Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

Creative Commons: The Next Generation, by Alan N. Shapiro

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The Benefit of Creative Commons Licenses

Creative Commons licenses are a great idea and a very important practice. This is a noble project, an important step forward in online social life that encourages “the Internet of Creators” (see my recent essay of this title) and a culture of sharing.1 Building on top of copyright as it has been conceived and implemented in our legal traditions, Creative Commons offers a palette of six different standardized licenses developed by specialist lawyers that change the name of the game of intellectual property rights protection from ‘all rights reserved’ to ‘some rights reserved’.

Authors and creators can sacrifice some of the rights granted to them by copyright law, allowing them to immediately release aspects of their work into a cultural space akin to the public domain. Underlying the Creative Commons activism is a philosophy advocating the growth of general imagination, inspiration and inventiveness. The declared mission of the Creative Commons non-profit organization is to support and advance creativity, and to promote the flowering of a more abundant, highly varied, and lively culture.

The vision of Creative Commons is to realize “the full potential of the Internet” as a universal platform for research and education, and to keep the Internet “creative, free and open.”2 By refining the rules of copyright, the products of creativity – academic and scientific papers, blog posts, photographs, videos, songs, illustrations, etc. – can become collaborative objects, and can be further developed by others. Teachers, artists, writers, coders, and designers around the world can proceed with their synthesizing or ‘mixing’ work, integrating materials from disparate available sources without having to tediously go about contacting and asking permission from each individual copyright owner.

Creativity and Economics

Yet the larger area of concern addressed by the ‘historical’ venture of Creative Commons is that of the relationship between creativity and economics. The deeper motivational force behind Creative Commons is not “the freedom of the Internet” (a somewhat abstract ideological slogan inherited from the 1990s Zeitgeist): it is the betterment of the existential-economic situation of artists and creators. The pressing question for future design thinking is this: What ideas from social theory can sanction and incite the ‘Next Generation’ of the Creative Commons trajectory? Can we think of the configuration of the tandem of creativity and economics in a new and different way? What is the place of creativity in a buying-and-selling market-oriented society? In the capitalist system, most people who are non-artists and non-creators are constrained to sell their labor and time in exchange for the money needed for survival (or they can try to become entrepreneurs).

There is a sphere of the marketplace – including the marketplace for work – where certain goods, services and  everyday activities are recognized by the economic rhythmic procedures of ‘supply and demand’ as having monetary value. Following the terminology of the seminal French philosophers Georges Bataille and Jacques Derrida, one could refer to this sphere as being ‘the restricted economy’. Artists and creative people are those members of (or outcasts from) society who choose to spend their time and efforts on pursuits which are not necessarily greeted with financial reward. Their artworks and similar outputs could be seen as belonging to what the founding member of the Collège de Sociologie (Bataille) and the originator of deconstruction (Derrida) called ‘the general economy’.

Bataille and other ‘anthropological’ thinkers have been interested in how non-Western or so-called ‘primitive’ societies alternatively dealt with the question of the interconnection between creativity and economics. In his 1979 book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (published in Canada under the more appropriate title The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World), Lewis Hyde asserts the principle that the artwork is fundamentally something other than a commodity: it is rather a gift to be understood within the framework of the rules of circulation of a ‘gift economy’. Could a project of “Creative Commons: The Next Generation” correspond historically to the emergence in our contemporary global and networked society of organizational principles even more advanced than ‘sharing’ and ‘open’ that would help the cause of creators? Could artists get financially rewarded for what they do in an expansion of the socio-economic mechanisms of the monetization of value?

The Story of Creative Commons

In terms of its self-understanding in the orbit of political and economic theory, Creative Commons could be viewed as having founded itself on the left-liberal or ‘democratic socialist’ (or perhaps even right-libertarian) idea that there is and should be a ‘public sphere’ or ‘public domain’ or ‘shared cultural space’ within modern society which is outside of and exempt from the economic nexus of cash values. As the English-language Wikipedia article on Creative Commons states: “The organization was founded in 2001 by [Harvard Law School Professor] Lawrence Lessig, [MIT Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science] Hal Abelson and [publisher] Eric Eldred with the support of the Center for the Public Domain.”3 Academic institutes for the study of Internet and society at Harvard and Stanford Law Schools helped to get the enterprise going.

Creative Commons is “at the forefront of the copyleft movement” (Wikipedia).4 According to media studies scholars David Berry and Giles Moss (who are cited in the Wikipedia article), it has made a major contribution to “the rethinking of the role of the ‘commons’ in the ‘information age’.”5 Co-founder Lawrence Lessig framed Creative Commons as a counterbalance to the power of the traditional content distributors in the media and culture industries who seek to maintain a stranglehold on ownership of cultural artefacts. By 2003, there were more than one million Creative Commons licenses in use. By 2006, this figure had reached fifty million licenses. Today it is more than three hundred and fifty million. The project is profoundly in line with other significant developments in user participation and interactivity in/with media culture which have been enabled by the Internet. The photo sharing website Flickr prominently began about 2006 to employ the Attribution-ShareAlike CC license. In 2011, the video-sharing website YouTube started to offer users who upload videos the option to choose the Attribution ShareAlike CC license. Wikipedia uses a Creative Commons license for all of its online encyclopedia articles.

Creative Commons says that its reason for being is to “build a layer of reasonable, flexible copyright.”6 “Like the free software and open-source movements,” they declare at their website, “our ends are cooperative and community-minded.”7 CC licenses as cyberspace phenomena are consistent with the techno-cultural movement that has recently been set into motion to introduce and standardize two crucial technologies which were unfortunately left out of the original design of the World Wide Web. These are: (1) a layer of file attribution or ownership, and (2) bidirectional hyperlinks which would provide a link back to where one came from (back to the original work when making use of it). At the forefront of this movement is the Berlin-based startup art, media and technology company Ascribe GmbH, which has developed powerful technologies to provide the infrastructure for digital ownership. The six Creative Commons licenses regularly in use are Attribution, AttributionNonCommercial, AttributionShareAlike, AttributionNoDerivs, AttributionNonCommercialShareAlike, and  AttributionNonCommercialNoDerivs.

The Intertwined Reality of the Money Sphere and the Public Sphere

Are the money sphere and the public sphere (or new cultural space) to be understood as being separated from each other or intertwined? It seems that the notion of their separation inherits from the historical background of a relatively simplistic social democratic model of the ‘mixed economy’. According to this rather old-fashioned idea, commerce and monetization are some kind of ‘necessary evil’ for society as a whole, an involvement which should be avoided when high up in the rarefied air of ‘public goods’ like culture, art, education, creativity, etc. In reality, the two spheres are already intertwined on the intimate detailed level. Artists need to survive and live in a capitalist society. The ‘First Generation’ of the Creative Commons enterprise already implies the goal of helping the interests of artists and creators, within the general vision and context of working towards the “Internet of Creators.”

The Monetization of Creativity

Many famous radical thinkers like to say “I am against capitalism.” These thinkers use the word ‘capitalism’ to mean only one thing: the top-down globalized capitalism of the Big Corporations, including the big media content property holders. But the word ‘capitalism’ has a second, positive meaning that describes the very force that can fight against Big Corporation capitalism: a decentralized bottom-up entrepreneurial capitalism of artists and creative workers. In my view, artists should not be ‘purists’ who want nothing to do with ‘commercialism’ and money. On the contrary, artists should fight for their rights to a good economic existence. The role of the democratic state (and therefore of an activist law) should be to ‘help the little person’ – the artists, the homeless, the small startup entrepreneurs – to convert her cultural, human, and symbolic capital into monetary capital. Artworks and cultural creations are symbolic capital.

Something similar to an elegantly complex system of the guaranteed income, there should be many different kinds of money and ‘chips’ (as suggested by ‘casino chips’). There should be an intricate mosaic of creativity-to-capital conversion and transfer mechanisms. There should be a monetization (not a commodification) of creativity. I turn for inspiration to the great postwar German artist Joseph Beuys. Beuys said that we are living under the oppression of an ideological version of Capital. (Bataille called it the rule of ‘the restricted economy’). In a  democracy, Beuys says, everyone is an artist, everyone is creative, everyone – as a free being – has her own culture and canon. Human beings are the creators of social capital and social art. We must deconstruct the ideological form of Capital and reconstruct a ‘general economy’ of capital starting from art and popular media culture, from meaningful work, participation, and the ‘general intellect’.

‘The Gift’ in Anthropology

In order to progress to “Creative Commons: The Next Generation,” ideas from an entirely different intellectual  tradition (distinguished from ‘public sphere’ left-liberalism) must be tapped: the anthropological research into and reflection on ‘gift exchange’ systems in so-called primitive societies. The early twentieth-century French thinkers Marcel Mauss (The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies) and Georges Bataille (The Accursed Share) wrote classic works on this subject. The late twentieth-century French thinkers Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard commented poignantly on Bataille’s perspective. The American poet Lewis Hyde wrote a major work entitled The Gift.

Lewis Hyde on ‘The Gift’

Instead of speaking about ‘the public sphere’, Lewis Hyde begins his investigation with the assumption that a work of art is a gift, not a commodity. “Or, to state the modern case with more precision,” writes Hyde, “works of art exist simultaneously in two ‘economies’, a market economy and a gift economy.”8 A gift economy does somewhat resemble an ‘open’ or a ‘sharing’ economy (to reference the terms currently in vogue). Creative Commons is clearly, in a sense, about gift-giving. To advance to “Creative Commons: The Next Generation,” it is the reality of the ‘gift economy’ – on the subject of which a vast (and mainly French) anthropological literature is available – that must be theorized and put into practice as a ‘contemporary anthropological project to help artists and creators’.

A gift, according to Hyde, is something that we do not acquire through our own efforts. It is bestowed upon us. We are privileged to receive it. It emanates from an elsewhere. “Mozart, composing on the harpsichord at the age of four, had a gift.”9 A gift that cannot be given away ceases to be a gift. The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its being constantly given away in turn, its entering into a system of the continuous circulation of gifts. The gift must always move. The essential lesson of the anthropological literature on gift economies in primitive societies is that gift exchange does not take place outside of commerce. On the contrary, it is a form of commerce. It is gift-giving as commerce that now needs to be explored and developed in the context of our contemporary social situation. In the comparative cultures studied by ethnography, scholars discover that gift-giving has ‘a sacred quality’. The gift economy is the sign of a true abundance, the ostentatious display by a culture of the either strict or playful expenditure of its surplus. The giving of a gift establishes a human bond between the parties engaged in this symbolic exchange. The gift is given in silence, and it must be repaid by an equivalent counter-gift.

Lewis Hyde concludes his book The Gift with the assertion that the poles of the dichotomy between creativity and commerce are not really so strongly opposed. “Gift exchange and the market need not be wholly separate spheres,” states Hyde.10 Eros and logos may coexist in a middle ground. The artist steps outside of the gift economy where he and his art feel most at home and develops a new feeling of making peace with the market of purchase and sale. Then, if successful, he re-converts market wealth back to gift wealth, supporting his own art, paying himself as self patron with what he has earned. Capitalism as an economic form expects and rewards the conversion of gift wealth to market wealth on the part of individuals, but it should also develop into a more mature stage where it provides more social mechanisms for the transmutation between gift and market value in both directions.

Marcel Mauss on ‘The Potlatch’

In his famous 1923-1924 essay “The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies,” Marcel Mauss writes about gifts and return-gifts as “total social phenomena” which simultaneously encompass religious, legal, moral, economic and aesthetic institutional dimensions. Unlike in modern society, the practices of the ‘archaic’ societies know no partition into separate instances like art, economy, politics, work and leisure. These “original affluent societies” (see Marshall Sahlins) make up a large part of humanity.11

Gifts in archaic societies, explains Mauss, are “in theory voluntary, disinterested and spontaneous, but are in fact obligatory and interested.”12 There is an obligation to give and an obligation to receive. The gift received must be repaid in the form of a counter- or return- or ‘clinching-gift’. What is exchanged is not goods or things of economic wealth. Mauss writes: “They exchange rather courtesies, entertainments, ritual, military assistance, women, children, dances, and feasts.”13 This system of “total prestations” is what Mauss calls the potlatch, the gift-giving feast, the primary exchange system in the sense that “the whole clan, through the intermediacy of its chiefs, makes contracts involving all its members and everything it possesses.”14

Georges Bataille on “The Accursed Share” and “The General Economy”

In his 1949 book The Accursed Share, Bataille studies as his primary object of inquiry the concept and historical reality of “the general economy” of the dissipation or expenditure of wealth rather than its production.15 The “accursed share” of surplus that results from “the restricted economy” of production can appear in the guise of the human sacrificial victim, conspicuous gifts, extreme play, the squandering of resources, or prodigious festivals. The “accursed share” of excess human energy can be expended in art, sexuality, or ritualized spectacles. In many primitive societies, giving is highly regarded as a glorious activity, an exhibition of one’s wealth and good fortune. A society is characteristically defined by how it fritters away its luxury excess. Waste is also a form of expenditure. Prestige is acquired by he who wastes. Bataille’s science of general economy also considers the circulation of all energies on Earth, and the question of how living beings dispose of their exuberant energy.

Derrida on Bataille

In his essay “From Restricted to General Economy” in the book Writing and Difference (1967), Derrida extends Bataille’s notion of general economy to a deliberation on the discipline of philosophy, on non-knowledge, on experience, and on the act of writing itself.16 Human experience knows no boundaries in what is possible, and it is structured by a sacrificial logic. Here Derrida seeks to expand the domain of what philosophy contemplates to relatively uncharted territories such as desire, anxiety, fear, play, risk, comedy, challenge and death. Such radical experiences take place above all in the interstices between the restricted and the general economy. The sovereign writing imbued with “force” that Derrida praises throughout Writing and Difference is also ‘betwixt and between’ (Albert Camus) in the sense that it is fictional.17 It is neither true nor false, neither graspable as essence nor as appearance.

Baudrillard’s Critique of Bataille

In an important yet rather undiscovered essay entitled “When Bataille Attacked the Metaphysical Principle of Economy,” Jean Baudrillard takes issue with Bataille’s overall system of thought of the general economy, claiming that the system ultimately rests on a solar principle of expenditure. “Bataille founds his general economy on a ‘solar economy’ without reciprocal exchange,” writes Baudrillard. “… on the unilateral gift that the sun makes of its energy: a cosmogony of expenditure, which he deploys in a religious and political anthropology. But Bataille has misread Mauss: the unilateral gift does not exist.”18 One-way giving is not the law of the universe, explains Baudrillard. Expenditure is rather a continuous process of challenge in the cycle of gifts and counter-gifts. The counter-gift as social and symbolic process takes priority over the gift. Bataille, according to Baudrillard, wrongly concentrates on a sort of natural functioning of prodigality in his understanding of ‘the world’. Yet it is what is given back by the initial receivers of gifts where the future and the higher stakes of and for creativity lie.

The Urgent Need for Attribution and Two-Way Links in the Internet

The higher stakes of and for creativity will get played out in the practical design and implementation of the conversion mechanisms back and forth between symbolic and money wealth. As Ascribe GmbH explains in their June 2015 whitepaper “Toward an Ownership Layer for the Internet” (co-written by Trent McConaghy and David Holtzman), the original hypertext-hypermedia vision of Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project (began in the 1960s) was (and is) “to create a middle ground between the restricted copyright zone and the unrestricted public domain zone.”19 Nelson has famously said of the World Wide Web as designed by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989: “HTML is precisely what we were trying to PREVENT – ever-breaking links, links going outward only, quotes you can’t follow to their origins, no version management, no rights management.”20

Nelson wants to bring about a “transpublishing zone” which would be mutually beneficial both to copyright holders and to those who wish to use their work. The detailed functional and technical design and coding of bi-directionality is crucial to guaranteeing the visibility of the artists and creators. A hypertext system of unidirectional links only (such as the World Wide Web currently is) corresponds to the lack of built-in attribution or ownership identification of digital artwork files of every kind, and of proper monetary remuneration for creators.

The bitcoin technology of the blockchain (on which Ascribe GmbH builds their own highly valuable code and technologies) may help to set up a generalized system of micro-payments for creators that would both operate in the background and serve as the basis for customized flexible payment applications programmed by second and third parties. Right now everything that I obtain from the Internet is either free (through nearly universal piracy) orexpensive (via slick corporate websites). I would gladly instead pay a small amount of cyber currency to ensure that creators and owners get properly compensated.

The Role of Ascribe GmbH

Ascribe GmbH brings to our attention the fact that the Internet is missing a crucial ownership layer for creators.21 The digital artwork file should be identified by an authentication signature or a certificate of ownership. Ascribe’s code connects with the blockchain, a systems service of the peer-to-peer online payment system bitcoin. The blockchain records bitcoin transactions. Ascribe’s software is based on leading edge computer science advances in ‘machine learning similarity search’. The algorithm crawls the entire Internet and performs a ‘similarity match’ against the given creator’s content. This results de facto in the establishment of bi-directional links, without having to change any existing web protocols or requiring website designers and authors to themselves maintain the links. The Ascribe software has the features of “tracking” (determining who is using your work) and “screening” (cross referencing to avoid duplicate registration in the Ascribe trusted registry). Evidence of each “ownership action” is timestamped (independent of the file format of the creative work) to secure ownership transactions.

Creative Commons: The Next Generation

A Creative Commons license describes where and how things can be free (the “First Generation” of CC licenses). Consistent with the vision and amazing potential of the software technology of Ascribe GmbH, there can be a ‘twin’ to Creative Commons licenses which focuses on where and how artists and creators get compensated for their work and creativity (corresponding to the “Next Generation” of CC licenses).

In May 2015, Creative Commons France announced the launch of a new website that experiments with the Ascribe GmbH software to support “copyleft” practice through the bitcoin blockchain.22 Creative Commons France is affiliated with the Research Center in Administrative Science (CERSA), a joint research institute of the University of Paris 2 and the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). A specialized research group in Information Technologies, Law and Linguistics (IDL) focuses on IT regulation and governance.

The benefits of the Creative Commons cooperation with Ascribe will include secure attribution/verification and the improved accessibility offered by a decentralized peer-to-peer network. Usage tracking will be made conveniently available via the unique ID or blockchain address given to each digital artwork file. Works are elegantly shared through the url created for that work, a single link provided for download, the terms and conditions of the chosen Creative Commons license, and essential metadata.

One of the key aspects of transdisciplinary design is the simultaneous hybrid focus on theory/knowledge and on practical projects. The upcoming new direction for Creative Commons which I advocate can only benefit from a sustained engagement with the deep resources of the French anthropological research into gift-giving economies and their implications for crucial contemporary developments on the road towards the Internet of Creators.

NOTES

1 – Alan N. Shapiro, “Towards the Internet of Creators,” April 2015,

2 –

3 –

4 –

5 – David Berry and Giles Moss, “On the ‘Creative Commons’: A Critique of the Commons without Commonality,” Free Software Magazine, July 2005.

6 –

7 –

8 – Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (New York: Vintage Books, 1979); p.xi. (also known as The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World)

9 – Ibid., p.xii.

10 – Ibid., p.273.

11 – Marshall Sahlins, “The Original Affluent Society,” in Stone Age Economics (New York: Routledge, 1972);

12 – Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (originally published in French in 1923-1924) (translated by Ian Cunnison) (with an Introduction by E.E. Evans-Pritchard) (New York: W.W. Norton, 1967); p.1.

13 – Ibid., p.3.

14 – Ibid., p.4.

15 – Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, Volume 1 (originally published in French in 1949) (translated by Robert Hurley) (New York: Zone Books, 1989).

16 – Jacques Derrida, “De l’économie restreinte à l’économie generale: un hegelianisme sans réserve,” L’écriture et la difference (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1967).

17 – Albert Camus, L’envers et l’endroit (Paris: Gallimard, 1958).

18 – Jean Baudrillard, “When Bataille Attacked the Metaphysical Principle of Economy” (translated by David James Miller) in Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, eds., Ideology and Power in the Age of Lenin in Ruins (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991); p.137.

19 –

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22 –

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