CC Talks With

CC Talks With: Rice University’s Connexions

Ashley Craddock, October 1st, 2005

On first glance — brown hair, pale skin, and undergrad-style clothes — Rich Baraniuk looks like an average guy. But look at his eyes, and you know you’re in the presence of something rare. They’re giant and brown and fairly glowing with the light of the millions of synapses firing at the same instant. They’re the eyes of a man who can’t sit still, of a guy bursting with animation, drive, pep, zest, zing, zip. All of which are necessary given the task Baraniuk took on three years ago, when he decided to write a book and ended up trying to change the way people — everywhere on the planet — think.

Like a lot of guys out to change the world, Baraniuk started out with a modest agenda. An electrical and computer engineering professor at Rice University in Houston, he’d been teaching for about six years when he finally decided that the textbooks he was using weren’t doing their job. They weren’t helping his students learn as much as they should, and they didn’t support his teaching style. He decided he’d write a new, better textbook. So he went to the dean of the school of engineering and proposed the idea. The dean laughed. “Rich came in and said he needed to write a new, better book to teach his course,” says Dean C. Sidney Burrus. “I said, ‘That’s ridiculous. There’re already about 100 books on this subject. You’re going to write the 101st? Think of something new.’ And he did.”

That something new is called Connexions. As described in one of the many documents Baraniuk and the team he leads have used to raise funding, it’s “an experimental, open-source/open content project . . . that gives a learner . . . free access to educational materials that can be readily manipulated to suite her individual learning style. . . . The free software tools also foster the development, manipulation, and continuous refinement of educational material by diverse communities of authors and teachers.”


What does that mean, exactly? When it’s up and running, Connexions will offer an online library of networked content that will allow instructors to pick and choose best-of-breed instructional materials. Experts around the world will develop and contribute modules of information specific to their own expertise. These modules — which may take the form of individual chapters, or even smaller sections of chapters — will act as a giant, constantly evolving library of information that can be tweaked to any given instructor’s satisfaction.

By selecting specific modules and then using Connexion’s free, XML-based editing tools to modify the emphasis of a given course, instructors will be able to create custom textbooks. Students could then go to Kinko’s and order a custom text incorporating the latest research, the best pedagogy — tailored to match their professor’s teaching style and the specific goals of the course at hand. Theoretically, the library will function across disciplines, and will aid teachers and students from kindergarten through graduate school. So far, more than 1000 modules now form the basis for nine electrical and computer engineering courses at Rice.

If that sounds ambitious, think about this: Connexions isn’t just about creating a collection of bite-sized informational chunks. It’s also about fostering a quantum leap in the evolution of literacy — something akin to the development of the first written language or the creation of the printing press. “My perspective about this,” says Burrus, “is not that it’s a just a product of one teacher’s frustrations. I think what we’re doing truly has the potential to change the way people think.”

The people at Connexions believe they’ve found a way to do that. Even more miraculously, a number of people — from the folks at the Hewlett Foundation to the administration at Rice to the U.S. Government — think they may be on to something.


Baraniuk’s big idea grew out of his own sense of frustration about the fragmentary way students learn and teachers teach. He was a great teacher — kids loved his classes — but he could see that they were missing a lot of fundamentals. The problem? The way knowledge was split up into discrete units that seemed so far removed from their lives and interests. “The way we teach breaks everything up and makes it discontinuous, ” says Baraniuk. “Kids would come in and say, ‘Why do I have to learn all this math? I’m interested in genetics.’ And after I sat down with them for half and hour and drew it out on a white board them and showed them how math relates to the field they really wanted to know about, how it was absolutely fundamental, they got it, and generally they’d do much better and learn much more.

“Which was great. I love that part of teaching. But my problem was, ‘Well, okay, how do I apply that understanding to a whole classroom full of students? I can’t sit down and explain the connections to each and every person in my lectures. I don’t have that kind of time. And I finally thought, ‘Wow, there’s just gotta be a better way.'”

Baraniuk’s main beef with traditional teaching and textbooks is that they’re too linear. Subjects are broken up into discrete units, and then never reconnected. Textbooks mirror this flaw in that they are completely linear, and depending on the particular focus of a course, tend to offer a great deal of irrelevant or redundant information, while failing to cast any illumination on vital subjects. Even worse, by the time they make it through writing, editing, school board reviews, publishing and finally into students hands, textbooks — especially in the fast moving sciences — are often obsolete.

By shaping raw knowledge into discrete chunks rather than 2000-page textbooks, Connexions aims to scratch a real-world itch that’s long been unreachable. Instructors will be able to do away with huge chunks of text that don’t apply to their courses, while culling the Connexions database for pieces that apply to their specific areas of instructors. To make that task manageable, Connexions will offer a series of “lenses” that allow users to limit the pool from which they’re choosing. In other words, if Baraniuk wanted to limit his search to courses that the dean liked, he could do so. Or he might choose to view modules that other users had ranked as effective, modules that students liked, modules that resulted in better test scores, modules approved by professional societies, modules produced by certain universities, or even for-fee modules created by Prentice-Hall.


In the last three years, the Connexions team has faced — and cleared — a lot of hurdles. The last of these turned on a legal issue: specifically, the development of licenses that would both protect authors’ intellectual property rights and allow the sort of open usage and modification that Connexions facilitates. “We felt totally hamstrung by our own legal department,” says Baraniuk. “I mean, it’s hard to come into the administration and say, look at all this great stuff we want to give away — the source code, the ability to publish and modify this content, the content itself.”

The problems occurred when the legal team at Rice, accustomed to protecting the university’s intellectual property, suddenly found itself face to face with a bunch of technologists who wanted to take a page from the open-source movement and adhere to an ethic of maximum openness.

“When we started trying to work through the issues, it wasn’t about the attorneys helping us iron out a few legal details,” says Ross Reedstrom, a research scientist at Rice and a Connexions programmer. “I spent hours and hours trying to educate our legal team about the concept of openness.”

The problem was that, to the legal team, “free” and “open” meant “unprotected.” And unprotected was not something the Rice legal team was willing to countenance. The clash was perhaps, inevitable. “It’s interesting that education is the place where the problem of licensing open, free materials became an issue,” says Chris Kelty, an anthropologist who studies the open source movement and is on staff at Connexions. “Educators traditionally build on the shoulders of their peers. This project is all about trying to systematize, formalize and facilitate something that already happens.”

After weeks of barely productive meetings that left the entire Connexions staff frustrated with the Rice legal team, Chris suggested that Connexions meet with his colleague, James Boyle, a law professor at Duke and Creative Commons boardmember. The meeting of needs and minds was instantaneous. “Creative Commons came along at the exact right time. We had this huge problem, how to license content in a way that left it open and dynamic, but still offered protections,” says Baraniuk. Sitting down together, Boyle, Reedstrom, and the Rice legal team were quickly able to hash through most of the remaining licensing issues. Creative Commons will provide the licenses that protect Connexions authors and the Connexions repository.

The licensing issues have the response from the academic community has been positive. “It’s been very easy to get professors to agree to write course modules,” says Baraniuk. “People really understand that with these licenses they aren’t giving up credit, and they are opening their ideas up to what is potentially a huge audience.”

The next hurdle? Filling the Connexions repository with strong content. “The big question now is the take off. When does the project leave the ground?,” says Kelty. “If we only get a bunch of mediocre DSP [Digital Signal Processing] texts, well, it won’t be that useful.”

But signs are that momentum is growing. Professors at other universities are beginning to take notice, and Dean Burrus recently chaired a National Academy of Engineering workshop about how to build an online educational initiative that transcends ownership by any one university and becomes a truly global entity. Attendees included representatives from the Department of Education, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley, Michigan State, Columbia, and Carnegie Mellon. Finally, the Hewlett Foundation recently awarded the project a $1,000,000 grant to establish a sustainable business model.

“I think we really have a great chance at getting where we want to go,” says Baraniuk. “What distinguishes us from other initiatives is simple: we have Rice’s buy-in to the idea that at some point, we may spin this off into a creative nonprofit. That’s huge. That means we really could be global.”

Ashley Craddock is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Wired, Mother Jones, Working Woman and Marie Claire, among other places.

Comments Off on Rice University’s Connexions

CC Talks With: Marshall Sahlins

Alex Golub, October 1st, 2005

Marshall Sahlins wants to make the Internet the new medium for traditional pamphleteering. Sahlins, a celebrated anthropologist at the University of Chicago and the founder of Prickly Paradigm Press, has decided to re-release the press’s backlist with “some rights reserved.” This week, Prickly Paradigm goes online with the publication of five pamphlets under a Creative Commons license.

Alex Golub, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, recently spoke with Sahlins about his project.

Creative Commons: What is Prickly Paradigm Press and how did it come about?

Marshall Sahlins: Well, Prickly Paradigm is a pamphlet producing press—that’s a five-word alliteration—which began as the heir of a British press called Prickly Pear. Prickly Pear was founded by the anthropologist Keith Hart in 1993 and published ten pamphlets. It then branched into North American and British offices, which were essentially independent of each other—they worked independently of each other and there was no total organization. I had already written a pamphlet for Prickly Pear called Waiting for Foucault, and a few years ago had written something else that I thought was suitable for a Prickly Pear pamphlet. I never did publish it as a pamphlet, but at the time I contacted Matthew Engelke, the man who was running the North American branch of Prickly Pear, and who was then was a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Virginia. He told me that he was unable to publish my pamphlet because he didn’t have enough money, since he only could publish pamphlets when he had a sufficient return from those that were already in print. At that rate, he was publishing about once a year. So I asked him how much it cost to publish a pamphlet and he told me, and I thought that if I could raise sufficient money we could publish at least four or six pamphlets a year if we took over the press. So I essentially inherited the press, and I started a limited liability company to publish these pamphlets.

The first thing we ran into was that we had to change the name, because there were already three Prickly Pear presses in the United States, one of which had been in existence for twenty-three years. We had already gotten mail addressed to them—it was not a good idea to continue that name. So we developed a new name, Prickly Paradigm Press, and we started publishing. The first thing we published was a revision of my pamphlet, Waiting for Foucault, which was now called Waiting for Foucault Still, and there will be a further edition in the not too distant future called Still Waiting for Foucault, Yet—each edition enlarged by about fifty percent. In the first half-year we published five pamphlets; the next semester we published four more. We then published another four, and the fourth semester we were in business we published two. So we’ve published fifteen pamphlets altogether. Our aim is not to publish anthropology pamphlets exclusively, or even preferentially. Approximately forty percent of these pamphlets are by anthropologists and about anthropology, but we range over quite a bit of other territory, some of it political, some of it in the fields of art criticism, economics, and cultural studies, one on academic publishing.

CC: So there’s really an idea that it’s sort of a pamphleteering outfit in the old style of public distribution of pamphlets?

MS: Yes. The object was to give people free reign to talk about things that they wouldn’t normally talk about or that were beyond their particular discipline, something that they thought was of general interest, that they could get off their chest without having a big scholarly apparatus, footnotes and so on. We wanted them to just let go, and that’s the way we’ve published. It’s the old pamphlet form, yes. But the fact that we are going into a Creative Commons licensing scheme also indicates something that was said about us very early on in the New York Times, namely, that we raise the question issue of whether the Internet is the new pamphlet arena. There is something to be said for the notion that bloggers and their like are a new form of pamphleteering. So the fact that we’re going onto the Net in this way is consistent with the observation that the Net has taken over the function of discussion in the public sphere, and it’s consistent with our own approach and spirit.

CC: Have you encountered resistance from your authors about publishing for free?

MS: About going free?

CC: Yeah.

MS: There was only one. I would like to mention his name, but… Well, he resisted in all sorts of ways about all kinds of things, including accusing us of keeping his royalties! And we’ve had a couple of “I’ll wait and see” responses. But basically the responses are positive, ranging up to “I’m proud to be associated with a press like that.”

CC: How much do you think this model of publishing with Creative Commons licenses or new kinds of copyright reform is going to affect academic publishing more generally? Do you see Prickly Paradigm as the cutting edge of a new movement to publish online?

MS: Frankly I don’t. It’s just my guess, but I think Prickly Paradigm represents the limit of the utility of this approach. When you open a book that has three hundred pages you’re not going to sit and read it on the screen—at least I’m not, and many people I know are not. Additionally, most people do not have the capacity to easily copy it; printers that would work at that rate that would make it cheap and easy. So when you I opened something like Lessig’s last book, which is available free online, —I mean, the name of the book is Free Culture, as I recall— and after you read the first couple pages, well, my reaction was that I went and bought it! So, the pamphlet is a better idea. Our pamphlets run in a small format. They’re are four and a half by seven inches, and they run up to about twenty thousand or twenty-five thousand words—maybe eighty pages to one hundred in this small format—so you can read it on the Net. It is worthwhile to have it available for free, especially because the cost of publishing being what it is, we have to charge ten dollars at the bookstores. And it’s not just the cost of printing. We are distributed by the University of Chicago Press, which takes a healthy chunk of our returns. So the effect is that we don’t make a lot of money, to put it mildly! If we break even I’m happy. Just to continue publishing is the aim. Our books are too expensive, frankly, and the Net is for us a good alternative.

CC: Are you worried that the Net is going to cut into the sales of the printed pamphlets?

MS: Well as I envision it, we will keep the new pamphlets off the web site for a year or so, hopefully just to break even. My position is that once we’re even, it can go free. None of our authors and none of our publishers and certainly not me, above all, are in this business for gain. I mean, I write a lot of things for academic journals for which I never see a penny. And I’ve written books that I do see a penny for, but it’s literally about a penny for an hour of hard labor. None of us is making a living off of this. Most of us feel that our ideas for the most part come from other people, and it’s certainly the case that we want them to be disseminated among other people. So free distribution seems to me correct. The only constraint I put on it is this one that I would like to be able to break even so that we can continue to function.

CC: Right, and that’s just really to make sure that there’s still a paper copy somewhere.

MS: Yeah, we’ll always keep the copies in paper available in bookstores.

CC: So what is next for the press? What do you see its future operations as being? What’s in planning?

MS: We have just published three books that are getting considerable play. One is by James Elkin, called What Happened to Art Criticism, and it’s so popular that we’ve had to reprint it. The second is David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology — he’s an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale. Finally, we’ve released a book by Lindsay Waters, who is the humanities editor at Harvard University Press, on academic publishing, a book called Enemies of Promise. It’s received a lot of publicity, including a healthy amount of argument, both in the British press as well as here in America. We’re about to publish a pamphlet by Harry Harootunian, a well-known historian of Japanese history and well-known theoretician of history at New York University, called The Empire’s New Clothes. We are also publishing and another pamphlet by Bruce Kapferer, who is professor at the University of Bergen, again both on American imperialism. We have several books also lined up in the future, including ones by Susan MacKinnon, on sociobiology, one by Keith Hart, and one by Edwardo Viveiros de Castro on the nature of kinship. So we have quite a bit. We have also some unsolicited submissions – manuscripts are coming over the transom. Recently we got something very interesting from Rick Perlstein that may turn into a pamphlet. So there is plenty to do. If we had more money we could do more.

CC: Cool. Well, is there anything else you want people to know?

MS: I just want to say that I truly support the idea of the free dissemination of intellectual information, and that I truly lament the various forms of copyrights and patents that are being put on so-called intellectual property. I also lament the collusion of universities in licensing the results of scientific research, and thus violating the project of the free dissemination of knowledge that is their reason for existence. So I consider it an important act to release these books under a Creative Commons type of license. I’m happy, and also a little proud, to do so.

Comments Off on Marshall Sahlins

CC Talks With: Rick Prelinger

Lisa Rein, October 1st, 2005

Dateline: 1980. New York-based typesetter Rick Prelinger was trying to “make it in the movies” and writing a reference book on two-way radio frequencies on an IBM Selectric typewriter. Two years later, he became the Research Director for “Heavy Petting,” the Norman Lear-funded Atomic Café-like documentary about sexuality in the 20th Century. Armed with photocopies of old educational film reference books and Library of Congress copyright catalogs, he began a project of surveying, cataloging, archiving, and cross-referencing educational, industrial and advertising films produced in the United States between 1903 and the early 1980s.

Over the past twenty years, Rick has collected more than 48,000 complete films and roughly 30,000 cans of raw footage. The Internet Archive currently hosts 1,125 titles online, with plans to have 1,500 uploaded by the end of 2003.

The Library of Congress recently acquired the Prelinger Archives, which will be made publicly accessible after a 3- to 4-year processing period. In the meantime, the Internet Archive will be the primary way to access the films.

We caught up with Rick fresh back from New York City, where he had been cataloging and preparing to ship the actual film stock for delivery to the L.O.C. The process had left him covered in rust and dust from digging into the corners of his storage facility in search of any lost films that may have slipped through the cracks.

CC: Rick, what exactly is the Prelinger Archives?

RP: The Prelinger Archives is a large collection of what I call “ephemeral films.” These are industrial, advertising, educational, amateur and government films — films that were generally made not to show in movie theatres or on TV, but films that were made to teach, to educate, sometimes to miseducate, to train, to sell, pitch a product, or promote an idea. Films that embody the persuasions of the past. In addition to showing us the way things were, they also show how things were supposed to be. They are a wonderful set of visions of the way we were supposed to think, what we were supposed to buy. A vision of the sort of people we were supposed to become, and as such they record aspects of our history that are suppressed. They are not necessarily public aspects of our history.

CC: What do you mean “not necessarily public aspects of our history”?

RP: I’ll give you an example. If we want to have a sense of what it was like to be a member of a family, a nuclear family in the American 50’s or 60’s, you really can’t get that authentically from a TV sit com, or from a Hollywood movie, or from a news reel. But when you see these films, they are filled with footage of idealized families in action. We get a sense of how the family actually looked and behaved, what was the body language, what were the gender roles, how kids were supposed to behave differently than adults, and you also get a sense of that sort of all-encompassing ideology. So you could argue that all of these films, in a way, are sort of an ethnographic vision of a lost America.

CC: Do you feel that producing these films is a lost art?

RP: These kinds of films really aren’t made today, but if you could imagine the World Wide Web — where organizations and institutions, companies and individuals use the Web to build a site to make their voice heard —imagine that instead everybody was making movies…every company made movies to promote products and train its workers and reach the public. In the schools of the past, really from the turn of the century until recently, films were shown to teach everything. Whether it was “How To Brush Your Teeth,” “How To Get Married,” “Social Studies,” “The Products of Guatemala”…this is the kind of material that I’ve collected for about twenty years.

CC: How long has the Prelinger Archives offered films on the Web?

RP: We first started putting movies up at the very, very beginning of 2001, and the site was kind of embryonic for a while. It’s still a work in progress, but well over 1,250,000 movies have been downloaded — some of those for people to just look at and enjoy from the privacy of their homes, their dorm rooms. Others have been made into other movies.

CC: The movies in the Prelinger Archives have been used to create a wide range of “derivative works.” Could you give us some examples?

RP: In 2001, we had a contest on the theme of “The World At War”…the winners are actually on the Internet Archive Website. The film that took the first prize was “The ABC’s of Happiness,” where an animated character tells the audience that we really shouldn’t worry about the past. We should be happy. We shouldn’t look at disturbing images and let this knock us off of our complacent center — and of course the images we’re seeing in the background are all very disturbing. It’s a very funny and a very sweet film, but with a real punch to it. An artist in England whose name is Vicki Bennett — who performs under the name of “People Like Us” is a musician whose work is made of sampling other kinds of works and knitting together a new whole which is kind of utopian and imaginative. She made a ten-minute movie called, “We Edit Life,” which is about the history of electronic music and the (perhaps) obsolescence of human beings in the future, and it’s all made with material from my collection that was downloaded through the Internet Archive. It’s a funny and very complex little movie.

People are working with our footage to make shows for Tech TV. There’s a series called “Big Thinkers” that makes very, very heavy use of our material. And you know, when you’re making a movie about “Big Thinkers,” you have people talking, and how do you add ametaphoric dimension to what people are saying? How do you visualize their ideas? One of the ways that the producers decided to do that was to download an incredible amount of footage from the site, build a little library, and use a lot of these archival images to contextualize what people were saying.

A woman in San Francisco named Heather Rogers just made a great little film on recycling that actually questions whether recycling is beneficial. We all think that recycling is a good thing…she’s not sure that it is, and she uses a lot of old imagery from the Archives depicting consumption and waste to illustrate her point. It’s a strong movie. So, there are artists. There are documentaries. There are people doing conventional commercial TV, and there are people doing work that doesn’t look like anything that has ever been made before. But all of it relies heavily on having access to a pool of old imagery.

CC: Could you explain more of the details about how making your footage available “for free” through the Internet Archive has actually increased revenues for your stock footage business?

RP: I run a small stock footage company. It grosses every year in the low-to mid-six figures. My competitors are big companies who spend at least as much and maybe more money than I gross every year just on magazine advertising. Probably, they spend that much money just to build their Websites. I couldn’t afford to do that. But if the footage that’s in my collection is “out there,” and [if] it works its way back into the culture by being ubiquitous, I gain. Because ubiquity of images makes them more valuable.

CC: How about an example of what you mean when you talk about how an image’s being used over and over again makes it more ubiquitous and therefore more valuable?

RP: The example that I always like to point to goes back to when I used to work at HBO. (I worked in the entertainment industry for six years.) One day, I was sitting with a colleague of mine who was head of the Time-Life picture collection — a wonderful, wonderful collection of images, many of which are the most emblematic images of the last 70 or 80 years. I asked [my colleague], “What’s your highest revenue-producing image?” She said, “Why I’m surprised you asked, Rick. Of course, you know what it is: It’s the image of everybody sitting in a movie theater with their 3-D glasses on.” You know this famous image. It’s kind of emblematic of the fifties. [Time-Life] makes a great deal of money selling that image…it’s also pirated. It’s been shot over and over again by people. People have set up people in theaters and then shot it on film, so they have a movie version of it. Repetition and ubiquity haven’t lessened the value of that image: they’ve increased it.

Through our partnership with the Internet Archive, my images are just going out all over the world. They are achieving a level of spread and penetration I could never do on my own. And therefore, I think that giving things away ends up benefiting me. You know, these images don’t get used up. They don’t get yellow around the edges. They don’t become less valuable from being shown and repeated. Ubiquity equals value. That’s how I think you can make money by giving things away.

Comments Off on Rick Prelinger

CC Talks With: Wiley Wiggins

Matt Haughey, October 1st, 2005

Wiley Wiggins has starred in the films Dazed and Confused, Waking Life (on which he also worked as an animator), and Frontier. Wiggins was a contributing editor to the late, great FringeWare Review. His collection of short Stories, Solarcon-6, is available for free under a Creative Commons license from his website (also licensed!).

We caught up with him recently to talk about his projects, his use of Creative Commons licenses, and where he thinks the digital rights debate is headed.

Creative Commons: Most people probably know you for your starring roles in Dazed and Confused and Waking Life, but I have a feeling from reading your website that you do quite a bit more than just film acting. What other things do you spend time doing, and what do you consider to be your main passion?

Wiley Wiggins: Acting has been the most visible creative outlet I’ve worked in, but that’s pretty deceptive, since I don’t pursue an acting career or consider myself an actor. I actually suffer from almost paralytic performance anxiety and can only really enjoy myself acting with friends (which is one of the reasons I work in mostly local, independent films). I actually spend most of my time writing and working with imaging and video on the computer. Waking Life was an excellent project for me because it brought everything I do together, as an actor, writer, computer animator, and all around film-fan.

CC: You’ve chosen to license things on your website under a Creative Commons license. Why?

Creative Commons licenses are so much more flexible and powerful than the very limited and draconian traditional copyright license, especially for what I do. I love the idea of being able to bounce ideas back and forth collaboratively with a group, or to be able to disseminate work freely and still have protection from having someone else simply take credit for it. Copying isn’t theft when it comes to an idea; [theft] is someone else trying to take credit for or make a profit from your idea. The more people copy and disseminate my work, the more talented people I can reach out to and hopefully collaborate with one day.

CC: You’ve been in a few big Hollywood movies, but you’re also active in Austin’s EFF chapter and carry Creative Commons licenses on your site. How do you reconcile the discrepancy between Hollywood’s way of doing business (where control is supreme) and, say, the EFF’s and Creative Commons’? Do you fit in with one world more easily than the other?

I think the Hollywood model for filmmaking is inherently flawed in so many ways. (That’s one of the reasons I live in Austin, and make movies kind of in the margins here.) And I think their stale method of dealing with talent and information as “property” is one of the reasons they seem to make the same movie with the same actors over and over again. Perpetual ownership of rights to works that should be public domain; “ownership” of characters and stories and concepts — [the way] that studios will buy the rights to a script and decide to never make it, making it impossible for anyone to do so; making media technology proprietary to the extent that movies cannot be copied or backed up for personal use (this is especially bad now that it has been revealed that many DVD’s have a very limited life span, and that this may have been intentional, so that people would have to buy multiple copies) — all these things may make perfect sense in a creative community where every one is a crook, but it does not make sense to me or to the way that I make art.

My main issue with Hollywood is actually the machinery of distribution. Waking Life was difficult to find distribution for, even though it got great reviews at Sundance, because it didn’t seem to fit into anyone’s pie-chart view of moviegoers. This happens a lot with independent cinema. In a bad economy, none of these large commercial entities are willing to take risks on things they have a hard time hawking to a “focus group.” It’s very frustrating when you have work you want to share with the world, but you have to rely on these outmoded, money-obsessed dinosaurs in order to do so. Creative Commons is a very powerful tool in the journey to live without these entities, and to share art and information without the approval of cabals of advertising executives.

CC: What do you see in the future for the digital rights management (DRM) being used by Hollywood’s movie and music companies? Do you think DRM will help fill consumer and corporate needs, or is there more promise in freer works like those under Creative Commons licenses?

Well, for all the flack it might get on Slashdot, I think Apple’s Music store is a pretty open and moderate use of DRM that keeps both nervous companies and users fairly happy. I’ll support it in the hopes that the music selection grows, and because I think Apple has one of the more benevolent attitudes towards sharing information of the big media/computer conglomerates — except for their own intellectual properties anyway, watch out! I can only hope that these technologies are used more in this style, as opposed to silly, broken formats that won’t let you burn CDs or copy music off more than one computer. Unlimited [burns of] CDs and [use in] iPods is a step in the right direction.

CC: Right now you’re licensing your website under a Creative Commons license. Do you think you’ll license movies, artwork, writings, or other work in the future?

I’m planning on directing two animated shorts in the next year that I think may work well under a CC license. A film created with festivals in mind is an interesting creature. Because you don’t really intend to sell the film itself, just get it seen in order to get interest and funding for larger projects, you don’t need to secure the rights to music you use (if you intend to sell the short later you generally have to re-edit it with music you own the rights to) and you don’t want to be too strict about copyrights on the film either, since you want as many people to see it as possible. I would like to create high-res Quicktime versions of the finished films that I could share via P2P and on my website. I think it’s simply the best way to distribute an underground or independent short film.

CC: With the advent of powerful computers and digital video at consumer prices, where do you see independent film headed? Will we be inundated with boring home movies, or is the next Citizen Kane going to be encoded as Quicktime?

I think that what it takes to make a large-scale film is always going to be prohibitively expensive. High Definition is exciting, but it is still mostly out of reach for independent projects — and beyond just media, there are tons of other costs involved in a large film. The new technology does free people who are doing small scale projects, however — the ability to shoot, edit, and make DVDs or streaming movies of small projects is in the hands of consumers. Yes, this does mean that a lot of crap gets made (let’s do Star Wars parodies until our eyes fall out of our heads!). But it also means I can make my movie, I can show it to people, and maybe I can try my hand at working with a larger group of people on a larger project. So, in a way I think it’s both a training path and an end to itself. It’s perfect for some projects — Waking Life was all shot on DV before being animated for instance — and not for others (Can you imagine Lawrence of Arabia, shot on DV?). In the end, DV, film, super-8, cave paintings — they’re all just tools, and each is appropriate at different times. What we need to pay close attention to is the means of distribution, the legality of different types of sharing, and making sure the voices of a broad spectrum of artists are heard.

Comments Off on Wiley Wiggins

CC Talks With: Moving Images Contest Winners

Glenn Otis Brown, October 1st, 2005

Comments Off on Moving Images Contest Winners

CC Talks With: Media Rights

Neeru Paharia, October 1st, 2005 is an innovative non-profit, based in New York, but accessible around the world via their website that helps to showcase important social issue documentaries and puts media makers, educators, librarians, nonprofits, and activists in contact with each other to enable the use of documentaries to generate discussion and encourage action on contemporary social issues. offers, for free, four distinct toolkits: one for producers; one for educators and librarians; one for activists and non-profits; and, one for youth media producers and activists. co-ordinates an annual Media That Matters Film Festival. The MTM festival is designed to bring high-impact shorts and ‘Take Action tools’ to audiences throughout the United States and some international venues, all year long. The premiere of this year’s MTM festival takes place in New York on May 18, 2005, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music followed by an Awards Ceremony to be held at HBO headquarters on May 19, 2005. recently started using Creative Commons licenses for the films being showcased in the Media That Matters film festival and as part of other projects.

Neeru Paharia from Creative Commons caught up with David Jacobs,’s Director of Distribution and Technology, to find out more about, their various projects and their experience using Creative Commons licenses.

Creative Commons (“CC”): What is the history and mission behind

David Jacobs of (“MR”): The idea for started as a result of a meeting in 1999 of social issue documentary filmmakers and activists, brought together by the Ford Foundation, to talk about ways they could work better together. It was the height of the boom, so the solution was to build a web site. With seed funding from Ford, and some other partners, New York filmmakers Julia Pimsleur and Katy Chevigny created as a 501(c)(3) organization built explicitly to foster this connection. A few months later, MediaRights launched and has been growing ever since.

Now we’re the outreach and distribution half of Arts Engine, Inc., a non-profit organization whose goal is to support, produce, and distribute independent media. In addition to our core web site and the site for the Media That Matters Film Festival, we also maintain the Youth Media Distribution Initiative, whose mission is to improve the distribution of independent youth-created film, video, radio, and new media. We have also produced the web site for the Deadline Outreach campaign, which is intended to motivate ordinary Americans to reevaluate their positions on the death penalty and come to a more informed conclusion about the full ramifications of being “tough on crime”.

CC: What is the history and mission behind the Media that Matters Film Festival?

MR: One of our core philosophies is that the outreach process around a film is as important as the distribution or production process. The festival is a way for us to ‘walk the walk’ in addition to ‘talking the talk’.

The Media That Matters Film Festival is a crystallization of what MediaRights is all about. It’s easy to talk about cooperation between filmmakers and activists, but it’s harder to actually get it done. So in 2000 we started the Film Festival, which is a year long celebration of short activist films. The 16 films that make up the festival each year are streamed from our website, distributed on DVD, broadcast around the United States, and screened around the United States, and at some overseas locations, as part of our traveling film festival.

We pair the films with a series of “Take Action” links and campaigns, so the audience for the films is always presented with an option to act in response to the issues and media that make up the festival. For instance, our film “I Promise Africa” is about the spread of AIDS in Africa in the context of September 11 and the War on Terror. Since the film is only two minutes long, we communicate a lot of the information about the topic via the links and supplementary materials on the site.

CC: What made you decide to license the festival under a Creative Commons license?

MR: We wanted to find a way to get our films distributed to a broader audience, without giving up the filmmaker’s rights, which we were legally bound to protect. The Creative Commons license allowed us to clearly state what rights we wanted to protect and which rights we wanted to give up. Creative Commons, the organization, acts as a supportive and stabilizing presence for our constituents and filmmakers. The resources that Creative Commons provides for free are far greater than what we would have been able to produce and sustain on our own.

A program as large as the festival occupies a large proportion of our time. Since we’re a small organization with only 7 employees, we couldn’t afford to spend the entire year talking to lawyers and negotiating distribution agreements. We wanted to spend our time thinking about creative ways to make media matter more, not talking with our lawyers (as much as I love our lawyer). In past years, we had offered the festival under a non-commercial license to our partners and anyone who wanted to screen the festival. Although our license was good, our members and partners still had to call us to get access to the films and to clarify the finer points of the license. By using the Creative Commons license this year, we hope to make it even easier for our partners and others who want to screen the festival, to do so.

CC: Can you briefly describe the nature of your discussions with the filmmakers about adopting a Creative Commons? What were their concerns?

MR: Every filmmaker wants their film to go farther, and people are (rightfully) a little freaked out about giving up ALL of their intellectual property rights. The CC license allows us to offer a middle path. We want to people to screen the festival, use it in classrooms (there are free companion curriculums on our website), put the DVD on library shelves, and share it with their friends. We are also selling it on Amazon but we don’t want people selling bootlegged copies. This is commonsense to me. I think it is sad, though, that this is seen as so radical in our current political climate.

This is actually the first year that we began selling the DVD as opposed to giving it away, so the nonexclusive nature of the CC license was crucial. Once we explained that Creative Commons didn’t obligate us to give up ALL of our copyrights, people understood the language immediately.

Our goal is to get the films and their messages out as far as possible and the Creative Commons license helps us do that.

People who want to charge tickets for a screening or broadcast the festival still have to contact us, because it’s important to us that filmmakers are fairly compensated for their work and get a cut of any money made off of the films. Any filmmaker’s nightmare is that their work gets repackaged as a bootleg DVD or is screened without their consent, but we were facing these issues before we applied the CC license to our work. It also should be noted that we have a terrific lawyer who does some pro bono work for us, and he was able to clarify issues for us that our filmmakers raised. Mostly, he gave us the confidence to say “Yes, we’ve checked with our lawyer, and this doesn’t compromise our goals in any way.”

CC: Where can people watch this year’s Media That Matters festival?

MR: The festival is streamed on-line, and is available for purchase on DVD. The festival also tours around the United States and some international locations. The most current news about the festival is always available on our blog.

Comments Off on Media Rights

CC Talks With: Ourmedia

Neeru Paharia, October 1st, 2005

Ourmedia launched three months ago as a home for grassroots media. The site provides a place where anyone can upload video, music, photos, audio clips and other personal media and store it for free on ourmedia’s servers forever. Uploaders have the option of making their works available under a Creative Commons license.

Recently, Ourmedia was nominated as the U.S. finalist for the UN World Summit Awards. The awards are an international competition created in 2003 to highlight the most innovative digital content being created around the world. The awards coincide with the 2005 UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), an international UN summit that will take place in Tunisia this November. Despite having only launching in early 2005, Ourmedia was nominated as a finalist in the e-inclusion category-the UN’s term for initiatives that are helping bridge the digital divide, utilizing the Internet to empower the public.

Creative Commons’ Executive Director Neeru Paharia spoke with J.D. Lasica, the co-founder and executive director of Ourmedia. J.D. is also author of the new book “Darknet: Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation,” which includes a profile of Creative Commons and its chairman, Lawrence Lessig.

Creative Commons (“CC”): What are the origins of Ourmedia? Where did the idea come from?

J.D. Lascia (“J.D.”): For years, many of my friends and colleagues had been creating astonishing grassroots video, audio and photos that were hidden away on their computers or posted on a remote corner of cyberspace. I felt that these works deserved a far wider audience.

About a year ago, I gave the keynote at the Digital Storytelling Festival in Sedona, Arizona, and flashed on screen the offer by Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive to provide free hosting and free bandwidth-forever-for works of personal media. The attendees were jazzed by the idea so I immediately began working with Marc Canter on what we were then calling the ‘Open Media’ project. We changed the name to Ourmedia when we discovered that Open Media was, ironically, a trademarked term.

CC: By what process were you able to pull the site/community together?

J.D.: We were able to start building the site almost immediately. About 50 thought leaders in the tech and media communities began working together in a wiki donated by Ross Mayfield of Socialtext. There, we hashed out the framework for the site: its mission; its technology (an interesting hybrid, with free server space from the Internet Archive and from; its design; its legal underpinnings (we would rely on Creative Commons for the bulk of our licenses); and its long-range roadmap. For the first nine months it was an all-volunteer effort. To get us over the starting line, we had to hire a few programmers in New Delhi to make the pieces all work together.

CC: What has the response been like?

J.D.: The response has been phenomenal. We were deluged with so much traffic our first day out on March 21 that our servers crashed. We quickly went to a bigger server. More than 24,000 members have joined so far. People like the fact that we are a not-for-profit organization whose aim is nothing less than to give anyone, anywhere, free storage for works of grassroots media-and to showcase those works for a global audience. We’ve also had conversations with companies that are looking for ways to bring greater visibility to amateur works such as Yahoo! and Google.

CC: What’s your vision for the community, say in 5 years? What kinds of things do you think are likely to happen?

J.D.: Our community efforts are just getting started. In July we will be adding some serious social networking components to Ourmedia. Then, Ourmedia members will be able to form groups or communities of interest around certain subjects or ideas, like citizen journalism or podcasting or videoblogging. We want Ourmedia to become a learning center for people interested in taking part in the personal media revolution. Once people see this as an easy and effective way for them to share best practices, these learning channels will become richer over time.

One aspect that we would like to foster is Ourmedia is educational use. Faculty members at five colleges in the United States and Australia have stepped forward to say they want to work with us to create their own versions of Ourmedia that would be geared toward students and teachers at various grade levels and in various disciplines. Ourmedia could be tailored to any age or interest, with thousands of freely shareable works for the classroom.

CC: What barriers do you think still exist for participatory culture?

J.D.: The barriers are chiefly technological and legal. On the tech side, we have to eliminate the stranglehold that the cable companies and media conglomerates exert over our living rooms. There is this notion that because we have access to 500 channels that we somehow have freedom of choice. But the choices remains confined to a relatively narrow swath of commercial-driven programming and ideas. Breaking through that barrier so that we can watch Internet programming on our living room televisions will be a huge battle over the next decade. At Ourmedia, we are working with the folks at to bring about access to free, open-source video.

On the legal side, the laws governing copyright and remix culture haven’t kept pace with what the digital generation is doing with media today. The laws were written during the analog era for big companies with no thought given to the digital age. Now that every person with an Internet connection has the ability to be a global publisher, how do we safeguard fair use? How do we let grassroots publishers access our visual culture-including borrowing snippets from copyrighted music and movies and television shows-to comment upon and annotate those works, just as we’ve done for centuries in the text world?

Comments Off on Ourmedia

CC Talks With: Illegal Art

Derek Slater, October 1st, 2005

A museum exhibit called “Illegal Art” might sound like a history of naughty pictures. Turns out that the exhibit (through July 25 at SF MOMA Artist’s Gallery) is more innocuous than most primetime TV: A Mickey Mouse gasmask. Pez candy dispensers honoring fallen hip-hop stars. A litigious Little Mermaid. Not kids’ stuff, exactly—but illegal?

Copyright holders have threatened and sued many of the show’s artists for sampling, remixing, and recontextualizing other people’s artistic creations without permission. Featuring audio and visual exhibits, a full length CD, and several films, the show highlights how copyright, typically considered an engine of creativity, can stifle art and free speech.

“Copyright is often so esoteric and theoretical,” said Carrie McLaren, the exhibit’s curator. “We wanted to make copyright’s problems as real to the average person as they are to our featured artists.”

McLaren originally developed “Illegal Art” to support the unsuccessful legal challenge to Congress’ latest copyright extension. Copyrights originally lapsed after 14 years with a possible 14 year extension, allowing artists to build upon a rich array of past works. Disney, for example, recycled Snow White, Cinderella, and many other Brothers Grimm fairy tales that were public domain and thus free to reuse. Today, copyrights last 95 years for corporations or life plus 70 years for individual artists. Because of Congress’ eleven retroactive term extensions over the last forty years, no one can do to Disney what Disney did to the Brothers Grimm.

Until the terms end, copyright owners retain several exclusive rights, including the right to make derivative works. Before you make Rocky X or remix Eminem’s hit “Stan,” you have to obtain permission—read: navigate a labyrinth of red tape—from the work’s copyright holder. Every appropriation is presumptively a misappropriation.

Because this exclusive right is in tension with free speech, artists can invoke fair use to defend their adaptations. Just as courts have protected controversial speech by setting high standards for libel, courts have identified commentary, criticism, and parody in particular as fair uses.

Most works in “Illegal Art” arguably fit this exception: they take “elements of our mass media environment to express how the artist feels about our culture,” McLaren said. Some works probe the ways mass media mixes commerce and art, while other pieces twist societal icons to critique mainstream culture. Kieron Dwyer’s “Consumer Whore” graphic remakes the Starbucks logo into a preppy, cell-phone-yapping, princess of the dollar.

Nonetheless, the lack of a clear, consistent fair use doctrine has created a strong chilling effect on “Illegal Art” parodists and others like them. Judges use a complex balancing test that weighs the new work’s purpose and commercial impact along with the degree to which the new work transforms the original, among other factors. Even when the Supreme Court ruled that rap group 2 Live Crew was not liable for a parody of Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman,” the Court indicated that parody’s protection could be trumped in future cases.

Because of fair use’s ambiguity, critical reuses are still regularly litigated. To avoid embarrassment, copyright holders may try to silence critics and parodists, who often do not have the financial resources to fight back. Though he convinced a judge that his work was a parody, Dwyer was unable to fight on after a year in court and reluctantly agreed to a lopsided settlement. Who needs a defamation claim, likely to fall short of steep legal standards, when a simple copyright cease-and-desist letter will do the trick?

The law is far less forgiving for uses that are not overtly parodic or critical, even if they are highly transformative or borrow only trivial portions. Rapper Biz Markie was told by a judge “Thou shalt not steal” after he sampled twenty seconds of a Gilbert O’Sullivan track. The ruling revolutionized rap from share-and-share-alike to pay-to-play.

Sampling is now something that only people with significant wealth and the right contacts can do. When Redd Kross rock guitarist Steve McDonald added bass tracks to his labelmates The White Stripes’ “White Blood Cells,” he was lucky enough to run into the band and get permission. For most artists, clearing a copyright is too cumbersome, even when the sampled artists do not mind the sampling. Island Records sued Bay Area-based collage pioneers Negativland for parodying a U2 song, though, in a later interview, U2’s lead guitarist said he “didn’t have any problem with” the song and that “the lawsuit was not our lawsuit.”

Had these legal limitations existed years ago, perhaps collage, rap, and Pop Art would have been sued to death before they ever had a chance to flourish. These days, the implication is that these appropriations are lower artforms, deserving legal treatment suited to petty thievery.

“The law presumes that sampling intends to undermine the work of others,” said Mark Hosler of Negativland, whose work is featured in the exhibit and who are helping to develop Creative Commons’ sampling license. “When we make our art to critique others, we’re doing it because we’re inspired by what we find, and I think that’s true of many collage artists. Collage has been a legitimate form of art for a long time, and it’s everywhere in today’s society.”

It’s everywhere in part because cheap editing software and the Internet have made sampling accessible to anyone. Thriving communities of DJs, collagists, and “fan fiction” writers collaborating on and sharing their works exist throughout the Web.

Sampling’s everywhere for another reason. Corporate copyright holders, after years of battling the artform, are now appropriating it. Marketed as a near-revolution in filmmaking, Dreamworks has given Mike Myers an exclusive right to insert himself into certain old movies. Meanwhile, several record labels are allowing people to combine three mainstream music tracks for a Lollapalooza concert contest; of course, all entrees immediately become the labels’ property. Now that the “Illegal Art” artists and many more have popularized their artistic practice and suffered for it, corporate copyright holders are ready to reap the rewards.

To provoke a rethinking of how we treat appropriation art, the “Illegal Art” exhibit is touring the country to show people the value and plight of appropriation artists. Many groups are working alongside the exhibit to achieve its goals, like the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, a joint effort by several law school clinics, that documents and assists accused online artists.

Creative Commons addresses the other end of copyright, providing artists with licenses that permit reuse of their works. Creative Commons licensing is in one sense a pragmatic solution to copyright’s ills. Artists who want to license their works can easily express their preferences in a way that others can identify and trust. In this way, Creative Commons licensing has enabled collaborations that might otherwise require a lawyer and a dozen inquiries. For example, Colin Mutchler submitted “My Life,” an acoustic guitar song, to Opsound, a music registry that requires Attribution-Share Alike licensing; Cora Beth, a total stranger to Colin, then layered a violin onto the song to make “My Life Changed.” No copyright lawyers were consulted—or harmed—in the process.

In another sense, Creative Commons licensing is symbolic. It shows that alternatives to the current legal regime are possible. Artists can create a world where the law meets their expectations about legitimate appropriations — where museums and sterile McMash-Up contests aren’t the only places to see new kinds of art.


CC Talks With: Interview with Flickr

Matt Haughey, October 1st, 2005

Flickr is a new photo management application that lets you annotate photos, share them with friends and family, and now, apply Creative Commons licenses to your shared photos. Flickr’s co-founder, Stewart Butterfield, talked to Creative Commons about this interesting application.

Creative Commons: Can you tell us how flickr came to be?

Stewart Butterfield, Flickr: That’s a long and twisted story! In many ways, Flickr is still coming to be. We decided to begin development on a photo sharing application on December 8th, 2003, and the first preview release went live on February 10th.

featured Flickr work
Stef Noble’s Photos
Share Alike 2.0

Since then it has changed a lot, and the emphasis has shifted from a real time photosharing and instant messaging application with a heavy social networking component (which was based off of technology we had in development anyway) to a more complete way of sharing and managing photos. We’re still a little way from version 1.0, but it has been quite a ride. And the chance to develop both the code and product concept itself with tens of thousands of testers has been really gratifying (if harrowing at times).

CC: Flickr has many interesting features surrounding the idea of putting photos on the web. Can you talk about what sorts of goals you have for Flickr, and where the application might be headed?

SB: There are main things we’re setting out to do. The first is helping people make their photos available to the people who matter to them. That might mean they want to keep a blog of moments captured on their cameraphone, or it might mean that they want to show off their best pictures to the whole world in a gallery or they might want to securely and privately share photos of their kids with their family across the country.

To fulfill this, we want to get photos into and out of the system in as many ways as we can: from the web, from mobile devices, from the users’ home PCs and whatever software they are using to manage their photos. And we want to be able to push them out in as many ways as possible: on the Flickr website, in RSS feeds, via email, by posting to outside blogs or ways we haven’t thought of yet. Making it easier to get photos from one person to another in whatever way they want is a big part of what we do.

Our second big goal is to enable new ways of organizing photos. Once you make the switch to digital, it is all too easy to get overwhelmed with the number of photos you take. Albums, which are the principle way people go about organizing photos today are great — until you get to 20 or 30 or 50 of them. They worked in the days of getting rolls of film developed, but the metaphor stretches to the point of breaking in the digital age.

Part of the solution is to make the process of organizing photos collaborative. In Flickr, you can give your friends, family, and other contacts permission to organize your photos — not just to add comments, but also notes and tags. By capturing the conversations people have about photos anyway, we can safely give up on structured metadata and still have a rich index to search on, so you can still find just the right photo years from now. In a way it’s like the difference between Google and Yahoo, back when Yahoo’s approach was still focused on getting human beings to do the upfront organization of the web into a hierarchy.

CC: How does Flickr use Creative Commons licenses? Do you see Creative Commons licenses solving problems for Flickr creators and visitors?

SB: We allow members to select a default Creative Commons license for all photos they upload and the ability to control licensing on a photo-by-photo basis. This gives people the most flexibility. And I think it does solve a real problem for some people: they want to be able to post their photos on the web and still express their preference as to how their work gets used.

This was an important step for us; as individuals and as a company we believe in and want to support free culture. Creative Commons licensing is great because it just sort of “snaps in” — the hard thinking has already been done, and even some of the technical work. In the longer term we’ll be adding a lot of features which will help viewers find Creative Commons-licensed photos: by license type, by subject, by photographer, and so on. With a powerful search interface we hope that this will become a valuable resource. The best case is really that the creativity that goes into people’s contributions to Flickr goes on to spark yet more creative work by more people around the world. And then they tell two friends …

Comments Off on Interview with Flickr

CC Talks With: Independent Musicians

Matt Haughey, October 1st, 2005

Scott Andrew LePera founded the lo-fi folk-rock project the Walkingbirds in 1998, around the same time he discovered the Web. Since then he’s actively recorded and released songs in MP3 format directly onto the Web from his little bedroom studio in Northern California. The Walkingbirds’ website sees several hundred downloads each month from all over the world, and their first CD release, The Sandalwood Sessions, is available exclusively on the Web.

Dealership began, in a sense, as a music project conceived by Chris Wetherell in 1995 while studying at U.C. Berkeley. To augment his classical studies, he began to think of ways he could explore pop music on his own. When he met Chris Groves, also a student and musician, an idea took root: Chris W. thought it would be cool to start a band with Chris G. His newfound whimsy impelled him to visit Guitar Center one afternoon and blow his student loan check on band gear. Then came a few months of drum ‘n’ bass work, which didn’t go anywhere except to convince the Chrises that they needed at least one guitarist. They begged everyone they knew to be in the band with them, until finally, sucker that she was, Jane agreed to learn to play the guitar.

In the fall of 1998 they released their first EP, Secret American Livingroom, which they recorded in Menlo Park with Guy Higbey. It was sheer luck that they found a great recording engineer who was patient, willing to teach, and open to playing around with some of the pop trio’s more outlandish ideas. Loaded with pop hooks and pretty vocals, it became favorite of local college DJs and indie scenesters. On the strength of this debut, they played Noisepop 1999 with Imperial Teen, and later that year, CMJ in New York.

Their next album, TV Highway to the Stars, was released in late 2001, and they’ve spent much of 2002 working on a follow-up.

These unsigned musicians have embraced the Internet, thorns and all. We caught up with them to talk about their thoughts on how tough it is to make it in music today, what they love about using the Internet to get their music out, what worries them, and how they plan to use Creative Commons licences for their work.

Creative Commons: In the current world of music, unsigned bands greatly outnumber signed recording artists. Tell us a bit about your bands, how you got started, and what types of music you create. How long have you been making music?

Scott, Walkingbirds: I’ve been writing and recording music for over a decade, ever since I got my hands on a roommate’s 4-track back in college. I started playing in bands while at school, although the music I played was much different, mostly grungesque and prog-rock stuff. After my main band broke up, I tinkered with the idea of a stripped-down acoustic act, with lots of vocal harmony and interplay — very different from what I had been doing before.

The Walkingbirds were formed in 1997, and by that time I had a small catalog of new songs [and was] looking for a voice. From the start we decided this was going to be more of a “project” than a band. A “band” implies that we actually rehearse and perform regularly; we wanted to keep it very casual, so we could skip out on a rehearsal and go drink beer with a clear conscience. My co-writer Laurie Hallal had recently gone through the breakup of her very popular band, and we were both burnt out from the effort of trying to make a band work. The goal was to write songs and put them to tape, and have fun doing it. No more than that.

I moved to California in the summer of 2000, and the Walkingbirds as a duo ended. It was around this time that I realized that most of what we paid to have done in a studio could be done inexpensively on a PC. After a bit of tinkering I managed to record and release a handful of new tunes under the Walkingbirds name, exporting them straight to MP3 format and uploading them to my website. So now the Walkingbirds are fully a one-person DIY record-at-home musical project in the strictest sense.

Jane, Dealership: Oh, I like the idea of a “project” as opposed to a “band” very much. In a way that frees you from having to stick to genres. The toughest and most annoying question bookers and promotional people ask is, “Who do you sound like?” When you’re in a band, you feel you have to develop a “band” sound — not that we really do that in Dealership. Which is why it’s hard to say what we sound like.

CC: How much work and time goes into writing a new song or cutting a complete CD?

Scott, Walkingbirds: It’s always an uphill battle for me, mostly because the ideas don’t come easy. I’m lucky if I can complete one song in six months. It was a bit easier when I had bandmates, because you have more contributors and feedback and can complete a song faster, but the end result is usually much different than when you’re writing solo. I have bits and pieces of songs lying around from years ago — a chorus here, a bridge here — waiting to be completed. Sometimes these bits never become whole songs, and sometimes I’ll be noodling around with some old chord progression and things will suddenly click.

Because I record at home, I have the luxury of taking my time and having complete control. Sometimes I’ll work on a sampled drum track for weeks to ensure it sounds as natural and “live” as possible. Or sometimes I’ll stay up late applying random effects to the bass track, just to hear what happens. If I’m unhappy with a vocal take two weeks after I recorded it, I don’t have to book another few hours at the studio four weeks from now; I can walk go into the bedroom, erase it, and do another. There’s no clock, no engineer running patch cords, no arguing with the lead singer, no hauling a drum kit into the basement.

That said, I can’t really say that technology has improved my songwriting. It’s made me more productive by taking away barriers, like the expense of a studio or CD duplication. Occassionally I’ll hear something while tinkering with FruityLoops or Reason that will give me an idea, a place to start. But inevitably it comes down to what (Smithereens’ guitarist) Pat DiNizio calls “ass in chair” — I have to turn off the machine, pick up the guitar, sit down and just write the damn song. I usually have to have a tune completely written in my head before I open ProTools. The great thing about all of this is that, when I am ready to record, I can do it immediately without the constraints I used to have a few years ago.

Jane, Dealership: I would love to do what you do, Scott. Since we put out our first album, we’ve been throwing around the idea of what Chris W. would call, in his Marxist way, “owning the means of production.” But assembling the components necessary to record a four-piece band with three vocals daunted us, and it’s not until recently that Chris W., who has always been a tireless promoter for his integrative capitalist ideals, has really initiated the purchase of computers and tools to record our own stuff at home. We are also starting to play more with non-live sounds — drum machines, samples, electronically derived sounds — and that makes it easier to make music without expensive, fancy mics.

I think that would definitely change our songwriting style, too. The way we do it now, we pretty much complete the song (or we try to) before we go into the studio — because we don’t want to waste a lot of time and money tinkering. Of course we end up tinkering somewhat. But in the future I see the recording process as an integral part of songwriting — in my fantasy, as I mentioned, we email tracks to each other and build off those. Maybe the danger will be we just won’t know when to stop! We’ll create an infinite loop of music.

CC: When you post an mp3 of your music somewhere online, what are the advantages to doing it? What sorts of things are you looking forward to when you offer your music this way?

Scott, Walkingbirds: Immediate distribution: I don’t have to take the extra step of pressing a CD and shipping it out. I often just rip the audio mixdown directly to MP3 and post it the same night I complete the mix.

Immediate feedback: I love hearing from someone who really liked the song, and appreciate the comments from people who thought the drums were too loud, the bassline too cheesy, and so on. And every so often I get a message from someone in Pakistan or Senegal, or somewhere distant that I will probably never see in my lifetime, and I am totally blown away.

Chris W., Dealership: Often, when thinking about the value of distributing our songs as MP3s, I’m reminded of a lyric from the song of a band we know well (Imperial Teen, Luxury). The lyric reads: “I’m looking for a family who listens to my songs.” MP3 sharing has powerfully enabled our ability to join communities of shared values and aesthetics and support. I’ve watched our behavior as artists change; we now derive a good deal of inspiration from the community of people who’ve listened to us and responded and shared their songs or their weblogs or their art. Artists who don’t share MP3s probably have a difficult time leveling the communication between fan and artist to a more rewarding interchange. If a band doesn’t participate in a sharing community, what kind of fan would be inspired to do more than email them and say, “Hey, liked your band on Thursday,” or “I loved that song”? We can trade music and ideas with a subset of people who already are thinking a lot about music, are exposed to many things (via P2P), and can take an active role in developing a critical aesthetic. The Internet, being a data exchange, is a lot more suited to that than any other medium.

MP3 distribution is also pretty nifty since it often enlists other people as third-party distributors via peer-to-peer processes. It’s a much quicker path to community building. (But not the quickest path to passive distribution of knowledge about your music, a process otherwise known as getting your name out there. That distinction, to be sure, still belongs to television.)

We also realize that there may be people who are encouraged to buy one of our CDs after listening to an MP3. But this result, while positive, is really, really low on the list of other values returned from sharing MP3s.

Free trading of our music has genuine, verifiable returns. Community. Exchanges of artistic thought and aesthetic commodity. . . The RIAA argument that artists won’t particpate in the marketplace of ideas without financial compensation for CDs seems pretty short-sighted from where we sit.

CC: Conversely, can you think of any disadvantages of doing it? What things do you worry about when offering your music files online?

Jane, Dealership: There are disadvantages. Recording, for us, costs money; we spent some time and money designing and producing the CD sleeves, too. And then the cost of pressing the CDs — it adds up fast. It would be great if everyone who downloaded Dealership would also go out and buy a CD. It’s a little depressing that they don’t, I guess. But if we ever make it to Boise, there’s a chance that some kids will have heard of us and will want to see us play and maybe buy some t-shirts and related merchandise. Also a lot of the indie scenesters are sensitive to the poverty of the musicians they like and are quite cool about insisting on paying for CDs.

I think ultimately the lesson that music makers, including the major labels, need to learn is that music will be free — utterly, completely, totally. What we’ll get paid for are related products — like the t-shirts, or the live shows, or the unique CD insert, or the poster, or — well, maybe we’re not smart enough to have thought of all that can happen. We need to change our revenue models. Fortunately it’s easy for us — easier than if we were a major label. We’re small, we’re flexible, and we don’t practice economies of scale. We can print 1000 CDs and watch how they sell, and shift if we need to. Which actually puts us in a better position to respond to emergent technologies, and to take advantage of them.

Besides, it’s not like we’re in this for the money, anyway.

Scott, Walkingbirds: Obviously I don’t get any money for offering free downloads. But at this level you really can’t do it for the money. You’ve got to take that opportunity to connect with the people who are going to become your fans and turn them into repeat customers who’ll come see you play and buy your t-shirts.

One thing that does cross my mind from time to time is the possibility that some shmuck will take a song of mine and pass it off as his own. Or, that some company will start using one of my tunes as a jingle for snack crackers or something. But the Web has this tendency to sniff these people out, and I figure it wouldn’t be long before someone emailed me with a note, “Hey, did you hear this? This sounds like YOUR song.” And that’s where traditional, tried-and-true copyright law can still be effective — because even though I choose to make a song freely available, there are still limits. Under a modified license I might even be willing to allow someone to add my song to his setlist, or use it in a soundtrack.

But the same rule applies: ask first, because otherwise you will be found out, and your name plastered all over MetaFilter and Slashdot. Discovery is just a Google search away!

Chris W., Dealership: The downside of this method is significant and obvious. We aren’t compensated monetarily.

Which would be a disaster if we couldn’t derive compensation through other means such as live performance and merchandise. But we can. And because MP3s are traded for free with excellent, easy-to-install tools for sharing and downloading, this method generally yields the highest amount of people actually listening to our songs. Which, if they enjoy the art we create, can be very gratifying personally.

As far as worry. . . we can’t imagine that there’s too much to ever worry about regarding fair use of music. People like songs. They’ll share music with friends and family. As they always have.

I know what you’re getting at, though. Many people worry that offering music files online means No Money For Daddy.

But, as I’ve said before, I am not entirely convinced that the Internet-music-delivery industry and the CD/Cassette/Vinyl-delivery-industry are commodifying the same product. The reason I’m not yet convinced is that it seems unclear to me whether the “norms” for consumption of music are moving dramatically away from CDs and toward digital MP3 encoded files. Doesn’t it seem more realistic to state that a subset of music consumers are both buying CDs (perhaps less than before) and downloading free MP3s? I believe that the elements of CD packaging — including cover, booklet, and CD design — as well as the product’s very physicalness (something that allows for unlimited portability and decorative collection), are such valuable characteristics as to make a practical differentiation possible.

Which is to say that I don’t think people will ever stop buying music on physical media. And as a result, I believe that musicians will always be compensated monetarily. Consumers may become choosier about their purchases, though. Thanks to peer networks, there are many cheap and efficient methods for previewing a particular product’s contents.

CC: Now that you’ve seen the licenses available from the Creative Commons site, can you tell us how you plan to use them for your band’s work? Considering the potential drawbacks to releasing music online, can you see some benefits from using licenses with your work?

Scott, Walkingbirds: I’m seriously considering a combination of Attribution, Non-commercial, and Share Alike for my material. My primary concern is allowing the public the widest possible access to my songs. I don’t want people who just like my music to have to jump through legal hoops to listen to it on their computer or add a song to their Live365 webcast. I want people to share and enjoy this music by whatever means they have. The licensing options I’ve chosen should allow all of that, while protecting the important parts: I get attribution, and you still have to ask my permission to profit from my work. And if you want to make a funked-out disco remix, you can do that, as long as the end result is covered under the same license.

In some ways, it’s no different than regular copyright, except with the restrictions on copying and file-sharing relaxed. I’m comfortable with that. No more of this “you can only make one copy for yourself” crap. Artists have to get used to the idea that people WILL copy your stuff, they WILL share it with friends, and yes, it’s likely that you WILL find your entire album on the Internet. The question is are you gonna treat those people as fans, or thieves? Do you think people who like your music will appreciate being called thieves? Is that any way to establish a relationship with your new, online fanbase? Maybe the big labels can handle it, but I know that at my level, I can’t afford to alienate a single potential fan.

I’m much more comfortable saying, “Here are some songs, go forth and copy,” and not worry about it. What little money I lose to copying, I’ll make up in mutual respect from happy fans, who, I hope, will come to my shows and buy my t-shirts.

Chris W, Dealership: I think we’ll be releasing songs using the Noncommercial license. The upside is that people who are already sharing our songs and have every intention of continuing to do so will not be incorrectly identified as criminals. And we’ll have some ammunition against unauthorized compilations and unwanted inclusion in advertising. (Though, as a suggestion to the good people involved in this endeavor, it would be nice if this license could be applied specifically to a file format, like mp3 compression, and not to, say, .WAV sound files.)

As for the other licenses, Share Alike and Attribution suggest a release we’ve always talked about but never produced: a karaoke version of a song or two of ours. Be your own Chris Groves or Jane Pinckard in the comfort of your living room. Or cubicle, if you have a small mic, recording software, and understanding co-workers.

Comments Off on Independent Musicians

previous pagenext page