Joi Ito visits Nature

Last Friday Joi Ito, CEO of Creative Commons (and much else besides) visited our office in London and delivered a talk entitled ‘Innovation in Open Networks’. Here are my (incomplete and impressionistic) notes from the session:

Innovation in Open Networks by Joi Ito

Joi used to work in media before the web. Then he jumped ship to the Internet and set up first commercial ISP in Japan.

In the past you had to be in a big company or a research lab to work in information technology. The traditional approach to developing a service that required all possible use cases and errors to be documented in advance. The internet, in contrast, allowed anyone to participate. The open standards and the ability to participate without asking permission were key to its success – “small pieces loosely joined” in David Weinberger’s phrase.

The stack: Ethernet (computers) -> TCP/IP (network) -> HTTP (documents) -> Creative Commons (ideas).

Each level in the stack has reduced friction and enabled innovation. Creative Commons (CC) does this at the legal layer.

Joi explained Creative Commons licences. In the analog world for which copyright was originally created, most people don’t want or need to make copies. In the digital world, the act of consumption results in copies, so strictly speaking copyright restricts most uses. CC overcomes this by providing licences that don’t require lawyers, or even further permission from the copyright owner, to enable reuse.

The W3C manages web standards. RDFa has now reached the highest status of a W3C standard (i.e., ‘recommendation’). Among other things, it allows machine-readable licence information to be embedded in a file. This information was previously put into the HTML comments, which was crude and limited to HTML files. Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft have started to parse and use RDFa-encoded licence information. This approach potentially allows fully automated rights clearing. CC is pushing to get this functionality included in HTML 5 too.

Examples of CC users: Jamendo allows artists to share their work. Al Jazeera CC-licenses their Gaza footage. (This has resulted in other sales leads, so the net commercial effect is positive.) Bloomsbury Academic. Cory Doctorow.

CC licensing increases demand but cannibalises sales. So there’s a trade-off depending on the demand and sales of any given piece of work at any given time. The questions about CC licensing are therefore practical ones about what, who and when – not a religious decision. (Though for scientific and certain other types of content, CC believes in free access.)

In these situations, the communities often police themselves, enforcing social norms such as attribution and non-commercial restrictions. [Joi gave a Star Wars fan fiction example.] In some cases, fans create derivative versions (e.g., subtitled films) to encourage the publisher to release an official (paid) version, removing the amateur version when they succeed.

CC+ ("CC Plus") is a way of adding CC to other licences. For example, you might use a CC non-commercial licence with another licence that covers commercial use.

Changing business models is hard. In places where there are no business models we often see the most innovation. ‘Tecno brega‘ music parties in Brazil have equipment sponsors, etc. and make a lot of money even though the music itself isn’t charged for. These artists treat street vendors of CDs as a marketing channel, not a revenue stream. This approach is bad for traditional record companies.

In his venture business, Joi thinks about where the user perceives value, and tries to be part of that. In the early days of Infoseek, they planned to charge users for each search(!).

Wikipedia is now using CC, not GFDL anymore. This makes mixing of content with other CC content (like OpenCourseWare). This is also reason they don’t like ‘vanity licences’ such as the BBC’s, which effectively create multiple incompatible internets for information.

Copyright extension in the US is preventing almost all works from going into the public domain. Lots of orphan works. The GBS settlement is a kludge.

CC Zero: Not a licence, but allows people to give up all rights as far as possible under the law. Good for, e.g., scientific data. (Attribution data can be clumsy – and in some databases exceeds the size of the original data.)

Distinction between the law and social norms (e.g., plagiarism is not illegal but is discouraged by implicit social contracts.

[There was then a Q&A session, including discussion of further scientific examples, but I'm afraid I didn't make notes.]


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