Hugh McGuire on Librivox: Why public domain and not Creative Commons?

Thu, Jan 15, 2009


Yesterday I asked my Identi.ca community to help me pull together some resources for a documentary on things open (source, content , space, working, everything!) and the creative commons movement. Hugh McGuire, the founder of Librivox (and more recently co-founder of the fabulous Book Oven) sent me a link to a thought-provoking post he wrote on why Librivox recordings are in the public domain. Read the full post. Some juicy bits:

One of the important ideas behind LibriVox was this: a vibrant public domain is essential for a healthy society, and is essential for innovation — which I think can also be expressed as: “finding solutions to problems.” Having a wide and vibrant public domain — of ideas, texts, learning, science, open source code, audio recordings, art, etc. — means that as we face problems of one kind or another, we have at our disposal a whole host of tools and information and building blocks that will help us find solutions. We’ve seen in the past few decades, however, a move against this idea of public intellectual space — broadly the the movement towards protection of “intellectual property.” We’ve seen this across all sectors of society, from how universities treat their scientific research, to patenting of life, patents on processes, the abusive and self-destructive suing of fans by music companies and Hollywood. I oppose much of this stuff on a number of grounds: one is a moral objection to the greed of companies who wish to extend their ownership beyond where it had ever been imagined previously. The other objection is more pragmatic: that allowing companies to do this will stifle innovation, and in the long run will be very damaging to our societies.

So LibriVox — besides being a project about making audiobooks — was originally conceived of as a small bulwark in a larger moral, intellectual and political battle around the value of the “public domain” broadly defined. And part of that defense is this idea that people can and will and should build on the public domain to make new things and provide new more innovative solutions to problems. LibriVox would make the audio recordings, make them available, and the hope has always been that others would find great things to do with them.

So the question around licensing became this: do we want to limit how people use LibriVox recordings? What is *wrong* with commercial uses? As long as the audio remains accessible, and free for all to use forever, then I saw no reason why we should limit anything — limiting would just mean that in the scheme of things, fewer people would listen to the recordings we have made. And in my calculus of the universe, that’s a bad thing: I think the universe will be a better place the more people listen to LibriVox recordings.

Are you paying attention? Because here’s where it gets really good:

But beyond that sort of pragmatic thinking, there is a wider philosophical question about ownership, control, and the act of truly giving something away. I think Creative Commons is a wonderful tool, and it changed the way I thought about art. But it maintains this idea: I own this work and you may do with it just what I say you may do. Now that’s fine: I license, for instance, my personal blog writing like this. But LibriVox is more radical. LibriVox says: we make these recordings, and we give them away, no strings attached. Use them as you like: you don’t have to ask permission or tell us about it, or do anything, just use them as you like. They are yours as much as they are ours now. We have gifted them to the universe.

That’s a pretty radical idea, far more radical than CC which says: here are the terms under which I allow you to use my work.

It’s radical and it’s liberating as well, because in some sense one’s ownership of things is a two way street, and the things you own in some sense own you too – ownership means you have certain responsibilities to that thing, including monitoring how other people use it. Breaking that ownership bond is a powerful sort of experiment.

Of course, it just keeps getting better. The final point: the shrinking public domain.

There is one final very important point, which I had not really thought about until Michael Hart of Gutenberg told me about it recently. US copyright law has extended and extended again the term of copyright, currently 95 years after publication date. This means that nothing has gone into the public in a very long time. And if copyright law-making continues on like this, there will be another extension when the next batch of public domain stuff is currently scheduled to click over. So, possibly, nothing new will ever go into the public domain again.

In the old days, there was about a 50-50 split: 50% of texts were in the public domain, 50% under copyright. Every year more and more texts came into being, but a whole swath of things went into the public domain, and the ratio kept more or less the same. That was a healthy for society because people had much easier access to those texts that went into the public domain.

That’s not happening anymore. So the public domain is shrinking as a ratio of available knowledge.

Which brings another point: Creative Commons does not, in fact, make any contribution to the public domain, because the term of Creative Commons licenses is the same as for copyright (i think, that is: 95 years after publication). So Creative Commons in fact does NOTHING to protect or enhance the public domain — it only creates a new class of copyright protection that is much more liberal than previous incarnations.

So LibriVox is a small beacon of light in this policy question, slowly adding to the public domain while all around the public domain is shrinking. This is important in some broad sense beyond anything particular we do at LibriVox. At least I think it is.

Yeah. I know. More than a few bits. I almost cut and pasted the whole thing. I couldn’t stop. Hugh, you write think so good. Gentle readers, do yourselves a favor: read the full post. Or better yet, check out Librivox ;)

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