CC's Role in the Global Commons Movement — Some Thoughts


I had the pleasure of being on a panel with Leonhard Dobusch, Silke Helfrich, and Kat Walsh on "CC's Role in the Global Commons Movement", moderated by Mike Linksvayer, at the CC Global Summit 2011. I did something I had not done before: I prepared a script to read. Here it is.

I shall start by making a distinction between CC the organization and CC the licenses. I think this session is more about the role of Creative Commons the organization in the global commons movement. Of course, one cannot talk about CC the organization but not talking about the CC licenses. But I think it will be a useful exercise to discuss what CC the organization can still do, and shall do, when not talking about the CC licenses.

CC the organization has its vision in "realizing the full potential of the Internet — universal access to research and education, full participation in culture". But CC the licenses are just for copyrightable works, so I think there is a gap between what CC-licensed contents can enable people to do and what people can really do when there is universal access to knowledge and culture. I think CC shall move forward to providing universal access to knowledge and culture, and I think this is what the global commons movement is about. My point is that there are tasks CC the organization can do and shall do for this "universal access" vision in addition to the maintenance and promotion of the CC licenses.

There are three areas I would like to see CC the organization to work on. The first is about clear advocacy. The second is about content trusts. The third is about live data. Let me explain.

Clear advocacy

CC the organization shall make it clear that it opposes to actions that obstruct the universal access to knowledge and culture. In particular, when people abuse the CC licenses, CC shall make it clear that it does not approve of such abuse. For example, a big company is making deals with national libraries digitizing public domain books. And these libraries agree with that big company in imposing certain restrictions to access to the digitized books. Is such a trend aligned with CC's "universal access" vision or not? Another example, a company running a photo hosting site has offered to mark a person's uploaded photos as CC-licensed, but the site also offers to remove CC license information when the person wants to switch to an exclusive licensing deal arranged by the company with a third-party about his/her photos. Isn't this an abuse of the CC licenses?

As a comparison, one can look to the Free Software Foundation which not only provides the GNU General Public Licenses, but also makes timely commentaries about software freedom. They criticizes people and companies when they do things the wrong ways. They are not afraid of making enemies. (While Creative Commons seems to have many friends.) Shall CC the organization see itself as the equivalence of the Free Software Foundation in promoting the universal access to knowledge and culture, or not?

Content trusts

We like Wikipedia and the Internet Archive. Not only their contents and services are free, we can depend on the two non-profits to always provide them for free. These are "content trusts". They are managed content collections entrusted by the contributors and users so that contents in the collections will always be free. A CC-licensed work is a single object, made free by an action from an individual. A content trust, on the other hand, is maintained by a community of people with practices of sharing. CC shall work closer with existing content trusts to further advance these practices, which certainly go behind public licensing.

Here is just a thought. How about CC collaborating with "free photo" (as in "free software") community in forming a photo trust? This will help reduce the risk of CC license abuse I just mentioned which is occurring now. Further, if people establish this photo trust using CC-licensed photos from existing websites, the community also gets a very good exercise in forking (and freeing) content collections.

Live data

We all know data is big today. Big data drives big business, and access to data is essential for our understanding of the world and where we are now. Some of the most interesting data is continuously produced by we the people. But we do not get to use them. Social interaction data is being collected big time and in real time. This "collective social data", in my view, is a commons. But even CC0 or the Public Domain Mark do not adequately address issues relating to access to live data. Currently most usage of live data is dictated unilaterally by terms of service (ToS), and often there is not much of quality of service (QoS) to speak of.

So I think it is very important for CC to work with live or quasi-live data communities like the Open Street Map project to have a role in this new arena. Free access to and re-use of public sector information (PSI) is a similar area to look into, but I feel it is more urgent to learn from grassroots data communities about existing practices and emerging issues.

Let me conclude. I think CC the organization need to play a more active role. Make timely and clear position statements, help build content trusts, and keep up with live data issues, in my view, are three areas CC shall work on in order to have an important role in the global common movement.

If CC the organization only acts on maintaining and promoting the CC licenses but no much more, then one need to worry about people leaving the CC family as the organization may be seen as not working on important and emerging issues for its self-proclaimed vision. On the other hand, CC the organization has its great strength in its international network of jurisdiction project teams. These teams have been centering on the CC licenses. If CC the organization plays a more aggressive role in the commons movement, then one need to worry about what are the objectives and tasks to further align the actions of its global and diverse jurisdiction teams. These are difficult questions to ask oneself, nevertheless these questions shall now be asked.

Note (2011-10-03): The session has been captured in video by the fabulous CC Poland team. This picture may not have a thousand words, but in it surely I was giving a better speech (hint: you don't want to listen to my part in the video). Thanks, Mike!