Copyright and Creative Commons

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Creativity is the lifeblood of American life. Our national output of ideas generates huge sums of wealth. In fact, with the exception of the military-industrial complex during war times, our creative ideas are the number one export. Whether you know it or not, we are cultivating ideas for the entire world.

As our ideas multiply and technological advances continue, the US copyright law struggles to reflect the changing times. These laws protect the usage, and ownership of sound recordings. When a recording artist borrows a sample of another's work, he needs to get permission to license the track from the copyright owners. It often involves record labels, lawyers and a lot of middlemen. Even if the artist wanted to give the rights, the label would have to agree.

In the new technological age, these laws are pretty outdated. Originally presented by Thomas Jefferson in 1790, the copyright laws were instituted to allow the creator the right to determine usage, and receive financial compensation for their creation for up to 14 years.

The term of the law lengthened, and by 1998, Congress had extended the copyright term to the life of the author, plus 70 years. That means copyright ownership can be passed down between a songwriter and their heirs like real estate. Following that period, which is sometimes over a century later, the work moves into the public domain.

This was never Thomas Jefferson's intention. The copyright law was only intended to give the creator a reasonable amount of time to generate income with it. After such time, the use would revert to the public domain, so others might benefit from the creativity and build new ideas with it.

And here's why the time frame is so important. In the technological age we now live, creativity is not linear. It's obtuse, random, sometimes spasmodic, and often stems from a derivative idea or thought. Collaboration across space and time, creative co-authorship with people you've never met, and working with other's creativity is what the Internet is really all about.

But working with someone else's idea most often means negotiating with a team of lawyers and waiting for approvals. Many creative people give up at this point. It's too much work.

Creative Commons has come up with a brilliant solution. They've built free tools that let creative people easily market their work with the freedoms they want it to carry. A recording artist can use a Creative Common license to change copyright terms from “All Rights Reserved” to “Some Rights Reserved,” allowing others to use their creativity without lawyers or delays.

Whether you want to post a mash-up from several albums on a website, or play your own guitar solo to a classic tune for MySpace, their licensing tools can help. The British Metal band, Pitchshifter, releases their CD's, with a final track of individual samples from their recording session. A Pitchshifter fan can extract a bass line, a guitar line, high hat, snare and bass drum hits to create their own remixes or sonic collages. The band stickers their CD with a notice to consumers, allowing them to freely sample.

This is the future of copyright. Now that technology gives us the chance to grow exponentially, creativity would be a terrible thing to waste.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.