Glenn Otis Brown, April 3rd, 2005
This news hasn’t exactly been a secret up until now, but it hasn’t been official either. Starting tomorrow, I’ll be hanging up the Creative Commons jersey to start work full-time at Google, as a product advisor and eventually product counsel. Before I go, I have plenty to say about, and many people to thank for, the amazing experience Creative Commons has been.
Just over three years ago, I started work at Creative Commons with little idea of what I was getting into. It involved copyright, I knew, and it involved Lawrence Lessig, and that alone was enough to ditch my plans to practice law in New York. (Ok, practicing law wasn’t too tough to pass up, but New York was.) It became clear shortly into the job that the decision was even better than I’d ever imagined. It was as if everything I’d done, in school, at work, and through my hobbies, had culminated in this position working for an embryonic nonprofit called Creative Commons.
Here are three little anecdotes that give a glimpse into how winding up at Creative Commons was, for me, like making a brand-new friend whom I felt I’d known forever.
In college, I played in a band. We weren’t particularly good, but we had a great time, and over two years I learned the single most important lesson about creativity that I’ve learned to date: Next to romance (with which creativity shares a few features), making something with friends, with everyone contributing different but equal parts, has got to be the most fun thing in the world. It’s also, I realized, the only way things really get made. I don’t care if you’re Bob Dylan — nothing comes out of your own head and into life without the influence of others, whether living or dead. (Every time you pick up a guitar, you’re collaborating with the dead.) I started looking more closely at CD liner notes, at writers’ biographies, at the acknowledgements sections of books, looking for clues into the real story behind the creation of anything credited to only one person. I didn’t find much, and I didn’t understand why.
In law school, I wrote an article about the musical Rent — not my favorite piece of art, by a long shot, but one with a great joint-authorship dispute at its center. The playwright worked closely with a dramaturge to get the show into Broadway shape, and pretty much everyone agreed that without the dramaturge’s contributions, the final show would never have existed. Problem was, they had no contract, and no other paperwork demonstrating an intent to share authorship credit. So, a federal court gave the full copyright to the playwright. In the article I argued that it was nonsense to expect artists to begin a jam session by filling out paperwork. (If you’ve seen “Get Creative,” our first flash movie, the line “we interrupt this brainstorm to call the lawyers” comes straight from that experience.) But, as sure I was that the rules were wrong, I had no idea what to recommend in their place.
By the time I finished school, and thanks to a lot of people at the Berkman Center, I was fully infected with the IP bug. I was genuinely obsessed with the riddle that we’re all still trying to figure out: How will all this stuff work in the future? How can we keep up this technological progress without giving artists the shaft? I still didn’t have an answer. I remember very well doing my first stab at public speaking on a panel at a conference in New York. Siva Vaidhyanathan also spoke, as did the Dead Kennedy’s Jello Biafra. Biafra was railing against the music industry and professing his love for Napster (which was then at its peak), but also explaining how he didn’t want his songs winding up in Coca-Cola commercials. I remember saying something like, “Hey, Jello, you can’t have it both ways.”
That statement ranks right up there with the time in 1995, when I told a scholarship interview committee that the Internet “was overrated,” as the dumbest thing I’ve ever said.
It wasn’t until I finally wrapped my brain around the idea behind Creative Commons, cooked up collaboratively by our board of directors, that I felt someone had begun to crack the riddle. That epiphany was the first of many in my three years here; over and over again I found myself the lucky steward of other people’s amazing ideas. From our logo (thank you, Ryan Junell) to our icons (thanks, Molly) to the vision of iCommons (Lessig, Christiane, Roland) to the Tech Challenges page (Hal Abelson) to the sampling licenses (Negativland!) to the WIRED CD (Conde Nast and the whole editorial staff) to CC Mixter (Neeru) to CC Publisher (Nathan Yergler) to CC Search (Mike, Nutch, Yahoo!) to our site re-design (Matt, Adaptive Path) — the list could go on and on — I’ve had the chance to stand at the hub of a giant collaborative creation without really doing much of the creating. It’s been a bit like being in a band, but I feel more like the guy behind the soundboard than one of the musicians. And I feel awfully fortunate to have been there to witness it all.
I’m sure that, in some form or other, I’ll carry on with the CC effort. But in any case, I like to think that like Menudo or Spinal Tap, we’re the kind of band that stays together regardless of the particular line-up at a given time.
(This is the first of a few posts I’d like to write before offically signing off. I’m a lame-duck with a few hours of bully-pulpit left, so bear with me.)