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Some Rights Reserved

"Mix Lucas and Hitchcock and it's piracy but mix the works of Milton and Shakespeare and it's called creative writing."

I'm carrying out research into Copyright legislation and whether it can work effectively in a digital context and I was listening to Professor Lawrence Lessig , a Professor at Stanford University Law School and the founder of its Centre for Internet and Society. I first wrote about Lessig in Computer Weekly in 1999, when he published his first book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, which warned of an impending clash between the neutrality of the Internet and the interests of large corporations and the law. Posted by Hello

Since then, Lessig has written two more books, The Future of Ideas and Free Culture and much of what he has warned of has come to pass, particularly the assault on intellectual property rights by corporations seeking to protect their revenue models in the new rip and mix culture.

A hundred years ago, another author, Mark Twain, quipped,"Only one thing is impossible for God. To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet" and after days spent reading through explanatory texts on the United States' DCMA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) and it's European equivalent, I'm inclined to agree. Lessig, the champion of the public domain, argues passionately that, 'The purpose of copyright says, that in exchange for a government backed monopoly, you create something new, which is good but there is no is no reason to say that in exchange for another twenty years of government monopoly, you have to do nothing further, which is exactly what the existing balance is about, with both European and United States copyright legislation being constantly extended, eleven times in the past forty years, to the point where it now stands as the life of the author plus seventy years, or - if the work is anonymously or corporately authored - ninety-five years from the year of first publication or one-hundred and twenty years from the year of creation.'

This attack on the public domain, the nature of intellectual property and its free use will affect us all and in fact, has begun to do so already. Copyright law, says Lessig is not developed for digital technologies and it's a terrible mistake to extend the rights of copyright owners. 'This is insane', says Lessig. 'In order to protect the profits of a relatively small group of companies, you are extending the term for all works when only a small proportion of works, 2% according to the US Supreme Court, has any ongoing commercial value at all. The balance remains locked up under copyright and as a consequence libraries can no longer make information available because they have to track down the copyright owner and we have no good system to report on who the copyright owner actually is. So extending the terms only benefits one small segment and burdens the remainder of society, especially in the context of digital technology where we can digitally remix and express our culture in ways that can't be described by present copyright legislation'.

'What we need to do', says Lessig, 'is filter out those that need the benefits of additional copyright and find a simple way to mark content with freedoms to allow others to offer derivative work', something that is already happening in the Open Source Software market with General Public License (GPL) that governs the distribution of Linux.

Lessig believes that a solution to the copyright dilemma exists with the Creative Commons license, which is not meant to compete with copyright but compliment it, by stating that 'Some rights are reserved' and allows writers like myself to mark digital and website content with the freedoms the author intended and 'Encourage creativity without the lawyers standing in between'.

This month, Wired Magazine will release 750,000 CDs with sixteen featured music artists under a Creative Commons license, inviting sampling and remix for all but three commercial purposes.

In November a UK version of a Creative Commons License, already available in over sixty jurisdictions will appear, designed to compliment the BBC's Creative Archive Project, which will see the corporation placing its content in the public domain. 'We need to understand how creativity happens', says Lessig and he warns of a bleak future if we insist on locking digital content behind an unwieldy permissions-based system, the big 'C'. What has already been achieved in the Open Source community needs to be widely extended to all areas of digital content creation.

On reflection supporting the Creative Commons movement may also be your chance to say 'No' to Brussels, where EU Directive 2001/29/EC has led to a number of important changes to UK copyright law, of which the most important involves changes to remove some of the 'exceptions' to copyright (i.e. fair dealing and the library privileges we have taken for granted). We need common sense legislation and not larger sticks to beat our children with, when they become digital pirates and Creative Commons licensing may offer the only light at the end of an increasingly narrowing tunnel.


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