I heard Cory Doctorow speak on Creative Commons (CC) here in Zürich last week.
In case this is your first encounter with CC, I should explain: CC provides a clear, simple way for creators to manage the copyright issues for their creations. It provides a ‘middle’ way in the copyright landscape. (You can see I have a CC logo on the RHS of this page, under Charlotte’s boots. If you click on that it will take you to a page that outlines the kind of copyright I have chosen for the Aimes-Waterson Ink empire.)
On the one hand, you have the ‘strict, total protection’ scenario of traditional copyright; on the other, there’s the ‘open and sharing, public domain’ scenario. The former is often aligned with ‘monetizing’, whereas the latter with open-source, and ‘remix’.
In writerly terms, an example of a remix is ‘fan-fic’. Fan-fic can be exemplified by, for instance, the Star Wars empire. Fairly early on, George Lucas realised that to approach his empire with a strict, total protection approach would be death to the empire. In enabling his fans to write their own, new episodes, create parodies on YouTube, without the fear of being hounded by Lucas lawyers, he created a space in which they could do what they liked. Because even bad press is good press.
(Obviously, Lucas isn’t the only character in the CC story. Satoshi Tajiri, creator of Pokémon, fell into line with the already-existing world of Manga remixing, known as Dōjinshi. It’s not a new concept.)
Who knows what Lucas’s motives were – whether it was purely capitalist – but the other side of this is that CC allows a space in which people can be creative. If you shut down access to ideas that inspire people, you’re bound to be building a world that devalues creativity. Everything is a copy in some sense, after all.
But back to books: the beauty of CC is that it allows for grey areas. It allows the creator to say, ‘You can use this, you can remix it, you can be creative! You can also acknowledge your source code (=me)’.
But how does this affect a writer’s chance of getting an agent? And publisher?
It depends on the attitude of the agent or publisher. Some are more open to the creative commons licensing than others. Another reason to do your research, to realise that writers and agents need to ‘fit’.
The problem seems to be: any time you sign over the rights of your work to a body who want to control its use – whose digital rights management (DRM) is limited – you are signing over control of the possibility of reaching a wider audience. You don’t have the freedom to publish as and where you like. But not only that. Every time there is a change to the software they prescribe – the digital platforms – new contracts will have to be drawn up, and that equals expenses for you, the impoverished writer.
Cory Doctorow is one example of a writer who straddles the worlds rather nicely. He has been publishing his fiction under CC licenses for many, many years, has his own imprint, but has also published with others.
But for the average wannabe, finding the balance between making a buck (and let’s face it, there’s not much money to be had to begin with, let alone if you’re giving your stuff away for free), and actually getting yourself read (which some might argue is the other part of the writing equation) can be tricky. I mean, aren’t we clinging to the restrictive copyright model precisely because we are trying to find ways to survive a culture of greed?
As Doctorow and others say, though, if you don’t put it out there, how are people going to know it exists?
As creators, we have a right to control how our work is used and to be acknowledged for it, if we so desire. We also have a right to be creative with the remixed environment in which we already live. But we also have to learn to navigate a culture of capitalism without being stomped on by those in power.
My question: can we have our cake and eat it?
Here is aforementioned Doctorow’s talk about Creative Commons (on the Kultpavillon site):