Commoner Letter #3: Jonathan Coulton

Jonathan Coulton; photo by Del Far under CC BY 2.0

To our community – for our next commoner letter we are featuring an artist who has really proven that the CC model works for musicians. Jonathan Coulton has made a career out of sharing his music with his fans, not just aurally, but digitally and meaningfully through the prolific use of our licenses. We’ve also worked with Jonathan this year to offer an exciting new CC item — a custom USB jump drive stocked with his music and source tracks. Read on for his heartfelt commoner letter and for more information about our new jump drives. If you would like to receive these email letters, please sign-up here.


Dear Creative Commoner:

I first learned about Creative Commons when I heard Lawrence Lessig speak at a conference in 2004. I had been invited there to sing a silly song about the future, revenge, and robot armies to an audience of futurists and super scientists. It was a little intimidating – I was not even Internet Famous then. I was still working at my day job, trying to figure out how a career software guy in his mid 30s could ever find a way to make a living writing songs. Lessig gave his standard presentation (to this day, still the most delicious Powerpoint kung fu I have ever seen) explaining the history of copyright and the goals of Creative Commons. As we all filed out for lunch, I remember feeling like my head was on fire, it was just the most exciting idea I had ever heard.

In those days one of the things that was keeping me from doing music full time was my lack of a coherent plan: I make music, something happens, I make money, that was about as far as I could think it through. Creative Commons filled in a lot of the gaps for me. I knew about the internet of course, I was aware of the rise of remix culture, file sharing, and fan-created content. But there was something so compelling about the Creative Commons license, the idea that you could attach it to a piece of art you had made and declare your intentions – please, share my music, put it in a remix, make it into a music video. I was thrilled and emboldened by the idea that I could give my songs legs, so that they could walk around the world and find their way into places I would never dream of sending them. I immediately started licensing my songs with CC, and a year later I quit my job to create music full time.

It’s hard to overstate the degree to which CC has contributed to my career as a musician. In 2005 I started Thing a Week, a project in which I recorded a new song every week and released it for free on my website and in a podcast feed, licensing everything with Creative Commons. Over the course of that year, my growing audience started to feed back to me things they had created based on my music: videos, artwork, remixes, card games, coloring books. I long ago lost track of this torrent of fan-made stuff, and of course I’ll never know how many people simply shared my music with friends, but there’s no question in my mind that Creative Commons is a big part of why I’m now able to make a living this way. Indeed, it’s where much of my audience comes from – there are some fan-made music videos on YouTube that have been viewed millions of times. That’s an enormous amount of exposure to new potential fans, and it costs me exactly zero dollars.

When you’re an artist, it’s a wonderful thing to hear from a fan who likes what you do. But it’s even more thrilling to see that someone was moved enough to make something brand new based on it – that your creative work has inspired someone to do more creative work, that your little song had a child and that child was a YouTube video that a million people watched. A Creative Commons license is like a joy multiplier. The art you create adds to the world whenever someone appreciates it, but you also get karma credit for every new piece of art it inspires. And around and around. This is my favorite thing about Creative Commons: the act of creation becomes not the end, but the beginning of a creative process that links complete strangers together in collaboration. To me it’s a deeply satisfying and beautiful vision of what art and culture can be.

This is why I’ve chosen to release a greatest hits album of my Thing-A-Week songs to help support Creative Commons’ 2008 campaign. We’ve teamed up to combine not only the unreleased “JoCo Looks Back” album, but all of the unmixed audio tracks for all of the 20 songs on a custom CC green 1gb jump drive. The drives, whose entire contents are licensed under CC’s BY-NC-SA license, will be available exclusively through Creative Commons’ support site until December 31st, and you can get one today when you donate $50 and above.

4 thoughts on “Commoner Letter #3: Jonathan Coulton”

  1. I can attest that my discovery of Jonathan Coulton’s music was directly related to the Creative Commons. My first experience with his music was a World of Warcraft machinima for Code Monkey. The video was hilarious and the music definitely related to me. Googling his name led me to his website and the rest is history.

    Creative Commons Licensing is absolutely exciting and I’m happy that Jonathan Coulton chose to license his songs this way.

  2. I think I found JoCo through BoingBoing, which led me to his site, which led me to buy tickets for *both* his london gigs and buy his CD’s each time.

  3. I am a fan of the local cast of the Rocky Horror Picture Show in St. Petersburg, Florida (Interchangeable Parts) I’ve have been going for many years. This last year they were able to film and show on the big screen a music video of Re: You Brains by JoCo.

    The cool thing was, that being intimately involved with a movie theater, you hear all kinds of things about movie print licensing, and the outrageous costs, and the hoops that theaters have to jump through, how you can’t display even portions of movies without all of the correct permission.

    Technically the derivative live show that a cast of Rocky Horror performs is against the licensing agreement for the movie, but the studio turns a blind eye to it, because it’s what allows them to continue to license so many prints of the film after 30 years.

    But do they change the licensing agreement? No! They just don’t enforce it… They still will darn well keep all of the control, even though it’s the decision not to enforce their license that has net them so much money over the years from a mostly unsuccessful B movie (in it’s original run) making it one of the most successful runs of any movie in history.

    But the CC license that JoCo uses allowed the Interchangeable Parts cast to put together a cool derivative work in the form of a music video without letters of permission, without licensing fees, without the headache… and that video is another source of advertising. I’m sure there were people who sat in that theater who never heard a JoCo song that because of the “RE: You brains” video searched for him online, and may have purchased music from JoCo. It’s a win win situation!
    Curious about the music video that IP produced?


  4. Thanks to the CC license my start up production company was able to work with Jonathan Coulton to make a music video for his song Code Monkey ( ) his openness with his work has allowed us a fantastic opportunity! and by linking to us he also gave us fantastic cross marketing all because of the freedom he supports and shares with his art!

    Thanks to CC license

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