updated 10/13/2004 7:59:19 PM ET 2004-10-13T23:59:19

To make the anti-war documentary “Uncovered,” producers spent roughly half of their $200,000 budget — not to mention countless hours — securing the rights to footage of President Bush and other public figures.

They even had to remove a few clips when the copyright owners denied permission outright.
Getting rights OK’ed can be frustrating for artists, be they authors seeking to quote an essay or documentary filmmakers who’ve got snippets of pop songs playing in the background of key scenes.

Artists and scholars who believe the current copyright system unduly stifles creativity are pushing a less restrictive alternative that they call the Creative Commons. Its adherents are a varied lot. They include MIT, the Beastie Boys, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, newspaper columnist Dan Gillmor and the British Broadcasting Corp.

Driving the movement is the belief that we all benefit when creative minds are free to expand upon others’ work — that public discourse is hurt when too much of it is weighed down by the baggage of commerce.

“The (Creative) Commons encourages sharing and makes explicit that creativity depends on easy access to raw materials,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a New York University professor critical of current copyright laws. “Right now, you have to assume you’re going to get in trouble if you quote from somebody extensively or build upon a previous expression.”

'Copyright Lite'
The Commons is a response to Congress’ gradual extension of copyright protection, from the 14 years set in 1790 to today’s 70 years beyond an individual’s death.

Consider “Class of ’83,” a low-budget documentary about classmates killed in the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We shot in an auditorium where everybody came together and had the children’s choir sing the Bette Midler song ‘The Rose,’" said Tom Barger, the movie’s editor. “We had to cut most of that song out.”

That’s where the Creative Commons would help.

Think of it as “Copyright Lite,” a compromise between the full protections of copyright law and placing a creative work entirely in the public domain.

Under its framework, copyright holders can let others use their works for free while stipulating limits — for instance, requiring attribution while prohibiting sales. They can’t veto individual projects — the way copyright holders can now deny rights to filmmakers with whom they disagree.

Under the Creative Commons, a small-town orchestra with limited funding can find pieces to perform for free. An independent filmmaker can search for free footage of the New York skyline.

A rap or hip-hop artist can rhyme over snippets of songs without legal worries.

If “The Rose” had been in the Commons, Barger could have used the full clip without having to spend time figuring out whether Midler or someone else owned the song, then getting permission and paying any royalties. All he had to do was find it through a searchable index at http://creativecommons.org.

BBC interested
Early backers of this Internet-based clearinghouse include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which contributed materials from selected courses, and O’Reilly Media Inc., which shares electronic versions of Gillmor’s “We the Media” and about three dozen other books, many no longer in print.

Last month, the producers of “Uncovered” contributed the original interviews from that movie and from “Outfoxed,” a critique of the Fox News Channel. “Uncovered” associate producer Jim Gilliam said he wants to help future filmmakers avoid having to navigate the legal terrain.

And in the November issue of Wired magazine, Byrne, the Beastie Boys, Brazilian pop star Gilberto Gil and 13 other artists will release songs on a CD meant for sharing.

The BBC, meanwhile, is looking to adapt the Commons’ licensing structure for the BBC Creative Archive, which will allow noncommercial projects to freely use clips from well-known BBC television shows.

These high-profile offerings, though, represent just a fraction of the estimated 5 million items in the Commons, whose funding includes $800,000 from the Center for the Public Domain, $1.2 million from the MacArthur Foundation and $1 million from the Hewlett Foundation. The bulk is text such as Web logs (which were already meant for sharing).

Gilliam acknowledges that he’s not likely to find what he needs for future documentaries in he Commons; there simply isn’t much available from TV networks and larger media outlets.

Thomas Goetz, the articles editor at Wired, said that for every artist who agreed to participate, two more turned down the invitation “for whatever reason. Some didn’t get the idea. Some didn’t want to take the risk.”

Many copyright experts like the premise of the Creative Commons but question its necessity.
It may be useful for smaller publishers without legal counsel, but “I don’t think there’s any huge pent-up frustration on the part of the copyright owner,” said Allan Adler of the Association of American Publishers. “They have the ability to do this through ordinary channels.”

Occasionally, someone violates terms of the Commons license but major battles over enforcement have yet to emerge.

The focus for now has been on encouraging artists to contribute material and creating technology to help find it. Later this month, organizers will start promoting reuse of items in the Commons to create new works, said Glenn Otis Brown, its executive director.

Contributors to the Commons are largely driven by the philosophy of open exchange, but they insist it is about much more than charity.

MIT courses have been translated into Spanish, Vietnamese and Mongolian, and publishers have approached professors about book deals after seeing their writings, said Jon Paul Potts, spokesman for MIT’s OpenCourseWare.

Cory Doctorow contributed an e-book version of his first novel, “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom,” and believes print sales improved as more people heard about it over the Internet.
Gilliam welcomes any reuse — even for moneymaking projects that don’t pay him a dime.

“Every time someone takes a clip from ‘Outfoxed,’ they have to attribute it,” he said. “That serves as a marketing vehicle.”

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