Commonality: Part One – Permissions Slip

The Creative Commons ShareAlike symbol.
The Creative Commons ShareAlike symbol.

We share with each other too little from our cultures. We need to share more. And we share too little legally.

That bit from the opening of Lawrence Lessig’s keynote in Buenos Aires two years ago has stuck with me ever since. Every week I am trying to solve its implications. As publisher of The Seattle Star, it concerns me practically–the Star is built upon a deep belief in a global commons. As a global citizen, however, it concerns me even more.

For me, Lessig’s statement means a couple of things:

  • We share too little because sharing often fails.
  • We share too little legally because the rule of law often fails.

What I mean by sharing is something given without expectation of return, freely–free as in “freedom,” not as in “free beer.” Like Ryan Merkley, I also believe that sharing shouldn’t require compensation, but I do not think that recompense is the primary issue. The primary issue is individual freedom.

Sharing our culture means to share our identities, both social and private. By sharing my dinner with you, for instance, I am also sharing with you not just my space and my food, but also as aspect of social identity I am a person who shares his dinner with others. I am also sharing a private set of values that says I am sharing with you because I value you, I value what I have to offer, and I value sharing.

If I am not free to share what I have to give then I am not free. And neither are you. This might seem absurd, but it isn’t. By law, I am free to give you a paperback copy of George Orwell’s 1984 that I have purchased from Amazon. No matter where you are in the world reading this right now, if I delivered to you my copy of 1984 you would be free to accept it as I am to give it. I could say, “Hey, can I have this back when you’re done?”–which means sometime in the next couple years, usually–or I could say, “I’m done with this and I want you to have it.” From there you can do with it what you want, because it is “yours.”

By contrast, if I buy a copy of 1984 from Amazon for my Kindle Paperwhite, I am not free. If I were a Canadian citizen, and you were, too, I could send you a digital copy of 1984 freely because it is in “the public domain” in Canada. Unfortunately, I am an American citizen, so if I buy a copy of 1984 from–because, you know, we are in a global economy these days–I do not have the right to give my copy to anyone, even if I erase it from my own device after I give it to you, and you are not free to give a copy I have shared with you to anyone else, and you should in fact report this as a copyright infringement. Worse still, Amazon US has the right to go into my Kindle remotely through a backdoor Wi-Fi connection and erase my copy completely at their whim.

For those who doubt the way of the world, Amazon have done exactly this with 1984 and Animal Farm.

This is not freedom. This is failed sharing.

Sharing Freely

Why does sharing fail?

Most failed sharing comes from not considering another’s freedom.

Billions of people across the world have something they wish to share. One type of sharing is basic. They wish to buy someone dinner. They wish to play a song on the piano for their friends.

In this case they simply do what they wish to do. The sharing requires nothing more than a willing recipient and the means to make it happen (money, or a piano and skill). Such sharing is only limited by free will and resources. It happens, and then it is done.

Another type of sharing is more advanced. One wishes to share a book with someone. That someone finishes the book, then wishes to share it with someone else. She can do this, of course, but there is usually a sort of protocol. The main question she would ask herself in this case is something like, “Does the person who loaned the book to me want it back? And when?” Just to check, she would contact the person who loaned her the book and clarify.

This is, at its most basic level, a permission. One asks for permission to continue the cycle, to continue sharing beyond the original act.

This is the same premise embedded in many attempts to “pay it forward,” as the quaint phrase goes. A person shares something that someone else wants, then that person continues to share. In this way, people that the original sharer does not even know still share in the largesse. The permission carries into the future.

Embedded in this kind of sharing is an assumption that the largesse is meant to be shared. After all, why keep a good book to yourself? Why not pay for someone else’s dinner if someone you don’t even know paid for yours? The person who begins the chain isn’t demanding that the next person continue the chain. They may ask, or they may not, but the “sharee” (if you’ll allow me to butcher the English language) is under no obligation to do anything. The sharee is free, and therefore the sharing is free.

These are kinds of sharing that most people take for granted. For those who have something they wish to share digitally, however, sharing is different. It’s not substantially different from this advanced type of sharing, but there is a wrinkle.

Real-world, analog sharing fails because someone breaks the chain, as with the “pay it forward” scenario, or the sharing is at its end, as in a live performance of a song on a piano. Digital sharing fails because the chain never begins.

An Unpermissive Society

If I write an article for The Seattle Star, you are told explicitly at the foot of every page:

Unless otherwise noted, texts at The Seattle Star are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

This means: “Share me. I want to reach as many people as I can.” Some of you will share, some of you will not. That isn’t important (though of course we’d love it if you shared everything we do with everyone you know). What’s important is that you are free. You may share anything on the Star anywhere, anytime, anywhy, any way you wish, as long as you honor our request. It says Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike, but it really means, “Yeah man, do with this whatever you want, mix it, remix it, quote it, translate it, print it–hell, go on and sell it, if you think you can. Just keep the author’s name on it, and make sure that someone else can keep the chain going the same way, with the same freedom.”

We at the Star do this because we believe in the global commons and because we know that sharing only works when it is explicit.

But how many websites have you visited where this is not the case?

If you look as the largest blogging site on the web — Blogger/Blogspot — you will see this in the footer.

Copyright © 1999-2015.

What this tells you, and what no one questions, is, “YOU CANNOT SHARE ME.” You cannot share me because you have no freedom to do so. You have no freedom to do so because, unless there is some obvious license that tells you otherwise, copyright prohibits making copies. To share, digitally, is to make a copy.

In the absence an explicit statement to the contrary, copyright laws protect material on the Internet. And by protect I mean lock away, requiring the express written permission of the copyright holder with every single use.

Every. Single. Use. That means:

  • Copy and paste from a website into your research paper;
  • Posting to a website;
  • Linking to a website;
  • Forwarding an email;
  • Forwarding comments from electronic discussion lists–and much more.

Websites that use this “All Rights Reserved” copyright default are telling readers not to share. They say that all their material should be under lock and key, and promote a culture that restricts sharing. Naive users who use this default contribute to failed sharing by preventing sharing from being possible.

Even people who should know better contribute to failed sharing. Techdirt‘s Mike Masnick unquestionably knows how traditional copyright ruins sharing. He’s written about it repeatedly. And yet he can still write about Creative Commons license that:

I don’t use any of their licenses, because I don’t necessarily see the point. We’ve declared in the past that the content here is free for anyone to do what they want with it, and thus I feel no need for a Creative Commons license.

Coming from such a thoughtful writer, this is extremely naive. Whatever my personal feelings about the Creative Commons licenses, they work because they make it obvious what a user can and cannot do freely with what they find on the site. Mr. Masnick says that he’s declared that the content on Techdirt is free. That may be true. But there is no way to know unless there is an explicit statement on every page, or, at the very least a page that details such an idea within the Terms of Service.

Without such a statement, a sensible user can only assume that Techdirt’s pages are just like everyone else’s–locked away behind an All Rights Reserved portcullis. Mr. Masnick may dislike the Creative Commons for their insistence on copyright law. But whether he likes it or not, copyright law states that whatever is written down or recorded is immediately placed under copyright law. It controls whatever he has written whether he likes it or not.

There are plenty of licenses that are “copyfree” licenses: the MIT/X11 License, the Open Works License, the Crowley Thelemic License, the WTFPL, and various BSD licenses. What’s important is not the choice of license, but that the license is present at all. Without the license, sharing remains a non-starter. No license = controlled by copyright.

Like it or not, copyright is the sea in which we all swim. Its tide isn’t turning anytime soon. Political lobbying ensures that it does not. Last year, Elsevier, the academic publishing company that publishes medical and scholarly journals, spent $1,530,000 on lobbyists to make sure. The MPAA spent $1,340,000. The RIAA spent $4,138,505. Newsweb Corporation spent $8,659,350, to ensure that all their rights–and not yours–are reserved.

Failing to share is a shared failure. If you wish to see a world where culture is shared freely–as in freedom, not as in free beer–then you have to create it. And you must create it carefully, thoughtfully, respectfully. The world you live in is not free. The onus is upon you to free yourself and others. And it starts with your own habits.

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Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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