Is US Copyright Law too limiting?

Is copyright law too limiting? While copyright law exists to protect
the rights and livelihoods of authors, artists, and other creators,
some argue that it stifles the creativity of the public by preventing
the remixing or reinterpreting of works. Because of this perceived
flaw, a group of lawyers and other concerned individuals joined
together to form Creative Commons, an organization that provides opt-in
supplements to traditional copyright.


The creation of Creative Commons was sparked by the conflict between
various individuals interested in making works that had gone out of
copyright publically available and the federal government, which in 1998
passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Act, extending the period in which a
work is protected by copyright. Two lawyers, Lawrence Lessig and
Jonathan Zittrain, decided to challenge the law, believing that keeping
lesser-known works in the public domain is necessary in order to
preserve those works. They represented a plaintiff, Eric Eldred, who had
created an online library of then-public domain books, in a case
before the Supreme Court. They lost, 7:2. However, this loss did not
prevent Lessig and company from looking into other ways to make work
available, expanding their focus from public domain books to all sorts
of content.


The concept that eventually became Creative Commons had originally
been created by a group of law students several years before, who
called it Copyright Commons. This concept relied on the idea that a
copyright holder might put a symbol on his or her creation marking it
as being contributed to the commons, a body of works available for
public use. Realizing that it would be possible to adopt this concept
and form it into a workable and legal system, the Creative Commons
board of directors officially met for the first time in the spring of
2001. Less than a year later, Creative Commons was officially
incorporated as a non-profit, and it launched its website soon after.


In order to encourage the free use of content, Creative Commons
implemented a licensing system that creators can choose to use, not as
an alternative to copyright, but as a way to express which specific
rights they want to retain. Creative Commons refers to this as a “some
rights reserved” system, as opposed to the “all rights reserved”
copyright standard. In order to apply a Creative Commons license to a
work, its creator must make a series of decisions: will derivative
works be allowed? Can the work or its derivatives be used commercially?
Must the person sharing or reinterpreting the work attribute it to its
original creator? Once the creator decides, he or she may place a
simple badge with symbols indicating which uses are allowed on the
work. The badge links back to the Creative Commons website, where a
full explanation of the badge and the legal code behind it can be
found.


While the use of Creative Commons licenses is not yet truly
mainstream, it has grown in popularity since the early days. According
to Creative Commons, the number of licenses in use increased from
approximately one million in 2003 to an estimated 130 million in 2008,
and the number has only continued to go up. Several major users of
licenses include authors like Cory Doctorow, whose 2003 novel Down and
Out in the Magic Kingdom was the first commercially published novel to
also be released under a Creative Commons license, government entities
including the Obama administration, and popular websites like Google and
Flickr.


Most recently, Creative Commons has introduced a new option that
allows creators to renounce all rights to a work, voluntarily placing
it within the public domain. This development harkens back to Creative
Commons’ roots in the Supreme Court case, while simultaneously looking
forward into the realm of new possibilities. After nearly a decade of
work, Creative Commons is continuing to expand the boundaries of
copyright into the future.

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