This outstanding use of animation and design to illustrate otherwise difficult or dry concepts is by Dermot O’Connor.
This Summer, I quietly and with no fanfare posted this guide to How to Free Your Work at QuestionCopyright.org. Nobody pays attention to anything in the Summer, but now it’s Fall, schools are in session, and things are happening, so consider this an announcement: How to Free Your Work is live and you should go check it out.
The Public Domain may not be growing (thanks to endless retroactive copyright term extensions) but it still contains a “whopping plentitude.” The biggest challenge to users is simply discovering PD works in the first place. Fortunately the Open Knowledge Foundation (one of the best Free Culture organizations anywhere) has just given everyone a leg up with its new web site, the Public Domain Review. From their About page:
Go there to find all kinds of delicious images, texts, sounds, and other treasures that, thanks to our collective cultural amnesia, are as fresh and exciting as anything Big Media tries forcing down our throats today.
After one or two (or more?) years of being blocked on German Youtube, the full-length noncommercial Sita Sings the Blues movie is once again viewable in Deutschland:
It’s not clear how an American YouTube user is supposed to contest takedowns in Germany. When I was in Berlin recently, it was suggested I find a German lawyer to take some sort of action. At the very least, I would need someone in Germany to contest the takedown on my behalf. I imagine that would have been a slow and possibly expensive process. Then I thought of making this video. Although it took some work (writing a statement – yes I know it’s an imperfect statement, I did the best I could with the knowledge I had – shooting the video, recording the audio via a separate mic, transferring files, editing, compressing, etc.) it was less work than managing an international legal process. And it got results fast! Better still, it contributed to ongoing debates about GEMA and Intellectual Pooperty in general.
My thanks to everyone who helped spread the word about this, and especially people in Germany who checked the Sita Sings the Blues URL and confirmed when the movie was blocked, and when it was unblocked.
Addendum to Culture is Anti Rivalrous
Because a commons is a publicly or collectively owned good, and culture can’t be owned. Page 12 in Lewis Hyde’s Common As Air (see article on why air isn’t a metaphor I’d use) refers to “the old idea of ‘the commons’ as a way to approach the collective side of ownership.” Whoa there. We agree that Culture shouldn’t be privately owned, but where I differ is that Culture shouldn’t – and can’t – be owned at all. When we call Culture a commons we remain in the framework of culture-as-property, the framework of ownership.
But: Culture. Can’t. Be. Owned.
The correct answer to the question of “who owns culture?” is “no one.” Not Sony. Not “The Author.” Not “The Public.” No one owns Culture, because Culture isn’t property. So I prefer not to talk about it like it is property, or something that can be owned. So I don’t call it a commons.
Also, I wrote that real commons – real collectively owned goods – need to be regulated and/or managed, because they are rivalrous and/or scarce. Calling Culture a commons implies that it needs to be regulated and/or managed. That sometimes betrays an unexamined belief that copyright is “natural,” that private interests could somehow step in and “own” Culture without interference. But Copyright and cultural ownership are completely artificial, legal fictions, State-granted monopolies that can only exist if Culture is artificially (and misguidedly) “managed.” So again, calling Culture a Commons implies it needs to be “managed”, reinforcing the same mental framework that allows copyright and the private ownership of ideas to thrive.
I’m not going to fight against anyone calling Culture a commons. Most progressives do it, and we should be working together, blah blah etc. But I did want to clarify why I wrote that Culture is not a commons, since it may freak some people out. Sometimes I refer to “our shared cultural heritage,” which is about as close as I come to calling it a commons myself. Language is tough. For example, there’s no word for the opposite of property. Until there is, it may be difficult to wrap our heads around the idea that something actually isn’t property and can’t be owned, collectively or privately.
At least I can use the word anti-rivalrous now.
Rivalrous goods diminish in value the more they are used. For example, a bicycle: if I use it, it gets me from here to there, if you use it, it gets me nowhere. If I acquire your bicycle, you don’t have it any more. Only one of us can have the bicycle at one time. We can share it to a limited extent, but the more it’s used the less it’s worth; it gets dinged up and wears out. The more people use the bicycle, the less utility it has.
All material things – things made of atoms – are rivalrous, because an object cannot be in two places at the same time. Everything in the physical world is rivalrous, even if it’s abundant.
A commons is a rivalrous good. Hence the “tragedy of the commons“: the more people use a square of land, the less valuable it is to each of them. The grass gets eaten too fast to grow back, the soil can’t handle the incoming rate of sheep shit, and degradation ensues.
Rivalrous and non-rivalrous are often confused with scarce and abundant, but they’re not the same thing. Air is abundant, but it is still rivalrous – some “users” could make it toxic for the rest of us, because air is not infinite. Land and water are so abundant in North America that Native Americans couldn’t imagine owning or depleting them, and look what happened. We treat the oceans as infinite, but they are not; human pollution and exploitation is killing ocean life. We also pollute the vast ocean of air – hence acid rain. Air and oceans are commons.
Commons are commonly-held rivalrous goods. Because they are rivalrous, some uses (or over-use) can poison them or otherwise diminish their value. For that reason, Commons(es) actually merit rules and regulations.
But Culture is not a commons, because Culture is not rivalrous and can’t be owned.
Non-rivalrous goods, as their name implies, don’t diminish in value the more they are used. A favorite example of a non-rivalrous good is the light from a lighthouse. It shines for everyone. No matter how much you look at it, I can see it too.
This is a pretty good example, but it’s not quite right. Theoretically, if enough tall boats are in the harbor, they actually can crowd out your lighthouse light.
Consider sunlight in Manhattan; yes, the sun shines for everyone, but if they build a high-rise next to your apartment you won’t see it any more. There’s only so much sunlight that hits a certain area, and that light is rivalrous. You can always move, of course – except land, while abundant, is definitely rivalrous and not infinite, so you’ll have to engage in some rivalry to do so.
The light metaphor has another problem: is light a particle, or a wave? If it’s a particle, then light is rivalrous. If it’s a wave, then it’s not.
Anti-rivalrous goods increase in value the more they are used. For example: language. A language isn’t much use to me if I can’t speak it with someone else. You need at least two people to communicate with language. The more people who use the language, the more value it has.
Which language do you think more people would pay to learn?
More people spend money and time learning English, simply because so many people already speak English.
Social networking platforms increase in value when more people use them. I use Facebook not because I love Facebook (I certainly don’t), but because everyone else uses Facebook. I just joined Google+, and will use that instead of Facebook if enough other people use it. If enough people flock to yet another platform, I’ll use that instead. Meanwhile I love Diaspora in principle (I was an early Kickstarter backer, before they surpassed their initial $ goal), but I don’t use it, because not enough other people do. When it comes to social networks, I am a sheep.
Culture is anti-rivalrous. The more people know and sing a song, the more cultural value it has. The more people watch my film Sita Sings the Blues, or read my comic strip Mimi & Eunice, the happier I’ll be, so please go do that now and then come back and read the rest of this paragraph. The more people know a movie or TV show, the more cultural value it has. Monty Python references attest to the cultural value of Monty Python – we even use the word “spam” because of it. Shakespeare‘s works are culturally valuable, and phrases from them live on in the language even apart from the plays (“I think she doth protest to much,” etc.). The more people refer to Monty Python and Shakespeare, the more you just gotta see em, amiright? Or not, it doesn’t matter whether you see them, you’re already speaking them. That all culture is a kind of language, I’ll leave for another discussion.
Cultural works increase in value the more people use them. That’s not rivalrous, or non-rivalrous; that’s anti-rivalrous.
IV. Some Exceptions That Prove The rule
I know what you’re gonna say now: “what about my credit card number? That doesn’t increase in value if it’s shared!!” That’s right, Einstein, because your credit card number is not culture. Here are two things that aren’t made of atoms and are nonetheless rivalrous:
Identity is some mysterious mindfuck that my very smart friend Joe Futrelle says no one has satisfactorily defined yet. But whatever identity is, it’s rivalrous. If more people were named Nina Paley and had my home address and social security number, I’d be screwed. But that should highlight that my name, home address, and social security number aren’t culture. They may be information, but they’re not culture. They don’t increase in value the more they are used.
Secrets have power as long as they’re secrets. They lose their power when they are shared. When I become conscious of some secret that’s weighing on me, I share it with at least one other person (even if they are a confidante also sworn to secrecy): I can feel the secret’s power diffused just by the act of sharing. Notice I use “power” here instead of “value.” Secrets may be of little or no cultural value – most people don’t really care who that guy slept with 6 years ago – but they can certainly have power, especially when used for blackmail. Which is why it’s important they remain secrets, so they’re not used for blackmail, or harassment, or any reason at all. Privacy is important. Because secrets aren’t culture. Culture is public. Secrets are, well, secret. Until they’re public, whereupon we get scandalous stories that are culture – humans love to gossip – but aren’t secrets any more. The story might gain value, but the secret loses it.
Money vs. Currency
I remember when the US dollar was a valuable currency; markets all over the world wanted dollars, because they were so widely used and exchangeable. So you want your money to be scarce, but you want your currency as widely used as possible.
It’s important to treat scarce goods as scarce, abundant goods as abundant, rivalrous goods as rivalrous, and so on. Wall Street treated money, a scarce and rivalrous good, as though it were infinite/non-rivalrous, and look what happened. Power companies, and the politicians they own, treat the environment, which is a rivalrous commons, as though it were non-rivalrous, and we have dying oceans and mass extinctions and other events you don’t want to think about so much that you’ll just get mad at me if I point them out here so I’ll stop. The RIAA and MPAA, and the politicians they own, treat Culture, which is anti-rivalrous, as though it’s rivalrous. They are doing for Culture what Wall Street did for the economy. If you want to help make this better, treat Culture like what it is: an anti-rivalrous good that increases in value the more it is used.
Addendum: Why do I say Culture is not a Commons?
When people copy songs and movies, they don’t change the authors’ names. Plagiarism is something else: it’s lying. If Copyright has anything to do with plagiarism, it’s that it makes it easier to plagiarize (because works and their provenance aren’t public and are therefore easier to obscure and lie about) and increases incentive to do so (because copying with attribution is as illegal as copying without, and including attribution makes the infringement more conspicuous). American Copyright law does not protect attribution to begin with; it is concerned only with “ownership,” not authorship. Many artists sign their attributions away with the “rights” they sell, which is why it can be difficult to know which artists contributed to corporate works.
I chose Beethoven to illustrate how copyright has nothing to do with preventing plagiarism. All Beethoven’s work is in the Public Domain. Legally, you can take Ludwig van Beethoven’s songs, Jane Austen‘s novels, or Eadweard Muybridge‘s photographs and put any name you want on them. Go ahead! You’re at no risk of legal action. Your reputation may suffer, however, and you definitely won’t be fooling anyone. If anyone has doubts, they can use that same copy machine – the Internet – to sort out who authored what. Lying is very difficult in a public, transparent system. A good analog to this is public encryption keys: their security comes from their publicity.
The song says “always give credit where credit is due,” but in many cases credit is NOT due. For example, how many credits should be at the end of this film? I devoted about two and a half seconds to these credits:
But I could have credited far more. In fact, the credits could take longer than the movie. Here are some more credits:
What about sound effects? Were it not for duration constraints, this would be in the movie:
Every single sound effect in the cartoon was made by someone. Should I credit each one? Crash-wobble by (Name of Foley Artist Here). Cartoon zip-run by (Name of Other Foley Artist Here). And so on: dozens of sound effects were used in the cartoon, and each one had an author. What about the little noises Mimi & Eunice make? Not only could the recording engineer be credited, but the voice actor as well (as far as I know, these were both Greg Sextro).
I included a few seconds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony at the end, which I didn’t credit in the movie. Should I have? Why or why not?
I could credit the characters:
I could be more detailed in crediting myself:
And the funder!
I didn’t even make a card for the Minute Memes logo. Should that be in there?
The ass drawing also came from Wikimedia Commons, where it’s credited to Pearson Scott Foresman. But who actually drew it? I have no idea. I doubt that Pearson Scott Foresman could even legally claim the copyright on it to “donate” to Wikimedia in the first place, but there they are, getting credit for it instead of an artist. That’s because copyright is only concerned with “ownership,” not authorship.
Then there’s the software I used, good old pre-Adobe Macromedia Flash. Should I credit the software? What about the programmers who contributed to the software?
Mimi and Eunice themselves were “inspired” by many historical cartoons. Early Disney and Fleischer animations, the “rubber hose” style, Peanuts, this recent cartoon, and countless other sources I don’t even know the names of – but would be compelled to find out, if credit were in fact due. Is it?
And so on. It is possible to attribute ad absurdum. So where is credit due? It’s complicated, the rules are changing, and standards are determined organically by communities, not laws. I had to edit the song for brevity, but I kind of wish I hadn’t excised this line:
Attribution is a way to help your neighbor. You share not only the work, but information about the work that helps them pursue their own research and maybe find more works to enjoy. How much one is expected to help their neighbor is determined by (often unspoken) community standards. People who don’t help their neighbors tend to be disliked. And those who go out of their way to deceive and defraud their neighbors – i.e. plagiarists – are hated and shunned. Plagiarism doesn’t affect works – works don’t have feelings, and what is done to one copy has no effect on other copies. Plagiarism affects communities, and it is consideration for such that determines where attribution is appropriate.
At least that’s the best I can come up with right now. Attribution is actually a very complicated concept; if you have more ideas about it, please share.
My current task is to select the 40 Mimi & Eunice IP cartoons the minibook will contain. You can sift through the whole IP category here. My current list is below, but it can change. If there are any real winners that aren’t on this list, please let me know by posting its URL in the comments. And please let me know what losers are on my list I should drop, to make room for better ones. Thanks!
Back in January I was asked by the Brooklyn Museum to create a set of 11 iconic Vishnu avatars for an exhibit they’re planning in June. They didn’t offer a whole lot of money – an “honorarium,” they called it – but said the images could be under a Free license (they said CC-BY-SA was fine). I chose to do it because it was a cool gig, right up my alley; and I love the Brooklyn Museum and was excited to have my art be part of one of their exhibits. It turned out to be more work than I expected, but I was very pleased with the results.
Thus began a comedy of errors, the climax of which may have yet to be reached.
First they wanted revisions. Creating is fun, but revisions are not. For what they were paying, revisions weren’t part of the deal. We hadn’t signed a contract; they hadn’t even mentioned a contract. It was just an oral agreement for a modest sum of money (“honorarium”) and because the work would be CopyLeft they could do whatever they wanted with it, including revise and modify.
I hadn’t freelanced in years. Sita Sings the Blues took up nearly all my time between 2005 and 2011. I had gained a lot of self confidence during that time and was out of my old freelancer habits. Instead of doing whatever they asked and resenting them for it, I did something I’d never done before: I said no. I made sure to be polite. I consulted trusted friends, examined my motives, and was willing to accept any consequences, including being “fired.”
The worst case scenario would be that they wouldn’t use the art and wouldn’t pay me. I was more concerned about the art than the money. I like money too, of course; the best-case scenario would be that they would use the art and pay me. But if they didn’t pay me, I planned to release the art myself, so anyone could use it, including them. They would be free to use the art even if they didn’t pay me.
The happy fact is that once I realized saying “no” was an option, any budding resentment at their requests evaporated. They were just trying to get what they want, which is what everyone does. It fell on me to set boundaries. It’s not wrong to try to get what you want; it’s also not wrong to say no.
After I said no, they produced a contract – one that I never would have signed, even if they’d ever shown it to me before, which they hadn’t. The contract granted them unlimited revisions. Time passed, I politely stated and re-stated that the work was Free, and already completed; they could do whatever they wanted with it, and weren’t even legally bound to pay me.
Finally they removed the revisions clause – but added a new non-compete clause. This would make my work Free for everyone in the entire world to use, except me. I told them I couldn’t sign it, and they assured me it didn’t apply to the drawings I’d done, but anything I might do that would be “similar.” They said the non-compete language absolutely had to stay in. I again pointed out the work was done, they had all the image files, and they could do whatever they wanted with it, without a contract and without even paying me.
I understand why contracts can be useful: the producer wants assurance of payment, and the payer wants assurance of production. If either party fails to live up to their obligation, the other party can punitively refuse theirs. But I had already done the work. I didn’t need a contract to incentivize it. Of course I wanted to be paid, and I thought paying me would be the decent thing to do; but the work was done, and I placed no restrictions on it.
I don’t like contracts. They are overused and unnecessary in most cases. Often it takes more time to negotiate a contract than it does to execute the work itself. I agree it is uncool and wrong to promise money and not deliver, but I hope to never work with anyone who can’t be trusted to live up to such a simple promise. If they don’t, a contract is unlikely to make it better. I’d have to “go legal” on them to enforce it, and unless it’s a really huge amount of money they reneged on, I’d have to spend more money and time on the legal enforcement. Art and Law should stay as far away from each other as possible. I manage to get plenty of work done without contracts, and I manage to take in money as well.
Throughout all of this I refrained from releasing the images myself, so the Brooklyn Museum could have first use. First use bestows such a competitive advantage that copyright is irrelevant. If the Museum rolled out merchandise first, any potential competitors would be unlikely to catch up. The work would immediately be associated with the Museum, before any competitor could associate it with anything else. Any sane contract would have obligated me to grant them first use, but that wasn’t in their contract at all, even though the Free license was. Their contract was built on the assumption of copyright, just with a CC-BY-SA license inserted into it. (Law students take note: most lawyers have no clue about the implications of Free licenses. Please try to fix this.) The non-compete clause was pointless, but a first use provision would have been essential for them.
Anyway, time continued to pass, and they finally let me strike out the non-compete clause so I’d just sign the damn contract and make the project digestible to their bureaucracy. So I did, and they paid me! Slightly more than the initially specified “honorarium” too. This was back in March. I’ve been looking forward to the Vishnu exhibit ever since, eager to finally have my illustrations see the light of day in the glorious setting of the Brooklyn Museum.
The exhibit is set to open in June. It should be really cool! But it won’t include my illustrations, because today (May 5) they informed me their director wants to “take it in another direction.” Yep, they dropped my art, with just a few weeks to go.
I’m really glad that I specified a Free license from the very beginning. If I had granted them a restrictive copyright, then when they axed the art, no one would be able to use it. So here’s yet another benefit to Free Culture: a client can’t kill it.
Addendum: As Terry Hancock wrote in the comments below: “in the end, the museum subsidized an enrichment of the commons, for which I am grateful to them.” Me too!
Asking permission wastes your time, and mine. You might not mind wasting your time. Many people think asking for permission is a “sign of respect.” But what about my time?
Information (including all of my work) is not scarce. Attention (time) is.
Emails get lost in spam filters. They get lost amid the hundreds of other emails in my inbox. I’ve been known to take vacations and actually get away from my computer for a few days – something I should be doing more often. So what happens if you don’t get any response to your permission request? Do you not reuse the work? A work that has been explicitly made Free in the hopes you will reuse it? Not reusing the work harms the work, and harming a work is disrespectful. Delaying reusing the work likewise harms the work, in smaller increments.
Suppose a “respectful” email asking for permission which has already been explicitly granted doesn’t get caught in a spam filter or lost in some other glitch. Suppose it actualy makes it into my inbox. Now I am obligated to respond – the requester essentially said, “I’m not going to use this work unless you respond.” As “respectful” as this sounds, it places an unfair burden on me. The work, and any use of the work, should not be held hostage pending my checking and responding to email.
It is not “respectful” to make me do more, unnecessary work.
More importantly, asking permission is bad for the work itself. If you refuse to reuse the work unless I send you an email, you are blocking an expression or distribution of the work. How many days or weeks or months are you willing to put it off pending my ability to process email? Or worse, someone thinks it’s “respectful” to require me to sign papers and mail them back. Yes, this happens. I have such paperwork sitting right here, telling me that unless I sign it and mail it back, they won’t use the work they already have explicit permission to use. How is it “respectful” to make me jump through more hoops before they redistribute or remix a work I’ve made explicitly Free?
If you want to show respect, please send me something like this instead:
Ahh, lovely. Thank you!
A complaint I hear often is that nowadays thanks to the inerwebs, not only do artists “have to give their work away for free” but they also “have to be businessmen.” HA! One goal of freeing my work is to free me of paperwork, contracts, and the role of manager – and what is having to oversee and administrate every re-use but management? In the “Intellectual Property” model, artists either have to do much more negotiating and managing and paperwork, or they have to pay someone else to do it for them. They have to be businessmen, or hire businessmen. And hiring businessmen (agents, lawyers, etc.) still requires much paperwork, negotiating, and contracts.
Some still insist that I’ve “maintained more control” over Sita Sings the Blues. The point is I have maintained no control over it, and that benefits me. The point is I don’t have to be a business(wo)man. The point is that other people, the crowd, distribute the work, and cost me nothing.
As long as they don’t ask for permission.