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CC in Review: Lawrence Lessig on New Projects


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From last week’s email:
Next week: More new projects.

The story continues.
So, what’s new? Where are we going next? What projects would Creative Commons like to do that this fundraising campaign could support?

In this next-to-last email, I’ll describe two projects we’d like to launch. This isn’t a formal announcement. If you ask me about these projects outside of this email, I’ll deny knowing anything about them. Both are far enough along to build support to launch them, but not far enough along to properly announce them. What would put them over the edge is a strong reaction of support from you (or your friends). And now is the time we need that support.

A public domain wiki

One project that we’re very close to announcing draws together the wisdom and expertise of the Wikipedia project with the extraordinary foresight of a major rights organization keen to help clarify the boundaries of the public domain. The project would work something like this: This rights clearing organization (and we can’t say which one just now) would give us a data dump of records they have about authors in a particular country. Those records would include books published by those authors, the authors’ dates of birth, and if available or relevant, the authors’ dates of death. Using that information, one could determine which works were in the public domain. The problem is that the data about whether an author has died is often incomplete and sometimes inaccurate. So the question is how we might supplement that data through a community process that could add lots of value to this database.

Enter the ideals of a wiki. Through a site run by the Creative Commons affiliate in the country we’re working with, we’d build a community devoted to “rediscovering the public domain in country X.” That community would develop procedures for updating the data about the public domain status of a work— procedures for establishing levels of confidence in the accuracy of that data, for example, before it was added to the wiki. The community would also encourage other data be added to the database, such as reviews of the authors’ books, links to places the books might be bought, and biographies of the authors themselves. We imagine this site could become a goldmine of information about authorship within country X, drawing new attention out of print or hard to find work by older authors and generating new interest in their work.

We’d then craft a set of APIs — basically interfaces to the database — that anyone could use to ping the database and get information about a particular work. For example, anyone could ask, for free, if a particular book by a particular author is in the public domain or not, and the database would return an answer with some indication about levels of confidence. (E.g., “With 95% confidence, we can say this book is in the public domain.”) This data could then be used by people to decide what books could be made available on the Internet or what permissions are needed to use the book in a university class.

This project, called the WikiPD, has just received seed funding. For us to commit to it will require another big chunk of public support. So here’s the question for you: Should we?

Returning Authors’ Rights

The second project we’ve been working on in stealth is a plan to give creators a chance to recover rights that they signed away many years ago which the law gives them the chance to recover. Under US copyright law, a creator has the right to “terminate” any transfer of rights he or she made 35 years after the transfer. But to do so requires an insanely complex series of steps which most creators simply don’t have the time or knowledge to engage in. Thus, the law gives authors this right, but the law is so insanely complicated that creators would have a difficult time trying to exercise it.

We can help with this. Over the past year, we’ve been mapping out a computer program — a kind of wizard for termination of transfer applications — that creators could use to know whether they have rights that they might reclaim and to help authors reclaim those rights. Using our wizard, a creator would enter information about his or her transfer of rights. The wizard would then indicate what possibilities are likely. And if the creator wants, the system would then refer the case to a legal aid clinic or Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, so that with the help of a trained counselor, the creator could reclaim his or her rights. We’d offer this tool for free. And while, of course. we’d give creators the freedom to license any rights they recover under Creative Commons licenses, we wouldn’t require them to do so. Instead, our only purpose is to make the law simple so that it might work better for the people it was intended to benefit: Creators.

This project will surprise some — those who think (wrongly) that we’re against authors’ rights. In fact, in my view, this project is the best expression of the ideals of Creative Commons: Find a way to make the law simpler to manage, and find a way to make it easier for creators to get what they want.

This project too needs a substantial amount of support. We should have a beta by the beginning of February. But to test and implement the project will require a great deal of infrastructure. Here is yet another reason why you need to click on the support link below. Or better yet, another reason why you should send the support link to your 10,000 best friends. If we’re to make these projects happen, we need to build the infrastructure that they need. And while some out there work for the sort of salary I get at CC (ie, nothing!), not everyone on our staff can afford that sort of commitment. So click and support, or email and ask others for support.

Next week, the final of these emails.

Posted 21 December 2005