Alternative Copyright Licenses

“Information wants to be free.” “Business exists to make profit.” These two axioms are perfectly true in their respective domains, Computer Science and Commerce. Unfortunately, they’re diametrically apposed when the two domains interact in, for example, electronic media.

As is well known in the age of Napster, Gnutella and Kazza, electronic media can be copied with perfect reproduction, and shared amoungst millions of users by way of Peer 2 Peer (P2P) networks. It is fast and easy — and the cause of great frustration for the copyright holders of the shared media, generally large media publishing companies.

Said copyright holders have been doing everything they can to prevent this wholesale copying of their property. Everything, that is, in the legal sphere. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was passed which makes it illegal to break copy protection, rolling back fair-use rights given to consumers more than 20 years ago. Napster was sued and shut down on copyright infringement grounds — the replacement P2P networks popped up using a decentralized means for users to find what they’re looking for, which is much harder to stop.

The one thing “Big Media” are not doing is what would work: give the users what they want — an easy way to find, sample and possibly purchase media they’re interested in. It is worth noting that independent media producers (Indies, as they’re known) find P2P networks the best and cheapest means of promoting their material yet to appear.

One of the fascinating things to come out of this battle is a shift in the role of copyright licenses. While Big Media have been pushing for (and getting from legislators) stronger and lengthier copyright protection, several more egalitarian players have been working in the opposite direction. Some have been working in the legal space to oppose ever more control of copyright holders. Others have been defining and working with copyright licenses which intentionally limit the terms and power of the copyright holder.

An example of the former is Lawrence Lessig, a Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, who argued the Eldred v. Ashcroft case in the US Supreme Court. He claimed that extending copyright terms does not aid the original intent of copyright — encouraging creative people from producing work. It will be some time before the court returns with a verdict on this argument. Lessig was named one of the top 50 technology leaders in this month’s Scientific American.

Examples of the latter, limited copyrights, are widespread and growing every year. The first to formalize this concept was Richard Stallman, who created the GNU Public License (GPL), also known as “copyleft”, in 1982. Commercial licenses limit the users’ rights and access to the material under the license; the GPL, in contrast, guarantees the user of the material will never have the rights of use removed, and further, encourages the user to modify the material to their advantage, and to pass it on to others for their own use and advantage.

Stallman also created the Free Software Foundation (FSF) to create software under the GPL. Details can be found at The FSF has produced an amazing amount of high quality software which is used by a large number of users. The GPL didn’t enter the mainstream awareness, however, until the Linux Kernel, licensed under the GPL, began making waves in the computing industry.

The GPL is not the only “free” software license, however. There are several others which software producers can choose from, depending on their particular needs and goals. The Open Source Initiative was formed to assist in the promotion and use of these alternative licenses, and to review new licenses for “Open Source” qualification. Details are available at A great deal of software has been made available under these licenses, from Netscape’s Mozilla to Sun’s Open Office, to name only two.

Based on the success seen in the software space using free licenses, a new organization plans to expand their use into non-software areas. The Creative Commons is series of projects with the goal of supporting and expanding the public domain. Details are at, including a “wizard” to help people choose an appropriate license for their work without reading pages of legal jargon. The site also has details on their Founders’ Copyright, which explicitly releases the covered work into the public domain after 14 years time — the period originally envisioned by the US Copyright Law, enacted in 1790.

A last example of more open access to material is the Public Library of Science, available at This project, run by Dr. Michael Eisen and Dr. Patrick O. Brown, and funded by a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, intends to make peer reviewed scientific papers available for free to anyone via the Internet, bypassing the costly and closed scientific journals. The project argues that the journals add nothing to the scientific publishing process, but instead slow down and limit the availability of papers.

And thus, we find ourselves in the middle of a major inflection point with regards to copyrighted material. The old media and software giants try to hold on to their traditional means of doing business while working in a totally new reality. Meanwhile, small producers are leveraging on the new technologies to bypass the stranglehold, getting access to consumers they never could before. The giants don’t like it, but for the rest, its a dream come true.

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.