The Austin Chronicle

Snippets From SXSW Interactive 2003

By Michael May, March 14, 2003, Screens

Some Rights Reserved: The Creative Commons Project

Sunday, March 9, 11:30am-12:30pm
Creative Commons offers a perfectly legal, digital solution to the current draconian state of copyright law, which effectively prohibits the use of every kind of cultural product, whether the creator intends it to be copyrighted or not. Thanks to these laws, almost nothing is left of the public domain, a body of collectively owned works available for any sort of use by artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers. It wasn't always this way: The public domain was considered vital to democracy by the founding fathers, who considered it crucial in the promotion of the "useful arts and sciences." Thanks to corporate lobbying, Congress seems to have been convinced that an unlimited monopoly by artists and corporations is more important than artistic and cultural progress. The irony is that the vast majority of these protected works are of no value to anybody except academics and certain artists and, without a profit motive, cannot be preserved.

"What we are seeing is the slow burning of the library of Alexandria," said panelist and sci-fi author Cory Doctorow, referring to the fabled Greek archive. "Many of these works will physically expire before their copyrights do. And so we have huge archives of films with no clear owner just melting away, and no one in their right mind will touch them. If a copyright owner comes out of the woodwork, you could have an expensive court case on your hand. Preserving these works is just too risky."

Creative Commons simply provides licenses to artists who wish to give their works away. Doctorow knows that this can have immeasurable value. His press, Tor Books, published 8,500 paper-and-ink versions of his latest book, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Doctorow also has made it available on his Web site ( with a Creative Commons license, where it has been downloaded 85,000 times. On the very same day as the panel, The New York Times, which had discovered the book online, reviewed it. This may have been partly responsible for Doctorow's buoyant mood. "I don't just write for the money," said Doctorow. "I want people to read my book, and publishing it online proved a great way to get it in front of people. I believe that if you can get people to read and enjoy your work, than money and success will follow."

Other panelists included Glenn Otis Brown, the executive director of Creative Commons (; Chris Kelty, a Rice University professor who has used Creative Commons to share intellectual material at; Aaron Swartz, the humble teenage programming prodigy that no cutting-edge interactive company should be without; and Brandon Wiley, from the Foundation for Decentralization Research. (For more on the Creative Commons, see Plays Well With Others from our February 28 issue.)

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