At the Open Society Foundations, we believe our mission is advanced when the work we support and create is made available to the public. That’s why we’ve adopted a new copyright policy that encourages grantees to release their work under Creative Commons licenses. I spoke with Vera Franz, who heads the Information Policy and Intellectual Property Reform initiatives at the Open Society Information Program, about the significance of this approach.
Briefly, what is Creative Commons licensing? Why use it?
Creative Commons (CC) licenses are a tool for creators to make a choice about their copyright. Traditional copyright says: “If you want to use my work, you have to seek my permission.” Creative Commons says: “Here are the things you are allowed to do with my creation.” You have to give me credit, but you can use my song and remix it, or use my photograph and put it in a textbook, all without seeking my permission. Ultimately, Creative Commons provides an infrastructure to “legalize” a lot of the sharing and collaborative creativity on the internet.
The Open Society Foundations have long been licensing their own work under CC. What kinds of effects has that had?
I think it much more effectively allows the Foundations to work towards accomplishing our mission. The promotion of open societies depends on spreading ideas far and wide—instead of asking people to seek our permission before listening to our latest podcast or reading and sharing our latest reports, we want to encourage people to use, criticize, debate and improve the Foundations' intellectual output as freely as possible.
Why are the Foundations encouraging grantees to use it?
Most importantly, we want all our grantees to be aware of the choice they have with regard to their copyright, encouraging them to think about whether they want to fully control or instead share their creations in certain ways determined by them.
What are some of the criticisms of CC that you encounter most frequently, and how do you typically respond?
I often hear the argument that Creative Commons is incompatible with commercial exploitation. That's not true at all. For example, the commercial publisher Bloomsbury Academic is releasing its books for free online through a Creative Commons license, and then offering print-on-demand copies at reasonable prices. There are many other examples that marry openness and profit.
What are the biggest challenges ahead for CC advocates?
Creative Commons licenses need to be enforceable, and the good news is that CC licenses were upheld in all court challenges to date. The real concern of CC advocates is to grow CC beyond early adopters into the mainstream. And we need major institutions like the BBC but also major funders, including research funders, to adopt CC licenses.
I am very confident we are on the right track. As Lawrence Lessig, credited with founding CC, has put it so well, today anybody with access to a computer can take sounds and images from the culture around us and use them, remix them to say things differently. These tools of creativity have become tools of speech, and this really is the literacy of the new generation.