Why Creative Commons Licenses Help Rather Than Hinder Struggling Artists

from the exactly-wrong dept

Creative Commons (CC) has been with us for nearly a decade, so you would have thought people might understand it by now. Apparently not, judging by the title of this blog post: "How Creative Commons Can Stifle Artistic Output."

The author, George Howard, begins reasonably enough:

Now, the servicing of the muse is not compelled by money, but, rather, other impulses. However, absent some type of financial return for the artists’ work, bad things happen: artists begin to believe that their work is without value, and they stop; or, artists have to subsidize their artistic income by working a soul-crushing job that eventually diminishes their ability/desire/time to create…and they stop. In either case, art stops being created. This to me is unacceptable. I defy anyone to give me a good argument against the creation of more art.
Clearly from that description Howard is concerned mainly with artists that are relatively unknown and/or struggling, and his point about their need to make money is a fair one. But from that premise he then makes this extraordinary leap:
All of this is why I react negatively to proponents of the so-called “copyleft” movement.
He goes on:
As a bit of background, the copyleft movement originated from software development, where hobbyist programmers desired to make software free (or very cheap) in order to reduce/eliminate piracy.
That is wrong in just about every respect. Copyleft, which actually depends upon copyright in order to work, was invented in 1983 by Richard Stallman. Far from being a "hobbyist", Stallman was one of the best programmers of his day. Moreover, copyleft – specifically the GNU General Public License – was devized not to "reduce/eliminate piracy", but almost its polar opposite: to encourage and facilitate sharing.

The author's understanding of how Creative Commons licenses work seems equally shaky:

There are several justifications for an artist or songwriter to give up copyrights. The first is reasonable: that by providing a means for artists to more easily exchange rights, reduces transaction costs, and thus encourages collaboration.
Artists employing Creative Commons licenses do not "give up copyrights": they always retain them. But they grant additional permissions to others – to share, to adapt, to sell. That's not about "exchanging rights" – there's no quid pro quo required, and rarely does this result in any artistic collaboration; instead it's from a desire to see your work enjoyed or re-used more widely.
The second — that current copyright law enforces and encourages a restrictive permission culture to the detriment of the public good — is not. By this I mean that the idea that copyright somehow impedes creativity and artistic development is just plain wrong.
The idea that copyright on a work impedes "creativity and artistic development" refers to its effect not on the original creator, but on other artists, since by definition copyright is a monopoly that forbids them from building on the creations of others unless they ask permission – often expensive or impossible to obtain. Creative Commons licenses, by contrast, encourage this kind of activity by granting permissions upfront to everyone, making them particularly beneficial for those rising creators with limited means but plenty of ideas.

Despite this, Howard insists the problem lies not with copyright itself, but elsewhere:

what really impedes creativity and artistic development is the artist’s perception that his or her music is valueless/the inability of the artist to monetize his or her output.
And yet it's copyright that exacerbates this perception among struggling and still unknown artists that their art is valueless, not CC licenses. Copyright places obstacles in the way of sharing your enthusiasm for a creative work by passing it on so that it can be explored and enjoyed by others. All CC licenses permit this, and it is precisely this spreading of the word that is likely to lead to the creator becoming better known and appreciated.

Nor does making works more freely available preclude the possibility of earning money from them. Fans may buy the work in other formats – for example as a book, CD or LP as well as a download. People may want to make direct contributions to support the artist to encourage them to produce more. Techdirt has devoted many posts to the different ways in which revenue can be generated from CC-licensed goods that are made available online.

Howard concludes:

Artists tend to have — at best — an uncomfortable relationship with the monetization of their work, and need no encouragement to devalue it. Rather, artists need to be reminded that their contribution to this deeply troubled world is valuable. The exchange of value between an artist and his or her fans, is a means to allow the artist to continue creating art, and thus is crucial.
His own words emphasise that what is crucial is an "exchange of value between an artist and his or her fans". Copyright, with its ever-expanding range of restrictions and harsh punishments for those who overstep the mark – even unwittingly – hardly promotes that exchange. Creative Commons licenses are the true allies of artists who are struggling for recognition and remuneration, thanks to their broad permissions and explicit encouragement to share and enjoy, which promotes and enhances that exchange - and helps to generate that crucial financial return too.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+

Filed Under: artists, creative commons


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  1. icon
    Karl (profile), 1 Nov 2011 @ 7:53pm

    Re: raising the level of discourse (hopefully)

    Hi, George! Thanks for stopping by. Hope you stay a while.

    I'm a musician myself (not a professional one, though I do earn some money from it). I release most of my work under a CC license. And I'd like to explain to you why you're 100%, dead wrong.

    For one thing, you are completely and utterly wrong about the Open Source and Free Software movements. They do not, and never intended to, stop "piracy." In fact, it is impossible to "pirate" free software, at least in the traditional sense; one can only "pirate" free software by taking open source software, and locking it up behind a more restrictive license (as TiVo did).

    The free software and open source movements are distinct, and differ by motivation. The goal of the Free Software Foundation is to promote liberty - their motto is "free as in speech, not as in beer." The open source movement, on the other hand, advocates free software because of it is better in a more practical sense. It generally results in software that runs better and is more secure. But, a big part of it is that open source software makes more money than closed source software.

    I'd like that to sink in, so I'll repeat it: Open source software makes more money.

    Not just for software companies, either. By lowering the barriers to entry - not just in software costs, but in learning costs - open source software allows individual programmers to make more money, too. There are more coders making money through open source software (e.g. people creating custom Drupal modules, website designers, Android developers, etc) than there are making money through closed-source software.

    You should be aware of this, since every piece of software that you use to write your blog, is open source. From the server (Apache), to the language (PHP), to the web software (

    This, alone, entirely debunks your notion that CC licenses "devalue" music. There is no source of income that traditional copyright allows, that is not also allowed under a CC license. The most adopted CC licenses (by a fair margin) are the various NonCommercial licenses (I myself simply use CC-NC).

    It doesn't prevent you from joining a PRO (like ASCAP or BMI). It doesn't prevent you from earning money from television shows. It doesn't prevent you from signing with a record label. It won't allow some random site to sell your music without your permission. Not even the ones that allow commercial use prevent you from selling CD's, T-shirts, or merch. None could possibly prevent you from performing live.

    There is another issue here: you are confusing value with price. Making something free does not "devalue" it. Do we put books in libraries because we, as a culture, believe books are worthless? Of course not. We believe they are so valuable, that we need to make them available to everyone.

    Furthermore, dispersing the art to as many people as possible, to use in their own expression, creates value. It is what makes art significant. Without that, your art would have no value of any kind - monetary or otherwise.

    So, what you are talking about is actually "price," i.e. the cost of a good. Let's rephrase your statement to make it more accurate:

    "What I am against, and what I will always be against is making art less expensive." Kind of makes you realize why many people don't like what you're saying.

    As far as "the destruction of value (either perceived or real) of artistic output" - I have never, ever seen anyone from Creative Commons (or the "Copyleft" movement) say that artists should not be paid, or that they are overpaid, or that they are getting something they do not deserve. That is a straw man, a caricature that is being deliberately spread by the legacy music industry. (Such as when ASCAP claimed Creative Commons "hated copyright" - Creative Commons is a copyright, and is dependent upon copyright law for enforcement; does it hate itself?)

    This is not to say I haven't heard that - just not from anyone in the "Copyleft" movement. ("Why should artists get paid over and over again without doing any more work?" is the usual refrain.) But when have I heard it? Nobody ever said this about an artist who releases CC music (even rich ones). Nobody ever said this when artists get licensing deals. Nobody ever said this when legal cases between labels and artists are settled in the artists' favor.

    The only time I've heard this is when one of the legacy industry players does something absolutely ghastly (e.g. suing Girl Scouts, creating horrifying laws like PROTECT IP or SOPA, shutting down music venues) or when discussing the ridiculous parts of copyright law (e.g. 95+ year copyright terms). The implied message: "If these horrible things are what it takes for artists to get paid, then I'm against artists getting paid."

    In other words, bad copyright laws result in the destruction of value of artistic output. Neither the public, nor artists, are "devaluing" their works because of CC or anyone in the "copyleft" movement (which most people haven't even heard of). They're "devaluing" the works because they equate "valuing" the work with evil acts. No wonder most Americans don't believe file sharing is immoral.

    Fortunately, this is entirely a false dichotomy. And it is a dichotomy that CC is there to solve. A CC license allows you to make money in exactly the same way as an artist has always made it, without using the immoral and self-destructive methods the big studios use against their best customers.

    And, in fact, prior to 1995 copyright and CC-BY-NC were basically the same thing. People who made mixtapes weren't hauled into court; tape manufacturers weren't shut down as being "dedicated to piracy" (though of course the RIAA tried). By and large, non-commercial use was legally fair use, grudgingly accepted, and even praised in many artistic circles.

    Our current problems are caused entirely by copyright law's intrusion into the bedrooms of every single American. That is what is "devaluing" art. In fact, if copyright law stayed the same in the last twenty years or so, we probably wouldn't even need Creative Commons. It certainly wouldn't be as popular as it is today; you'd have just a handful of artists using it, instead of (at last count) over 130 million.

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