Sharing matters. Thanks to the digital revolution, we share things like never before, from scientific research to family photos, from day-to-day life to college courses — and all instantaneously. The variety and volume of sharing today was unimaginable even just a decade ago. Now social media and publishing platforms, smartphones, cheap data, and expanded internet access have enabled more sharing, both in forms that bring us joy and connection, and in the spread of lies, hate and misinformation. Our digital life reflects human nature in all its complexity, highlighting both the good and the bad.
All this sharing has created a flood of new copyrighted works — practically everyone is now a published author, many times over, when we think of all our social media postings — but is the current copyright paradigm working in our interest?
Copyright law is a strand of intellectual property law that affects us all, helping decide what we can read, listen to, watch and share online. It impacts creators, innovators and users of content. We all agree that creators should be fairly rewarded for their works. The economic argument that stronger protection for authors’ rights will inevitably lead to more gains for individual creators may appear convincing in the abstract. However, in practice, the economic argument does not turn out to be persuasive, because extending copyright terms from a few decades to life plus 70 years has not materially increased earnings for the majority of individual creators. Instead, it has generated greater monopolies, benefiting select corporations whose profit motives lift only a few star players. The vast majority of creators do not experience the benefits of the current copyright system first hand. When culture is paywalled, rented and held for profit, when knowledge is locked away, when our libraries are threatened and educators diminished, there’s a chill cast on how our society interoperates, and ultimately on the health of our democracy.
Onerous copyright rules, benefiting the few and not the many, obstruct our access to culture, the knowledge we share, and the society we care about. In order to empower individual creators and safeguard our democracy, Creative Commons (CC) has developed an alternative system to the onerous all rights reserved copyright rules, enabling a commons of knowledge and culture which is freely accessible to everyone, everywhere. We offer a set of open licenses and public domain tools free for anyone to use — a new system where creators get to make their own choices about which rights they want to keep and which rights they want to share. By making their own choices for sharing, creators can reach new and expanded audiences, and people across the planet can access works and ideas to build new creations. Our licenses are now the global standard for sharing content, for creators, researchers, educators, librarians, archivists and governments.
As CC celebrates 20 years of facilitating the sharing of content across the planet, it is important to reflect on what we have learned.
Firstly, our strategic shift away from sharing just for sharing’s sake to working for better sharing, helps us address the careful balance between sharing that is in the public interest, and sharing which is not. This is important at a time when all the benefits that the internet has brought to us seem to be so quickly forgotten, and the predominant narrative is around “harm” rather than public interest. At CC, we want to shift this narrative back to the importance of why sharing matters and how we can do it better. This is why we are an organizing partner in the nascent Better Internet movement, and are actively advocating around the world to ensure that human values and public interest are front and center in our online world.
Secondly, time and time again, we see digital public infrastructure and goods taken for granted. At a time when the public interest often stands in direct contrast to the commercial interest of the creative industries and large tech firms, we need public investment in the structures that underpin the open commons. If we are not careful, the internet will be just a collection of those company towns, where you get paid in company scrip, can only buy from the company store, and only hear the company line and see the company viewpoint. With democracy already in a fragile state and open societies threatened, we need investment in the infrastructure that protects the public interest. Creative Commons is part of this public infrastructure. Without it, we will be poorer, less open and less democratic.
Thirdly, CC needs to be better at publicizing and promoting our work, to reach more people, so that our tools and services can be used to help expand the open commons of knowledge and culture even further. Our impact dwarfs our resources. Even though people use the open commons daily, the vast majority of the public have never heard of CC, or if they have, they are either surprised there is an organization behind the licenses at all, or they think that we are the size of Wikimedia — when in reality CC has a staff of 20, and Wikimedia over 550. We at CC recognize this challenge, and this is why we are already working with our existing network to build a new community of young and emerging leaders who can carry the torch of open knowledge and culture forward into the future.
Finally, the world we live in today is different from the one when CC was first created. Looking forward, as I mark my 2nd anniversary at CC, I see our challenges and opportunities are to recognize and consolidate the impact we’ve made in supporting the growth of the commons, but also to continue that impact in this emerging era of AI, big data, and web3 to effect positive change in our world. We have reshaped the copyright regime in 20 years, becoming the global standard for open content sharing. Now we stand at the cusp of the next 20 years, encountering new places and spaces for dialogue, and championing a new generation of practitioners and advocates, but most importantly, continuing to build a commons of knowledge and culture that is accessible to everyone, everywhere. I look forward to working with you all to make this vision a reality.
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