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Meet our board members: Molly Van Houweling

Lisa Katayama, November 23rd, 2010

Molly Van Houweling
Molly Van Houweling by Joi / CC BY

When Molly Van Houweling ran Creative Commons back in 2001, she was the only staff member, working out of a small office on the third floor of the Stanford law school building. Her work there was mundane but critical: taking off from the pivotal meeting among the founders at the Harvard Berkman Center earlier that year, the once-advisee of Larry Lessig was doing paperwork and drafting the legal language that would become the foundation of Creative Commons.

Van Houweling worked with the founding team to settle on the idea of making machine-readable licenses for creative works and to begin designing the infrastructure and drafting the legal language for these licenses. “We received some skeptical responses from people and didn’t do a lot of market testing to guarantee adoption, but moved forward based on the creativity that we were sensing and observing on the Internet.” The free software movement of the 80s and 90s also suggested that there was a market of creativity not motivated by the traditional copyright model of selling things under exclusive rights. From the beginning there was a wide range of CC adopters, including Boing Boing, PLoS, Magnatune, and the MIT OpenCourseWare project.

In the summer of 2002, she handed off the executive director role to Glenn Otis Brown and moved to Michigan to teach law. She has since continued to champion CC by promoting our “some rights reserved” approach at conferences and teaching the principles of CC to her classes.

Today, Van Houweling is a law professor at UC Berkeley, where she teaches classes about copyright and intellectual property. She always starts her classes by explaining the traditional justifications for this body of law–the fear that some creativity might not happen if the creators were not protected from having their work copied and distributed in a way that prevents them from reaping their investment. But she also encourages them to think about how sound this argument is when looking at the bigger picture. “As students have become more familiar with models like CC and the explosion of creativity on the Internet, it’s become easier for them to see the limits to this explanation of copyright protection.”

Creative Commons has influenced her life in other ways, too. Van Houweling is a competitive bicycle racer–she’s the reigning champion in Northern California and Nevada in the women’s individual time trial event and the 2010 winner of the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic stage race. “It’s a big thrill for me when the pictures taken of me are CC licensed,” she says. “Some of the best pictures of me from Mt. Hood were taken by [MetaFilter founder] Matt Haughey and have been used by local papers and on the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic web site.” She’s also an avid traveler who likes to take pictures of food and drink that she encounters on her journeys, and was delighted to find that one of her CC-licensed Flickr photos was used in several Wikipedia entries to illustrate a Spanish herbal brandy. “My creativity was never motivated in a way that had to do with copyright, and it’s much more rewarding now that people don’t have to ask for my permission.”

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