael Carroll put it before Congress earlier this year, “Some copyright owners feel like they want the option to get out of the copyright system.” Using a legal instrument to opt out of the copyright regime altogether, to the extent the law allows, meets this need.

But those who reject copyright licensing entirely typically do so not because they misunderstand that their code or writing is automatically subject to copyright; rather, they are doing so as a political statement that they don't believe this should be the case. Using a public domain dedication or permissive license that accepts the jurisdiction of copyright law over your work is seen as acceding to the rules of permission culture; refusing to accept this, as quixotic as that may be, is seen as subverting those rules.

Omitting a legally-binding license entirely from a work, while asserting in straightforward language your disavowal of a belief in such licenses, can be a statement about the current state of copyright. In practical terms, however, the existence of modern copyright law works to undo that statement, by dissuading users from taking advantage of such works because of the legal gray area within which they must operate. Copyright law remains a regime to be carefully stepped around, instead of being modernized and fixed at root to offer clearer, simpler choices for creators and users.

Both EFF and Creative Commons have made joint statements aimed at more thoroughly reforming copyright law to make it more fit for purpose in the digital age. As CC's Timothy Vollmer wrote last year:

the existence of open copyright licenses shouldn’t be interpreted as a substitute for robust copyright reform. Quite the contrary. The decrease in transaction costs, increase in collaboration, and massive growth of the commons of legally reusable content spurred on by existence of public licenses should drastically reinforce the need for fundamental change, and not serve as a bandage for a broken copyright system. If anything, the increase in adoption of public licenses is a bellwether for legislative reform — a signal pointing toward a larger problem in need of a durable solution.

We celebrate the open access movement this week, and the work that academics and readers all around the world do to share knowledge as freely as they can. But we must not forget the desire for a future in which the open access movement wouldn't even be necessary, because open access to our knowledge commons, and particularly academic research, will be the default assumption, rather than the other way around.

Between October 20 and 26, EFF is celebrating Open Access Week alongside dozens of organizations from around the world. This is a week to acknowledge the wide-ranging benefits of enabling open access to information and research—as well as exploring the dangerous costs of keeping knowledge locked behind publisher paywalls. We'll be posting on our blog every day about various aspects of the open access movement. Go here to find out how you can take part and to read the other Deeplinks published this week.

Related Issues

JavaScript license information