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Lawrence Lessig

Lawrence Lessig

Posted: July 10, 2010 06:16 PM

ASCAP's attack on Creative Commons

What's Your Reaction:

UPDATE: I've received a letter from Paul Williams declining my offer to debate.

"My priorities," Williams wrote, "must be focused on songwriting and composing, and those interests that best serve ASCAP's members. Debating you will serve neither of those priorities."
In a letter to his members, Williams suggests that my offer to debate him was an effort to "silence" him.

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The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) has launched a campaign to raise money from its members to hire lobbyists to protect them against the dangers of "Copyleft." Groups such as Creative Commons, Public Knowledge, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are "mobilizing," ASCAP describes in a letter to its members, "to promote 'Copyleft' in order to undermine our 'Copyright.'" "[O]ur opponents are influencing Congress against the interests of music creators," ASCAP warns. Indeed, as the letter ominously predicts, this is ASCAP's "biggest challenge ever." (Historians of BMI might be a bit surprised about that claim in particular.)

As a founding board member of two of those three organizations, and former board member of the third, I guess I should be proud that a 96 year old organization would be so terrified of our work. And I would be -- if there were anything in this fundraising pitch that was actually true.

But there is not. Creative Commons, Public Knowledge and EFF are not aiming to "undermine" copyright; they are not spreading the word that "music should be free"; and there is certainly not yet any rally within Congress in favor of any of the issues that these groups do push.

I know Creative Commons best, so let me address ASCAP's charges as they apply to it.

Creative Commons is a nonprofit that provides copyright licenses pro bono to artists and creators so that they can offer their creative work with the freedom they intend it to carry. (Think not "All Rights Reserved" but "Some Rights Reserved.") Using these licenses, a musician might allow his music to be used for noncommercial purposes (by kids making a video, for example, or for sharing among friends), so long as attribution to the artist is kept. Or an academic might permit her work to be shared for whatever purpose, again, so long as attribution is maintained. Or a collaborative project such as a wiki might guarantee that the collective work of the thousands who have built the wiki remains free for everyone forever. Hundreds of millions of digital objects -- from music to video to photographs to architectural designs to scientific journals to teachers lesson plans to books and to blogs -- have been licensed in this way, and by an extraordinarily diverse range of creators or rights holders -- including Nine Inch Nails, Beastie Boys, Youssou N'Dour, Curt Smith, David Byrne, Radiohead, Jonathan Coulton, Kristin Hersh, and Snoop Dogg, as well as Wikipedia and the White House.

These licenses are, obviously, copyright licenses. They depend upon a firm and reliable system of copyright for them to work. Thus CC could have no interest in "undermining" the very system the licenses depend upon -- copyright. Indeed, to the contrary, CC only aims to strengthen the objectives of copyright, by giving the creators a simpler way to exercise their rights.

These licenses are also (and also obviously) voluntary. CC has never argued that anyone should waive any of their rights. (I've been less tolerant towards academics, but I have never said that any artist is morally obligated to waive any right granted to her by copyright.)

And finally, these licenses reveal no objective to make "music free." Nine Inch Nails, for example, have earned record sales from songs licensed under Creative Commons licenses.

Instead, the only thing Creative Commons wants to make free is artists -- free to choose how best to license their creative work. This is one value we firmly believe in -- that copyright was meant for authors, and that authors should have the control over their copyright.

This isn't the first time that ASCAP has misrepresented the objectives of our organization. But could we make it the last? We have no objection to collecting societies: They too were an innovative and voluntary solution (in America at least) to a challenging copyright problem created by new technologies. And I at least am confident that collecting societies will be a part of the copyright landscape forever.

So here's my challenge, ASCAP President Paul Williams: Let's address our differences the way decent souls do. In a debate. I'm a big fan of yours, and If you'll grant me the permission, I'd even be willing to sing one of your songs (or not) if you'll accept my challenge of a debate. We could ask the New York Public Library to host the event. I am willing to do whatever I can to accommodate your schedule. 

Let's meet and address these perceived differences with honesty and good faith. No doubt we have disagreements (for instance, I love rainy days, and Mondays rarely get me down). But on the issues that your organization and mine care about, there should be no difference worthy of an attack.

Meanwhile, you can read more about Creative Commons here, and support its response to the ASCAP campaign here.

 
 
 

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