Fighting Back Against Public Domain Erosion By Growing The Commons

from the don't-take-it-lying-down dept

There have been a number of stories on Techdirt recently about governments diminishing the public domain – not just by extending copyright for future works, but also by putting works currently in the public domain back under copyright, both in the US and EU. Reversing that trend ? by pushing back copyright’s term closer to the original 14 years, say ? will be challenging, to put it mildly.

But there’s another way to fight back against that loss, as this Wikimedia Foundation project shows:

Wiki Loves Monuments was a crazy idea: ask people to get out of their houses and take a picture of the cultural heritage around them, of monuments and buildings! In September 2010, however, the idea proved far from crazy ? 250 people participated in the Netherlands and submitted 12,500 photos. Last month, during the pan-European 2011 contest, we crushed that number.

In the past few months, volunteers throughout Europe have worked hard to organize this public photo contest in 18 countries throughout Europe ? from Portugal to Estonia ? and with great success. More than 5,000 people participated, submitting an amazing 165,000 photos? all available under a free license, and usable on Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia and other places on the internet.

The key part is the “free license” required: judging by this rules page (in German), that seems to mean cc-by-sa. Strictly speaking, that’s not public domain, but images released under this license can still be used very widely (including commercially.)

The Wiki Loves Monuments competition was a clever way to get people to contribute to this corner of the digital commons; but many people are happy to do that even without incentives. Flickr has just announced that over 200 million photos on its site have been released under a Creative Commons license. Now, it’s true that 145 million of these permit only non-commercial use, but that still leaves 18 million under cc-by-sa, and 25 million under the even more liberal cc-by license.

Even if they don’t compensate for what is effectively the government-sanctioned theft of the public domain around the world, these growing stores of cc-licensed images on Flickr and elsewhere show how it is possible for everyone to fight back, simply by creating and releasing works under permissive licenses ? including, of course, placing them fully in the public domain.

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Comments on “Fighting Back Against Public Domain Erosion By Growing The Commons”

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Marcel de Jong (profile) says:

Re: Re:

There is no way to release stuff into the public domain, anything you create is automagically copyrighted. So you can’t create LESS copyrighted works.

But you can make it so that you set a clear license on what can be done with your works, even though it is copyrighted. Sort of giving your written permission to have your work copied, before it’s been asked. (as is usually the copyright notice)

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“Is this some sort of “fight fire with fire” situation I’m not fully understanding?”


The CC licence is an alternative to traditional copyright. Because of changes to the law, any work you create would automatically be released under that traditional copyright model, unless you expressly opt out, until well past your date of death. However, opting out would make the work public domain, meaning that you have zero control and anyone could create a derivative work released under traditional copyright without even needing to credit the original artist.

This CC licence (as I understand it) essentially offers the best of both worlds. The work is free to distribute and derive from, but is provided protection from the author in that credit must be given, and subsequent works have to be released under the same licence. It also protects against legal changes such as those that have recently robbed from the public domain in the EU.

I think that the idea of promoting the use of this licence is two-fold. First of all, it undermines the myth that traditional copyright is necessary for artists to create new works – the more CC licensed content is out there, the more clearly exposed as a myth this becomes. The second is to make artists aware that there are alternatives, and that sticking to the model that benefits large corporations is not the only path.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“I have to ask: So?”

You’d have no problem with, say, large corporations simply repackaging independent work from the PD for near 100% profit, without even crediting the original authors? I’d certainly see an issue with this, as would many artists.

The argument reminds me of the whole open source movement. Like-minded coders wanted to share their work and collaborate, but they were afraid that others would simply take their work and pass it off as their own if it was released as free code without copyright protection. Once the GPL and similar licences gained traction, they were afforded some protection against this, and open source is now a major mainstream area of software development. Even Microsoft is publicly supporting certain OSS products nowadays.

If artists can know that they can get maximum exposure and cultural benefit for their work by using CC, they’re more likely to choose that option rather than the status quo alternative. They’re definitely more likely to choose that over simply releasing straight into the public domain. It’s a shame that such a thing is necessary, but it’s better than any middle ground offered by the traditional system.

DCX2 says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

BSD or MIT are better choices than GPL. GPL is about controlling derivative works.

Let’s use an example with photos. Let’s say someone included a GPL picture in their commercial photo album. Even if they put the proper credit for the picture, the GPL would say their whole album must be released under GPL. It is ostensibly how the GPL “protects” the photo to ensure that it’s “always free”. As if something else were going to take the original GPL-protected photo away from them so they couldn’t use it anymore.

Many of the photos in such an album are unlikely to have licenses that would allow a third-party album maker to relicense the works. Even if some of them were your photos anyway, you might not want to release them under the GPL, but by using any one GPL photo in the album it will infect the entire work. It usually ends up better just not using GPL photos, then, to avoid the licensing hassle.

However, if you had an MIT or BSD photo, you just put the name and whatever other info the original author wanted for credit, and you can mix and match and commercialize to your heart’s content.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

“Let’s use an example with photos. Let’s say someone included a GPL picture in their commercial photo album. Even if they put the proper credit for the picture, the GPL would say their whole album must be released under GPL.”

Really. The GPL v3.0 seems to say otherwise:

A compilation of a covered work with other separate and independent works, which are not by their nature extensions of the covered work, and which are not combined with it such as to form a larger program, in or on a volume of a storage or distribution medium, is called an ?aggregate? if the compilation and its resulting copyright are not used to limit the access or legal rights of the compilation’s users beyond what the individual works permit. Inclusion of a covered work in an aggregate does not cause this License to apply to the other parts of the aggregate.

Marcel de Jong (profile) says:

Almost all my photos on Flickr are licensed CC-BY-SA (I only put pictures of my family under my complete control if I share them at all.) (and am considering using the CC-BY license)

And while I think they aren’t that great, a few have been picked up by both online and offline publications. One, even so far as in a Chinese magazine. A French indie artist used one of my photos as a base picture for a cover for a remix he had created.

If I had put these up for sale, or with a more restrictive license, they wouldn’t have been used, period, I’m sure of it.
Now, I received a plug in the articles, and I get a proud feeling over those photos as they were chosen for print, and I can claim to be a published photographer.

Sure, it’d be nice to make money making photos, and perhaps there might be a future in that for me. But for now, it’s just a hobby, and if what I create gets used for other projects or magazine articles, all the better.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’ll ask you since you’ve already done it. Is it really that easy to get a CC license? Just visit the choose a license and fill out the simple form? I ask because I figured I had to mail in the work and have it stored in a central database or something. I thought it would be a pain in the butt, not filling out a form and copying some HTML code.

Karl (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’ll ask you since you’ve already done it. Is it really that easy to get a CC license? Just visit the choose a license and fill out the simple form?

It really is that easy. In fact, you don’t even have to fill out the form, that’s just there to help you decide which license to use.

All you really have to do is proclaim that your work is under a CC license, and it is. There’s no “registration” process.

Creative Commons, itself, does not hold any sort of database of CC works.

I ask because I figured I had to mail in the work and have it stored in a central database or something.

You need to do this in order to register a copyright. (Any copyright.)

Now, you still hold the copyright on your work from the moment it was created, even without registration. However, if you register, you get a ton of legal perks. Without registering, you can’t get statutory damages, and you can’t get attorney’s fees; registration is also prima facie evidence of copyright ownership. You can only get an injunction and actual damages; and if, say, someone rips off your song and registers it, and you don’t, then they’re probably going to win any copyright suit.

None of this has to do with Creative Commons, however. You register your work with the Library of Congress.

It’s also not free to register. If you’re interested, the fees are here. For most media, it’s $50 to register via dead trees, and $35 to register online.

Marcel de Jong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

On Flickr it couldn’t be easier, they have a wizard that helps you choose a license for you.

And they have a whole section of the website devoted to photos released under the Creative Commons.

As Karl says, there is no registration involved, except for you choosing a license on Flickr.

I’m not sure how it works on other sites, but undoubtedly you can add it yourself to the description of the image.

Karl (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: For other libre content

Absolutly none of what overclocked remix hosts is CC licensed(it couldn’t be) and is in fact is infringing.

It’s true that the music is almost certainly not CC licensed. However, we have no way of knowing whether it is in fact infringing. (It’s only infringing if the copyright holders say it is; and much of it could be considered fair use.)

Karl (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

once something is released under a cc license it can’t be undone.

Well, technically speaking, it can be undone. But if anyone is using the work that they got originally under the CC license, they’re still free to use it under the terms of that, earlier, license. Proving that they didn’t would be nearly impossible.

So, it’s impossible in a practical sense.

I’ve actually changed CC licenses on some of my music – but it’s been from a more restrictive license to a less restrictive one (NC-ND to simply NC). This is perfectly fine.

By the way, the most restrictive, um, restriction, is the ShareAlike requirement. You’re required to place any derivative works under exactly the same license. So, for example, you have a CC-BY-NC-SA license, and someone wants to include your work in a compilation that is CC-BY-NC, they won’t be able to do it without your permission.

MK says:

Wikimedia Commons allows donating images to public domain

Wikimedia Commons “free license” includes multiple different copyright licensed, CC-BY-SA is simply the most common. Using CC-zero or releasing images to public domain (PD-self) is also allowed.


A bigger problem is that statues are copyrighted in many countries, and publishing photographs of them requires permission from the artist, or his estate. This has resulted in country specific rules:

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