There was a time not so long ago when if someone produced a creative work such as a book, movie, a piece of music or any number of other types, they were able to register a copyright on that work and have a monopoly on profiting from that work for a limited number of years. This concept was set down in the US Constitution. This was a good idea, because it encouraged creators to produce new works. They could make a living by producing and selling new works without having to find a patron to support them like artists did prior to that time. By limiting the time of the copyright they were also encouraged to produce new works, because they couldn’t live off the old ones forever. Once the copyright expired, the work would become part of the public domain and anyone could copy it and produce derivative works without seeking permission. This is all perfectly reasonable. However, over the last half century more and more of the creative works have come to be owned and controlled by an increasingly small number of increasingly large companies. Because of their size these companies such as Sony, TimeWarner, Disney, NewsCorp and others have the resources to fund political campaigns and lobbyists. In the last three decades this has resulted in the gradual strangulation of the media commons and the public domain.
They have gotten the copyright laws changed from and opt-in regime to an opt-out regime. Previously a work was public domain unless the creator registered a copyright. Now a work is automatically copyrighted unless the creator puts it into the public domain. The terms of copyrights are now extended beyond all reason as well. At one time, a copyright owned by a company would last for 14 years. The most recent extension in the late ninties has brought that up to 95 years. Individual authors have their lifetime plus 70 years. Coincidentally the last two extensions have occured just as the Disney copyright on Mickey Mouse was about to expire and only after intense lobbying by Disney in congress. These extensions mean that few of the works created in the past century are moving into the public domain. Disney has spent enormous sums of money to strangle the public domain while profiting handsomely from it. Animated movies such as the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Treasure planet are based on stories that are in the public domain.
In an attempt to reverse this trend a few years ago Stanford University Law professor Lawrence Lessig came up with the concept of the creative commons license. A copyright holder has the right to license their works to others while they still control the copyright. What Creative Commons does is provide a series of graduated licenses with various restrictions that creators can use and apply to their works. If someone creates a song or short film, they can apply a creative commons license to it and give it away or sell or do whatever they want. For example you can use the non-commercial, share-alike, attribution license. In this case other people can share your work but they can’t sell or use it for commercial purpose without permission, and they have to provide attribution to where it came from. They can also create derivative works without permission but under the same set of restrictions. If you release a song under this license someone else can remix and share it under the same license but they have to provide attribution to the original creator. There is also a no derivative license, or you can skip the share-alike which allows others to re-distribute derivatives under a different license and so on.
There is one common element to all the creative commons licenses though. If you are redistributing someone else’s work, you cannot add any copy restrictions that weren’t originally there without the creators permission. That means you cannot take a band’s creative commons licensed song and add DRM without asking. This is where the Microsoft Zune that I wrote about the other day comes in. The song sharing feature that will be the main selling point of the Zune explicitly violates the creative commons license. When one Zune owner sends a song to another Zune, a new layer of DRM automatically added to the file before it is sent. This is what prevents the recipient from listening to the song more than three times or for more than three days. It doesn’t matter what the source of the original song was, this DRM layer is added. If I send a song from the band Lorenzo’s Music to another Zune player, DRM is added. About a year ago, the band decided to license all of their music under Creative Commons and make MP3s available for download from their site. It is a violation of their license to added DRM before sharing their music. Of course the RIAA doesn’t care if you violate someone else’s license as long as you don’t even think about violating theirs.
A lot of bands have decided give away their music for free under creative commons because they have realized they can get more fans and exposure and ultimately make more money if more people hear their music. I urge you to find creative commons music and other works and support these artists, and don’t give your money to Microsoft.