Hal Abelson

Meet our board members: Hal Abelson

Lisa Katayama, November 3rd, 2010

Founding board member Hal Abelson was an advocate of Creative Commons from before the organization even existed. He was a grad student in the 60s when people starting buzzing about computers. “They cost several million dollars at the time,” he says. “My first thought was, this computer thing is great, you can turn kids loose on it.” Now a Class of 1922 Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at MIT, Abelson has always advocated widely and deeply for sharing on the Web. In the early 80s, he published a book about the Logo programing language after spearheading its first implementation for Apple. He created free software before the Free Software Movement even existed. And in 2002, he started MIT’s OpenCourseWare program, which offers teaching materials from MIT classes for free. It was the first large corpus published under a CC license.

Abelson’s latest venture is Google’s App Inventor for Android, an interface that lets anyone visually design games, educational apps, text tools, and other fun products easily. “It should be natural that you can take your cell phone and build a mobile app for your friends on it.” He notes that people tend to experience technology as consumers rather than creators; this, he believes, has the potential to shift.

One of the greatest challenges facing CC, Abelson points out, is parsing the complex, non-intuitive legal language of copyright into something that everyone can use and relate to. “When we started CC there was the Internet, but people could not use it according to the law. Now we’ve built this enormous, wonderful technical infrastructure of communication sharing and reuse, but our institutions are still in gridlock. There’s a tremendous discrepancy between the law and people’s behavior. In order to make it really okay for people to reuse and remix material from another web page, using CC licenses has to be easy. The legal concepts in copyright just aren’t intuitive—they don’t align with the reality of the things people think about.”

Nonetheless, Abelson is optimistic and excited about the future of sharing. “Creative Commons is the foundation of open sharing on the web. Almost everybody uses CC every day. They may not think about it, but they do. We’re able to come together in a way that was never ever possible. To me, that’s what changes humanity.”

Join Hal Abelson in showing that you care about Creative Commons by donating to CC today.

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Intellectual backing for the CC paradigm shift

Mike Linksvayer, December 21st, 2009

Our board member Hal Abelson points us to Modeling a Paradigm Shift: From Producer Innovation to User and Open Collaborative Innovation , an important new paper by Carliss Y. Baldwin and Eric von Hippel. If you’re interested in the theoretical case for the ascendancy of innovation and creativity in the commons — and for policy that does not cripple the commons — read, or at least skim these highly readable 29 pages. Their first policy recommendation should come as no surprise:

The roots of this apparent bias in favor of closed, producer-centered innovation are certainly understandable – the ascendent models of innovation we have discussed in this paper were less prevalent before the radical decline in design and communication costs brought about by computers and the Internet. But once the welfare-enhancing benefits of open single user innovation and open collaborative innovation are understood, policymakers can – and we think should – take steps to offset any existing biases. Examples of useful steps are easy to find.

First, as was mentioned earlier, intellectual property rights grants can be used as the basis for licenses that help keep innovation open as well as keep it closed (O’Mahony 2003). Policymakers can add support of “open licensing” infrastructures such as the Creative Commons license for writings, and the General Public License for open source software code, to the tasks of existing intellectual property offices. More generally, they should seek out and eliminate points of conflict between present intellectual property policies designed to support closed innovation, but that at the same time inadvertently interfere with open innovation.

You can be a policymaker — share, discover, and support the commons. Regarding the last, read and heed Hal Abelson’s personal appeal — in this you’ll join Eric von Hippel, co-author of the above paper (see contributor list on Hal’s page).

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RDFa now a W3C recommendation; message from Hal Abelson

Mike Linksvayer, October 16th, 2008

Yesterday RDFa, a technical standard Creative Commons has championed at the World Wide Web Consortium for five years, was made a W3C Recommendation — a standard for the web to build upon.

CC founding board member and MIT computer science professor Hal Abelson sends this message:

Dear Staff and Board,

I’m writing with some great news:

Today, the technical specification RDFa in XHTML Syntax and Processing was formally accepted as a Web Consortium Technical Recommendation by W3C Director Tim Berners-Lee.

Those the words might not mean much to any but the geekiest of us — but this is a big deal.

Creative Commons was a early adopter of Semantic Web standards. And yet, while the Semantic Web provided RDF as a standard for expressing metadata, it did not provide a standard for how that metadata should be integrated into ordinary Web pages.

The original concept of the Semantic Web did not encompass the notion that ordinary Web pages would be augmented with machine-readable metadata. Even today, that notion remains controversial. One considerable faction still holds that HTML should be purely a formatting language with no provision for any semantic information at all. Other factions, like microformats community, advocate metadata standards that do not integrate well into RDF and general Semantic Web applications.

CC licensing was the first use of the Web to envision Web publishers augmenting their pages with small amounts of machine-readable markup: the CC licensing attributes. It was our desire achieve this consistently with the Semantic Web that led to our involvement with the Web standards community; and the need to advocate for such a standard was why CC joined the Web Consortium in the first place.

RDFa is the standard that has emerged from this effort. RDFa is a general mechanism for expressing machine-readable attributes on Web pages in a way that is integrates with HTML. The most obvious example for us is the Creative Commons Rights Expression language (ccREL) — a machine-readable way to express CC licensing.

W3C’s adoption today of the RDFa recommendation solidifies the technical underpinning of ccREL and opens the door to the development and widespread support for CC-compliant tools on the Web.

There are many people who deserve credit for RDFa. Mike Linksvayer and Nathan Yergler certainly get kudos for their consistent support and development of the CC infrastructure to emphasize RDFa and ccREL.

But the lion’s share of the credit goes to Ben Adida, CC’s W3C representative, who led this effort creatively and tirelessly. Ben’s leadership in the technical design of RDFa and the negotiations and refinements to bring RDFa all the way through the complex Web standards process has been an effort of more than five years.

This work on RDFa not only has major benefit to CC, but it’s a significant example CC providing technical leadership in Web community and a contribution that will have implications far beyond CC’s own applications.

Ben deserves our sincerest thanks and congratulations.

== Hal

(Also check out Hal’s starring role in the new Jesse Dylan video about Creative Commons, A Shared Culture.)

Congratulations and thanks to Ben and everyone else who has worked so hard on this effort for so many years.

If you’re a web developer, check out RDFa and ccREL. A great place to start is Ben’s Introduction to ccREL talk from our first CC technology summit held in June (slides and video available at the link; also check out the CFP for our upcoming December tech summit at MIT). Ben also recommends a new post from the founder of Drupal on Drupal, the semantic web and search.

Otherwise (and even if you are a web developer), the best way to support this work is by supporting Creative Commons. Our annual fundraising campaign just kicked off yesterday, so now is an excellent time to give.


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