I recently came across a music startup called Airborne Music, which touts two features: a business model based on “subscribing to an artist” for US $1/month, and music distributed under Creative Commons licenses. Like other music services that use Creative Commons, Airborne Music appeals primarily to indie artists who are looking to get exposure for their work. This got me thinking about how — or whether — Creative Commons has any real economic value for creative artists.
I have been fascinated by a dichotomy of indie vs. major-label music: indie musicians value promotion over immediate revenue, while for major-label artists it’s the other way around. (Same for book authors with respect to the Big 6 trade publishers, photographers with respect to Getty and Corbis, etc.) Back when the major labels were only allowing digital downloads with DRM — a technology intended to preserve revenue at the expense of promotion — I wondered if those few indie artists who landed major-label deals were getting the optimal promotion-versus-revenue tradeoffs, or if this issue even figured into major-label thinking about licensing terms and rights technologies.
When I looked at Airborne Music, it dawned on me that Creative Commons is interesting for indie artists who want to promote their works while preserving the right (if not the ability) to make money from them later. The Creative Commons website lists ten existing sites that enable musicians to distribute their music under CC, including big ones like the bulge-bracket-funded startup SoundCloud and the commercially-oriented BandCamp.
This is an eminently practical application of Creative Commons’s motto: “Some rights reserved.” Many CC-licensing services use the BY-SA (Attribution-Share-Alike) Creative Commons license, which gives you the right to copy and distribute the artist’s music as long as you attribute it to the artist and redistribute (i.e. share) it under the same terms. That’s exactly what indie artists want: to get their content distributed as widely as possible but to make sure that everyone knows it’s their work. Some use BY-SA-NC (Attribution-Share-Alike-Noncommercial), which adds the condition that you can’t sell the content, meaning that the artist is preserving her ability to make money from it.
It sounds great in theory. It’s just too bad that there isn’t a way to make sure that those rights are actually respected. There is a rights expression language for Creative Commons (CC REL), which makes it possible for content rendering or editing software to read the license (in XML RDFa) and act accordingly. As a technology, the REL concept originated with Mark Stefik at Xerox PARC in the mid-1990s; the eminent MIT computer scientist Hal Abelson created CC REL in 2008. Since then, the Creative Commons organization has maintained something of an arms-length relationship with CC REL: it describes the language and offers links to information about it, but it doesn’t (for example) include CC REL code in the actual licenses it offers.
More to the point, while there are code libraries for generating CC REL code, I have yet to hear of a working system that actually reads CC REL license terms and acts on them. (Yes, this would be extraordinarily difficult to achieve with any completeness, e.g., taking Fair Use into account.)
Without a real enforcement mechanism, CC licenses are all little more than labels, like the garment care hieroglyphics mandated by the Federal Trade Commission in the United States. For example, some BY-SA-licensed music tracks may end up in mashups. How many of those mashups will attribute the sources’ artists properly? Not many, I would guess. Conversely, what really prevents someone who gets music licensed under ND (No Derivative Works) terms from remixing or excerpting in ways that aren’t considered Fair Use? Are these people really afraid of being sued? I hardly think so.
This trap door into the legal system, as I have called it, makes Creative Commons licensing of more theoretical than practical interest. The practical value of CC seems to be concentrated in business-to-business content licensing agreements, where corporations need to take more responsibility for observing licensing terms and CC’s ready-made licenses make it easy for them to do so. The music site Jamendo is a good example of this: it licenses its members’ music content for commercial sync rights to movie and TV producers while making it free to the public.
Free culture advocates like to tell content creators that they should give up control over their content in the digital age. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who claims to welcome the end of control and also supports Creative Commons is talking through both sides of his mouth. If you use a Creative Commons license, you express a desire for control, even if you don’t actually get very much of it. What you really get is a badge that describes your intentions — a badge that a large and increasing number of web-savvy people recognize. Yet as a practical matter, a Creative Commons logo on your site is tantamount to a statement to the average user that the content is free for the taking.
The truth is that sometimes artists benefit most from lack of control over their content, while other times they benefit from more control. The copyright system is supposed to make sure that the public’s and creators’ benefits from creative works are balanced in order to optimize creative output. Creative Commons purports to provide simple means of redressing what its designers believe is a lack of balance in the current copyright law. But to be attractive to artists, CC needs to offer them ways to determine their levels of control in ways that the copyright system does not support.
In the end, Creative Commons is a burglar alarm sign on your lawn without the actual alarm system. You can easily buy fake alarm signs for a few dollars, whereas real alarm systems cost thousands. It’s the same with digital content. At least Creative Commons, like almost all of the content licensed with it, is free.
(I should add that I wear the badge myself. My whitepapers and this blog are licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND (Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works) terms. I would at least rather have the copyright-savvy people who read this know my intentions.)