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CC in Review: Lawrence Lessig on CC & Fair Use


[This is part of a weekly series written by Lawrence Lessig and others about the history and future of Creative Commons. Alternatively, if you know others who might find these interesting, please recommend they sign up at]

From last week’s episode:

Widespread DRM would disable that interoperability. Or at least, it would disable interoperability without permission first. And while fair use is a codified exception to that control, as we see them today, DRM technologies cannot respect “fair use.”

Why is that so? And how does Creative Commons respect fair use?

The story continued…

I began this series with a bit of background. This is the last of these background emails.

In the first week, I described the basic idea of Creative Commons — free licenses that signaled to the world the freedoms an author intends his work to carry. In week two, we confessed we stole this idea from the Free Software Movement. In very different contexts, both they and we use free licenses to avoid the creativity-stifling effects of overly restrictive control. That control was the subject of last week’s email — the technical locks that control access to and use of content that we call DRM. DRM, we fear, will add a layer of restriction to the Internet that will defeat content interoperability, and weaken “fair use.”

“Fair use”: No word is more used in debates about copyright with less understanding. What is “fair use” (in America, “fair dealing” in most of the rest of the world) and how does DRM threaten it?

The law recognizes three kinds of “uses” of copyrighted works:

  1. Free uses (uses that don’t trigger the law of copyright, such as reading a physical book);
  2. Regulated uses (uses that do trigger the law of copyright, such as republishing a book;
  3. Fair uses (uses that trigger the law of copyright, but which are nonetheless free because the law deems them “fair” — such as copying words from a book in a review of the book).

Digital technologies are changing the balance between these three kinds of uses. As life moves online, “free uses” shrink. Because every act on a digital network produces a copy, and “copies” trigger copyright law, there are vastly fewer “free uses” in digital space than in analog space.

This shrinkage means that “fair use” must now shoulder the burden of protecting uses that were before free. Yet there isn’t much precedent protecting these new “fair uses.” For example, there is no case that says it is a “fair use” to give someone a book. That’s because in the analog world, giving someone a book never triggered copyright law, so no one ever needed the copyright defense of “fair use” to authorize that giving. But in the digital world, giving someone a book means making a copy. If that copy is not authorized, then it is only “fair use” that can secure the freedom to share. And those trying to defend the freedom to give must look to a body of “fair use” law built for a different world.

This point is crucial: we now must rely upon a clumsy and expensive legal defense (“fair use”) to protect freedoms that were before taken for granted. No doubt, with all the money and time in the world, we might imagine that “fair use” freedoms would balance out. But this is where DRM becomes a particularly dangerous problem.

For before you can claim your use is “fair,” you must have the technical ability to use the work in a particular way. “Fair use” is a defense; you have to be able to use the material in a way that creates a copyright question before you get to play your defense.

Yet if DRM is deployed the way most of it is designed, then the technology will remove the technical ability to use the work in a way that even gives you the right to make a fair use. “Fair use” would thus not be removed by the law. “Fair use” would be removed by code. And as in the United States at least, it is an offense to build tools to tinker with that code — even if the purpose is “fair use” — you begin to see the danger of DRM: digital technologies have shrunk the range of “free uses” (since every use produces a copy); this new generation of digital technology (DRM) will shrink the range of “fair uses,” by removing even the ability to use content in a way that would otherwise be “fair.”

That’s the problem that DRM creates for “fair use.” How can Creative Commons help solve this problem?

In two important ways:

  1. By building a layer of Creative Commons marked creativity, we increase the range of creative work that doesn’t need the locks of DRM.
  2. By banning the use of DRM that interferes with the freedoms guaranteed by our license, we assure that the freedoms we’ve built into our license are not restricted by DRM. Among these freedoms, the very first is “fair use.” As section 2 of every license says, “Creative Commons licenses do not modify or restrict ‘fair use.'”

Thus we use our licenses to build the freedoms authors want upon a reinforced layer of “fair use” freedoms. Creative Commons is thus “fair use”-plus: a promise that any freedoms given are always in addition to the freedoms guaranteed by the law.

That’s the end of the background. Next week I will describe some of the fun stuff Creative Commons has built, and some more about where we’re going.

Week 3 – CC in Review: Lawrence Lessig on Interoperabilty
(Spanish Version – Thanks to Maria Cristinia Alvite for translation)

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Posted 26 October 2005