The Newsleter of the Association of Library & Information Science Students (ALISS)

The Silverfish is published monthly by the students of the Information School at the University of Washington.

The Logo of the University of Washington Information School

About The Silverfish
Current Issue
Editorial Board
Information for Authors

Book seal.

David Boyle Gets Creative with the Creative Commons
By Steve McCann
May 17, 2003

Each year the library at North Carolina State University holds a gathering called the I.T. Littleton Seminar. This series was established in 1987 to mark the retirement of I. T. Littleton, the former director of the D. H. Hill Library. The seminar series attempts to address major issues that are important to libraries. This year the invited speaker was David Boyle, co-founder of the Creative Commons, who colorfully outlined both the current state of copyright and why there's a need for his organization's fresh approach to copyright protection.

Boyle opened with a look into the recent past of copyright law. According to him, it's possible to compare copyright to a landmine which goes off in the event of piracy. In the 1940s this landmine was aimed at the "tanks" of piracy. Back then the effort and resources necessary to overcome the difficulties of significantly breaching copyright law meant that individuals were never in danger of getting "blown up" inadvertently. As an individual, there was simply no way for you to easily violate copyright laws. In addition, you always knew which works were copyrighted because formalities were required. You had to mark your copyrighted work with a "©" in order for it to be protected. Your copyright also had to be renewed periodically or it would expire. If a work didn't meet these criteria it then entered the public domain. The effect was that copyright law didn't regulate people's behavior significantly. But now, with the advent of digital technology, copyright does regulate people's behavior since it's very easy to violate copyright protection.

In the 1980's copyright changed dramatically; the U.S. amended copyright law so that a work was protected the moment it was created. There is no longer a need to register the work and no formal notification is required. The default position of any work is that "all rights are reserved." The question Boyle had, and the problem that led to the creation of the Creative Commons, was what happens if you only want to reserve some rights? According to Tim O'Reilly (the founder and president of computer book publisher O'Reilly & Associates who recently adopted Creative Commons principles for his works), "copy protection is over-blown … the vast majority of artists would love to be known well enough to be a target of pirates. The biggest danger to an artist isn't piracy, it's not being noticed." When Boyle contacted the copyright office with the question of how to release some rights, the answer was "We don't have a way to do that. You'll have to get creative."

Boyle's response was to help set up the Creative Commons which helps artists and creators reserve some rights, while releasing others to the larger community, without the need for an army of expensive lawyers. Here are a few of the licenses that are available, free of charge:

Some Rights Reserved

  • Attribution: The licensor permits others to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work. In return, licensees must give the original author credit.
  • No Derivative Works: The licensor permits others to copy, distribute, display and perform only unaltered copies of the work -- not derivative works based on it.
  • Noncommercial: The licensor permits others to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work. In return, licensees may not use the work for commercial purposes -- unless they get the licensor's permission.
  • Share Alike: The licensor permits others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the one that governs the licensor's work.

In this way the artist/creator retains control over her work while allowing it to be shared among the larger creative community. According to Boyle, creative work is important to our intellectual future. While it's easy to quantify how much the content industry loses due to piracy, the costs borne by artists and academia through "failed sharing", due to overly broad copy protection, is invisible.

So far the main users of the Creative Commons are non-profits, musicians and filmmakers. In other words any person who relies on "loss leaders"; the break-through song, film, or writing that finally gets them noticed.

The Creative Commons reports over 500,000 works licensed through their system. There are also mirror projects under way in other counties in the attempt to replicate the idea under different legal conditions. But most telling is the fact that both Jack Valenti (the head of the Motion Picture Association of America) and John Perry Barlow (of "information wants to be free" fame) approve of this project. This unusual pairing should make Boyle believe he's on the right track.

Submissions Requested

Are you interested in sharing your knowledge with the rest of the student body? Have you attended any conferences or taken an interesting or worthwhile class outside of the department? Would you care to review nearby bars for us? Send your Silverfish submissions to

Edited by Michael Harkovitch

Silverfish Web Design by John W.N. Buell