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Monday, 24 June, 2002, 10:05 GMT 11:05 UK
Unlocking the copyright culture
A still from the film People Like Us
Creative Commons helped Vicki Bennett with her film

America's strict copyright laws are stifling innovation and artistic freedom, according to an company which aims to break down those barriers.

The Creative Commons, a non-profit organisation in California's Silicon Valley, is on a mission to help everyone from musicians to photographers, writers to poets.


This isn't just about free cost but about free as in freedom of speech

Glenn Brown, Creative Commons
It wants to encourage creative people to donate their work for free exchange over the internet.

Archive firms and companies who own the copyright of other artists are also being encouraged to sign up.

It wants to provide a way for people to announce that their works are available for copying, modification, and redistribution.

Molly Van Howeling, the project's executive director, says: "Creative Commons was started by people worried about the state of the public domain - the body of intellectual work that is not subject to proprietary control."

Technological and legal changes are making it easier for people to stop works being copied, whether under copyright or not, she explains.

The Commons thinks aggressive attempts by record companies to stamp out online exchanges of music, as popularised by Napster, shows how the creative power of the internet is being eroded.

Founder

Under US copyright law, almost everything after 1923 is subject to protection. But Congress is repeatedly extending that law.

Stanford Professor Lawrence Lessig, a founder of Creative Commons, is challenging the government's moves.

People Like Us
The scheme facilitates exchange of work
He recently persuaded the US Supreme Court to agree to look at the issue, with the case due in October.

If he wins, it will unlock thousands of works, including Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse.

'Free cost'

On Creative Commons, copyright holders can set general conditions for how their contribution is used, such as allowing royalty-free use in non-commercial settings.

But they would not be able to veto individual projects.

"We are inspired in a lot of things by the free software movement," explains assistant director Glenn Brown.


This isn't just about getting free stuff, it's also about being able to use it the way we want

John Halperin, WD Films
"One of the discussions that get thrown around is about freedom. This isn't just about free cost but about free as in freedom of speech, not as in free beer.

"We hope we can help people not just find work for no cost but help them find work free from restrictions. And also free in the legal sense and free from the fear of being sued."

Rick Prelinger, who owns the Prelinger Film Archives, is one of the first to sign up to Creative Commons.

His archive in San Francisco and New York covers over 48,000 titles, ranging from 1903 to 1980.

It focuses on social and cultural history and includes events like the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, social material from World War II and the Cold War and early films of the automobile and advertising industries.

'Wonderful way'

He admits he was motivated by altruism and a business opportunity.

"I want to help people who are worthy but can't afford to use my stock. People like students and scholars and struggling artists.

"And Creative Commons is a wonderful way to put the collection out there."

Rick Prelinger
Rick Prelinger was one of the first to sign up
In the last 18 months more than one million people have accessed his archive and business has increased by about 20%.

"If our material makes its way into our culture it increases our sales. That's the great paradox. By people seeing our material out there they know we are around.

"And those that want high-end quality will still pay for it."

'Bigger budget'

John Halperin of WD Films got free archive material from Prelinger to make a TV series called Big Thinkers.

"This isn't just about getting free stuff, it's also about being able to use it the way we want. And on bigger budget productions we would be willing to pay," he says.

UK artist Vicki Bennett used free film footage for a live cinema project called People Like Us, and also for a digital media festival in Sheffield called We Edit Life.

She told BBC News Online: "I found plenty of stock footage companies but all were unhelpful and way beyond my reach, since my work is generally made on a very low budget and often no budget.

"I believe that history should be available for commentary to all people, not just those that can afford to do so."

See also:

17 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
20 Feb 02 | Business
19 Feb 02 | Entertainment
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