Who Knows?

Copyright, Creative Commons and the Limits of Knowledge

Maybe I am Crazy, by I’m Your Pusher, with Creative Commons licenceShare and share alike we’re told as kids, and it’s a pity we don’t always do so as adults. One of the more dubious, and most challenging, features of the Cyber Age is the promotion of intellectual property rights to the commercial extreme. Knowledge has become a commodity, and were it not for projects like Wikipedia and – let’s face it – rampant piracy, few would share the bounty of the times. But we can change that in our own small ways.

Yesterday I licensed the content of this blog under the auspices of the Creative Commons project. The details are at the bottom of the sidebar if you’re interested, and I hope you are.

Creative Commons Licence NotificationI’ve included the notification button here again – just click on it to see the exact conditions of my Attribution Share-Alike licence. Horrible name, I know, but it means that you can use what I write any way you like as long as you state that I created it in the first place. And I’m also asking you to offer the results of any changes under the same licence.

I’m not expecting a general sigh of relief and a rush to quote my material – Heaven forbid! What I’m doing is lending my modest support to a worthy cause.

You might have noticed that I source most of the photos in my posts from Flickr under various Creative Commons licences. A few of you have commented on how good they are. Look closely at some of them – or better yet, go to larger versions at Flickr by clicking on the images – and you’ll notice a range of techniques used to bring out depth and emotion, to heighten colour and darken shade. That’s not just skill or art, its knowledge shared.

Cropped version of “Share This” Icon Concept # 1, with Creative Commons licenceI’ve mentioned before that the science fiction author Cory Doctorow offers free downloads of his novels free under Creative Commons licences. Enter “Creative Commons novels” into Google and you’ll find many more from other authors. You’ll also find a link to a post by Ms. Whatsit on the value of Creative-Commons-licensed voice recordings in the classroom.

Now I’m pushing into more traditionally recognised realms of knowledge. Beyond the Creative Commons project are wikis, the best known example of which is Wikipedia, whose founder Jimmy Wales is a Creative Commons board member. Beyond that again are the many thousands, maybe even millions, of people who share their work without a second thought.

What stops corporations that trade in knowledge online from following the same path? You might be thinking about record companies or book publishers, but it can be as simple as your local newspaper.

Here in Hong Kong the South China Morning Post is one of the last great stop-outs, offering full content to online subscribers only. It hosts advertising at scmp.com, which seems to be the way of the future for free online access, but can’t bring itself to lift its self-imposed barriers.

I Feel Cold as Razor Blade, by confusedvision, with Creative Commons licenceWhat’s the worry at the Post? A loss of revenue? Yes, of course. As a proportion of the population, exceedingly few Hong Kongers read English language media alone, so the market is small. But that’s an irrational concern given the number of free news sites carrying similar coverage. There seems to be something less sophisticated but more powerful at work. My suggestion is, quite simply, fear.

When Francis Bacon observed that knowledge is power he also implied the contrary – that losing knowledge means losing power, relinquishing control, being stripped of status. We all experience it, sometimes at work, sometimes at home; helplessness, great or small, is the result. For a particularly paranoid newspaper publisher that loss of status would signal the loss of credibility, which could, in one vision of the world, flow over to the print edition.

And in a broader sense, that sort of paranoia feeds the copyright agenda. As BoingBoing reported at the time, three years ago Bill Gates labelled advocates of knowledge sharing “some new modern-day sort of communists” (the full interview is on CNET’s news.com). But few except the new commies really batted an eyelid. What could he have been thinking? Is this Web 2.0, the new Cold War online? The rhetoric might suggest so.

Or to look at it another way, a loss of control might just make Bill Gates look ignorant. Allow me to explain why.

In Rasero, Francis Rebolledo’s fictional recreation of revolutionary France, Denis Diderot – he of the Enlightenment’s magnificent Encyclopédie – speaks of a regrettable inertia:

We cruelly punish not ignorance but what defies it. The knowledge we acquire, for which so many men have given their freedom, their honor, and even their lives, is the greatest obstacle to our obtaining new knowledge, because the new knowledge can demonstrate that our learning is not all that learned. And knowledge that is surpassed by later knowledge, my friends, is nothing other than ignorance, and no one likes to be ignorant.

What lies beyond copyrighted knowledge? If all source code were free, what would become of Bill Gates’ ubiquitous word processor? Would we be worse off? The latest version of OpenOffice suggests not.

Ignorance is Bliss Road, by parl, under Creative Commons licenceBut still, we don’t really know, and that’s the whole point. We’re all blissfully ignorant in one way or another, particularly about the possibilities lurking in the future. I’m supporting Creative Commons – that seems like the best possible bet in this puzzling world.

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2 Responses to Who Knows?

  1. Ms. Whasit says:

    It’s ironic. We teach children that they must share, yet when adults practice what they preach with tools such as Creative Commons, they are labeled as “commies”.

    Thought-provoking post. Thank you!

  2. Mike Poole says:

    Thanks Ms. Whatsit! There’s certainly a disjunction between how children are taught to behave and how adults insist the world must work. Sharing as a form of behaviour, in a purely abstract social sense, is a fundamental human value, but it’s usually condemned in specific circumstances as the underlying motivation shifts from inculcation to greed. And greed is often the basis of the most irrational fears.

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