In the so-called “copyright wars,” we see a spectrum having the MPAA, RIAA, Jack Valenti, and “all rights reserved” on one side, with the Pirate Parties, Pirate Bay, Rick Falkvinge, and “no rights reserved” on the other side. In the middle, we have Creative Commons, Lawrence Lessig, and “some rights reserved”.
I’d like to momentarily expand this line to one that places “no rights reserved” in the middle, in a way that shifts Lessig closer to Valenti, and opens up a whole new area of creative exploration beyond the pirates, who are no longer extremists.
First, a disclaimer: I don’t claim to have any answers. I don’t even believe what I’m suggesting is the right path. I am simply suggesting an idea that frames a long-standing and long-term discussion in a different light.
The spectrum above defines the opposite of a right as “the absense of a right.” This only goes halfway. The opposite of a right is a responsibility.
Image, for a moment, a society where there is no such thing as, “the right to my creation,” but there is a massive, “responsibility to create.” In this society, people would have free access to all the materials of the world, all the patents, blueprints, and software, all the films, songs, and books, all the photos, paintings, and sketches the world has ever seen. In exchange for this free access, individuals would be required (responsible) to create a certain amount of new material every year. Some of this material would be innovative and fresh, some would be a new presentation of old stories and ideas, some of it would be interpretations of those old stories in new media. We’d see new designs for existing products, we’d see new products that merge old technologies. We’d see Android phones with iphone gestures, and we’d see Mickey Mouse saving Princess Peach from the evil Bowser the Hedgehog.
Such a world may excite some, bore others, and scare many. Would these same people be less excited, bored, or scared by the Pirate Party? by Creative Commons? Maybe those deals aren’t so bad after all (to those demanding rights)… or maybe they aren’t so good (to the promoters of creativity).
This responsibility to create idea seems radical in the context of entertainment media, but it is not new. It’s a long-standing scientific tradition, best encompassed by Newton’s overused quote about giants. Academics have “free” access to the entire compendium of academic knowledge; in exchange for this access, they are expected (responsible) to generate new ideas and innovations. Some are good and some are bad, but if a scientist neglects to publish a few new papers a year, they fade from the academic community.
This idea is also an unofficial motivator in open source communities. Within the Arch Linux community, my home, I’ve made some effort recently to verbalize this norm. The story goes thus: Arch Linux has had contributions from many thousands of users. Each of us that uses the distribution is somehow indebted to all those other users. Further, we can never, as individuals, pay off the debt in its entirety. Even the well-known user with 8000 posts on the forum, thousands of package updates to his name, and dozens of Arch Linux tools under his belt has contributed but a drop in the bucket compared to the efforts of the entire community. And Aaron is aware of this debt. So should we all be.
Yes, in the academic and open source world, the implied responsibility to create is known to work. Creativity in both worlds spreads more quickly than anywhere else. Compare to the communities creating ideas whose soul purpose is entertainment. Even the liberated Jamendo is mired way over in the (Some) Rights Reserved end of the scale.