The Tragedy of the Creative Commons

The Creative Commons initiative fulfilled a major ambition last week – but it’s taken only days for the dream to turn to crap.

Google granted the wish by integrating the ability to search images based on rights licences into Google Image Search. Yahoo! Image Search has had a separate image search facility for years, but Google integrated the feature into its main index.

The idea of making the licences machine-readable was a long-standing desire of the project, and lauded as a clever one. It was intended to automate the business of negotiating permissions for using material, so machine would instead negotiate with machine, in a kind of cybernetic utopia. Alas, it hasn’t quite worked out.

As Daryl Lang at professional photography website PDN writes, the search engine is now choked with copyright images that have been incorrectly labelled with Creative Commons licences. These include world-famous images by photographers including Bert Stern and Steve McCurry. As a result, the search feature is all but useless.

Since there’s no guarantee that the licence really allows you to use the photo as claimed, then the publisher (amateur or professional) must still perform the due diligence they had to anyway. So it’s safer (and quicker) not to use it at all.

What’s gone wrong, as Lang explains, is the old engineering principle of GIGO, or Garbage In, Garbage Out:

“The system relies on Internet users to properly identify the status of the images they publish, Unfortunately, many don’t… Many Flickr users still don’t understand the concept of a Creative Commons licence, or don’t care.

“It’s time consuming to put a different label on every image [in their collection], and there are no checks in place [our emphasis] to hold users accountable for unauthorized copying or incorrect licensing labels.”

So Google won’t take responsibility for the accuracy of the licensing metadata, and Creative Commons, as a small private internet quango, says it can’t afford to. (The disclaimer on the website is simple: go find yourself a lawyer.)

Just as we predicted, in fact: the filtering is less than perfect, and it’s a lip-service to creators. Now, why did it have to fail?

Perhaps it’s lousy education. The Creative Commons gang are more interested in evangelising a fixed view of the world, rather than giving users a rich, nuanced and disinterested view of creative digital rights. Perhaps, as dogmatists, they’re predisposed to see copyright as a problem, rather than a set of tools.

For example, you’d never know from the all the CC white papers, cartoons and promotional movie clips that, as the copyright holder of a cool photograph you’ve taken, you can waive your rights selectively: allowing bloggers you like to use it, but reserving the right to haul in a payday if a big publisher takes it, and exploits it. To enjoy this you don’t need a funky Creative Commons licence: established copyright law already gives you this amazing flexibility.

Or perhaps the Commons gang can’t explain what they’re about because it’s so confusing, they don’t understand it themselves. Four years ago, I pointed out that licences can’t be revoked. This brought a spluttering, outraged response from a former sports hack called JD Lasica, who angrily spewed forth that this was nonsense, and I’d got it all wrong.

A couple of days later, he was corrected by Professor Lawrence Lessig – who designed the wheeze – and said that irrevocability was actually part of the plan. Irrevocability, he said, was really cool.

The point to remember here is that Lasica is on the Board of Creative Commons. If he doesn’t know what he’s talking about – then who does? Fortunately there is some extremely good literature on the web that explains creative digital rights without Creative Commons’ dogmatic wonkery. There’s an excellent up-to-date guide by Professor Jane Ginsberg of Columbia University Law School, called Public Licenses: The Gift That Keeps On Giving (the title is a reference to irrevocability). It explains lots of things the Commons propaganda material doesn’t.

The moral?

Ignore the Commons licences – they may be bogus, and misuse is costly. Do your own due diligence.

And know your rights.

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