John Dvorak on Creative Commons

By Jason Wojciechowski on July 20, 2005 at 8:28 PM

John Dvorak, who is, I suppose, a well-respected columnist in computer-geek circles, comes up blasting Creative Commons (CC) in his latest column. CC is, in its own words, "a nonprofit that offers a flexible copyright for creative work." Basically, you visit a website, answer three or four questions about what kind of "permissions" you want to place on your work (should it be reproducable for commercial purposes? How about non-commercial?) and they give you some code to put near the work (whatever it may be: blog, painting, video, etc.) to let everyone know what you're allowing and not allowing them to do with it.

You should know that I am a supporter of the system (as you may have gleaned from my last post about Larry Lessig), so I may not be seeing things with a clear eye when I disagree with what Dvorak has to say. Regardless, though, away we go.

Dvorak's first objectionable statement comes in his fourth paragraph:

I have begged critics of the system, such as The Register's Andrew Orlowski, to explain to me how Creative Commons works or what it's supposed to do that current copyright law doesn't do. He says, "It does nothing."
Uh, if you ask <i>critics</i> of the system to explain it, then of course they're going to give negative answers!  That's like asking me to explain why George Bush's foreign policy is solid and then using my answer as evidence that it sucks.

In the next paragraph, Dvorak writes, "Creative Commons is similar to a license." Actually, it is a license. The word "license" is splattered everywhere on the Creative Commons website. I'm not sure what he means by this, anyway. Is it a bad thing that a CC license is, well, a license? Why?

In the same paragraph:

This means that others have certain rights to reuse the material under a variety of provisos, mostly as long as the reuse is not for commercial purposes. Why not commercial purposes? What difference does it make, if everyone is free and easy about this? In other words, a noncommercial site could distribute a million copies of something and that's okay, but a small commercial site cannot deliver two copies if it's for commercial purposes. What is this telling me?

The point is not that "everyone is free and easy about this." He mistakes people who use CC for a bunch of hippies who want everything to be public domain. Lessig in particular is a supporter of property and of intellectual property. He believes that America has gotten too protectionist about it, but he by no means believes that everything created should just sit out there for anyone to use and profit from.

To answer Dvorak's question in the last sentence: What we're telling you when we don't want commercial usage of our work is that we don't want someone else profiting from what we've created unless they're going to ask us (and, most likely, pay us) for said work. If, however, some other blogger wants to take some idea that I have and build upon it on his (also non-commercial) blog, then more power to him. I have decided to allow a derivation of my work to appear on his site (with the restrictions that he must credit me and must license his work under the same license as I did mine). What I don't want is ESPN to steal my brilliant idea to make thousands of dollars if they're not going to pay for that privilege.

In the next paragraph:

I could always use excerpts for commercial or noncommercial purposes. It's called fair use. I can still do that, but Creative Commons seems to hint that with its license means that I cannot.
Now Dvorak stops looking angry and starts looking ignorant.  On the bottom of the page that explains the license I've chosen for this blog (clink the CC image or the text below it) are the words (<b>in bold!</b>), "Your fair use and other rights are in no way affected by the above."  I don't see anything being "hinted at" in that sentence.  Lessig may be an idealist and an academic, but he's still a lawyer by training, and lawyers are nothing if not notorious for their attention to detail.

Dvorak is worried that, because my license does not allow commercial usage of my work, he cannot excerpt portions of my response in order to respond in kind (basically, that he cannot do with my work exactly what I am doing with his) because he writes for a commercial site. That assertion, however, is flat-out wrong. Fair use is not being eroded by CC. If he wanted to quote something I said earlier and respond to it on the PC Mag website, he would be free to just as if I had any other copyright on this text.

He next complains about the CC-Public Domain license.

If I write something on my blog, for example, and decide not to cover it with the general copyright notice, I can simply say that it is in the public domain and be done with it. I do not need permission from Creative Commons, nor do I need to mention Creative Commons or anything else.
His point is that CC is only serving as a middle-man here, not adding anything useful, and in fact complicating matters, since you could just write "Public domain" on the work and be done with it.  What he misses is that not everyone understands copyright.  Not everyone has read Lessig's books or other resources and realizes what their rights and freedoms are and are not.  A middle-man <b>is</b> helpful in this case, because you may not realize that you can put your work in the public domain so easily.  CC, in essence, eases your mind that everything is being done legally.


Years ago, to gain a copyright, you had to fill out a form and send in the material to the Library of Congress. Now you just use the word "copyright," add your name and a date, and publish it. What could be easier? Apparently simplicity was more than some people could handle, so they invented Creative Commons to add some artificial paperwork and complexity to the mechanism. And it seems to actually weaken the copyrights you have coming to you without Creative Commons.
I don't even know how to respond to this.  He completely misses the point of CC in that last sentence.  <i>Of course</i> it weakens the copyright you would have if you just put "All rights reserved" on your site!  That's the point!  If you're using CC, it's because you <b>don't want to reserve all the rights you have to the work.</b>  You've <i>decided</i> to waive some of those rights.  If my work is really popular (it's not, but whatever) and I'm ok with other bloggers reproducing it, do I really want to put "All rights reserved" on my site, then have to deal with each case of usage individually?  Of course not.  I want to take care of large swaths of usage in one fell swoop, and that's what CC provides me.

I honestly don't know, and maybe someone can tell me: is Dvorak usually this ignorant? Does he usually do this little research for his columns? I doubt he's stupid, but this article does not paint him in a good light.