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Some Rights Reserved
A View of the UK Creative Commons Project

by Becky Hogge
04/04/2005

On March 16, 2005, patterns of bright lights could be seen piercing through the evening mist that hung over the back streets of London's Bloomsbury as the Electronic Frontier Foundation's spaceship touched down behind the October Gallery, the U.K. capital's own remix space of the trans avant-garde. As the whir and clank of the Brownian engines died down, a sole figure emerged from the smoke. There to greet John Perry Barlow was the merry band of technologists, artists, and public policy figures who, over the last six months, had gotten to know one another rather well as they eagerly awaited the dispatch of Lawrence Lessig's Creative Commons licenses onto British legal soil. It was time to celebrate.

After half a year of solid work by the legal team at Oxford University's Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy, the Creative Commons project has finally been ported into U.K. law. The appearance of Barlow to launch the licenses was the cherry atop a multi-tiered cake of potential presented by the arrival of Creative Commons (CC) in the U.K. Already, British interest in the scheme that would revolutionize copyright in the digital age has swollen into fields that even Barlow might not have dared to dream. His insistence at that night's celebration that if the rights of art itself to be disseminated, remixed, or reused are not safeguarded then "we will cease to be humans in some vital way" was greeted with a very unBritish kind of hope.

On its way to embodiment in U.K. law, the Creative Commons licenses have negotiated a legal terrain significantly different from their birthplace in the corridors of Stanford University in the U.S. For a start, the regional nature of the U.K. court system has meant that two different licenses have been drafted: one for England and Wales and another for Scotland, with work on a third for Northern Ireland expected to begin after the Easter break. Another significant difference has been the existence in U.K. copyright law of the rights of an author to object to derogatory treatment of her work, her so called "moral rights." Negotiating a compromise between the spirit of this law and the international Creative Commons schema has been a time-consuming but ultimately successful process for the legal team at Oxford and their consultants, which included a member of the U.K. judiciary.

The debate surrounding Creative Commons has been hung on different pegs over here too. In the U.K., there has never been a time when copyright registration was mandatory, and there is no constitutional reference to the reasons behind copyright law. Arguments for the necessity of the new system have had to be couched in more abstract terms, and the absence in Britain of the kind of ferocious IP lobbying characteristic of the U.S. has further muted the debate. But a promising groundswell of support for the ideas behind Creative Commons has been found in the institutions that set the U.K. apart from the rest of the world as a global fermenter and distributor of knowledge.

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"The U.K. has a great tradition in providing quality public service to the citizen... I find absolutely fascinating the way the public sector has been engaged with the CC project" says Prodromos Tsiavos, the legal lead at Oxford. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the most influential public service content provider in the world, has been behind the project from the start and is using the Creative Commons ideology as a lynchpin for its core digital project, the Creative Archive. Beyond this, institutions such as OfCom, Research Councils U.K., JISC, the Museums Libraries and Archives Council, The National Health Service, and the British Library are all making mention of CC in policy documents mapping the future dissemination of knowledge and culture. It may just represent good timing, but Lawrence Lessig's thinking has emerged as a framework for a country looking to maintain its lead role as a global content provider in the digital age.

By contrast, the commercial creative industries have raised the kind of misinformed objections to Creative Commons that will be tiresomely familiar to those engaged in the IP debate in the States. Although, during his research, Tsiavos received a warm welcome from many of the U.K.'s copyright revenue collecting societies, themselves keen to modernise practice for the digital age, the music business press in particular have been incredibly skeptical about the value of Creative Commons. Key concerns voiced have been that Creative Commons somehow undermines traditional copyright protection, that through taking part in what is in the U.K. a novel "registration process," creators may unwittingly give away their rights irrevocably, and also, in a wonderfully pitched recursive argument, that signing a CC licence could result in musicians being discounted by a music business hostile to CC. For the time being at least, the idea that, as Tsiavos puts it, "commons are not against markets; they only create new ones" appears to be falling on deaf ears.

It is unclear how to transform thinking so entrenched in favour of traditional copyright protection. A counter-campaign such as the one spearheaded by the Wired CD in the States last year might not be as successful over here. Granted, U.K. artists and audiences are susceptible to the idea of campaigning through music (think BandAid) and the British music scene is at an all-time high, with plenty of thoughtful and talented musicians who individually might be open to the idea of releasing a selection of the oeuvre CC. However, the fact that a U.K.-branded Wire dor equivalent has never found a market among U.K. magazine buyers reflects the sorry reality that the U.K. is just a lot less wired than her Atlantic cousins: there doesn't exist that quorum of people who are equal parts technologist and culture-vulture.

It will thus fall on grassroots creative projects to lead the way for the creative industry. Already, there are promising candidates. Brighton-based record label Loca Records, who started releasing all their content under a GPL-flavoured license and have now switched to CC, is one good example. Another is Remix Reading. Just before the arrival of CC U.K., this artists network based in the Berkshire town of Reading, launched its CC-enabled project for artistic collaboration across disciplines to an audience of over two hundred well-wishers. The project, which centres around a website and can be ported anywhere in the U.K., is currently in desperate need of sponsorship. Remix Reading, and indeed Remix Birmingham, Remix Manchester, and Remix Liverpool, if and when they emerge, represent a promising new direction for a country accustomed to its localised fringe art festivals (such as the ones held in Edinburgh and Brighton each year, attracting international acclaim).

All in all, the future looks positive for Creative Commons in the U.K. With unprecedented institutional backing and a grassroots creative scene willing to take up the challenge, the U.K. is set to contribute more than its share to the global project of "some rights reserved."

Becky Hogge lives in the U.K. She works at www.openDemocracy.net and writes for national and international publications on intellectual property law, technology, and media. Her work has been published in, among others places, The Guardian, Index on Censorship, The Face, and Dazed and Confused. She invites you to check out her website.


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