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Lawrence Lessig and the Creative Commons Developing Nations License
Alex Steffen, 16 Nov 06
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Creative Commons has been a frequent subject of discussion here on Worldchanging, and with good reason: the Creative Commons license has changed the world's understanding of intellectual property -- and helped us see that getting intellectual property rules right can spur innovation.

Nowhere is innovation more badly needed, of course, than in the developing world, where environmental and social problems are magnified not only by economic poverty itself, but by the lack of access to information which could alleviate those problems.
Very often solutions to those problems already exist, or at least designs for parts of those solutions. These solutions and ideas provide puzzle pieces from which people can assemble their own better futures, as it were. But when people don't know those pieces exist, and when they have to access to use of those solutions, those solutions might as well not exist. This is why the copyfight is such a worldchanging concern.

The Developing Nations license is meant to open the floodgates of access to new solutions in the Global South by creating a system which encourages designers and creators in the Global North to freely share their innovations. As we put it in the book, " This new license allows creators to make their works available for attributed free distribution (copies can be freely shared, providing the original creator is credited) in the Global South, while still retaining all copyright control in the Global North."

Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig very kindly agreed to take some time to share some thoughts about the progress of the Developing Nations license. I reached him at his new home in Berlin.

"It's been most successful in areas we didn't expect," Lessig explains. "We planned originally to have it be a spur to publishing, bringing intellectual resources to developing nations that lack them. Architecture for Humanity was not the prime target for this when we first launched, and yet that's been its most interesting use."

(Architecture for Humanity is using the Developing Nations license to build a framework for open source design collaboration for meeting humanitarian crises with the best available tools.)

"This is all about eliminating artificial barriers to the spread of knowledge," he continues. "Digitial technoilogy has inspired an explosion of creators. We want to give people the abiolity to share and modify their works in the way which satisfies their own desires, not the copyright law."

The goal, Lessig says, is to make resources that are not intended for the developing world available to people in the developing world by changing the licenses to allow use where there is no financial incentive. In other words, if you've created something of use to other people who will probably never be able to pay you in any meaningful way for your work, but whose use of your creation also won't cost you any money, why not let them use it? This would seem to be a no-brainer, but it's "not something people have spent much time on, because there's not a lot of money to be made."

The point is not charity "We're not trying to ask creators to become philanthropists, we're simply identifying ways in which the system just isn't serving anyone s interests. It's not as if most designers expect to make any profit in the developing world anyway, and the ability to share those designs could help some people without hurting the designer at all." The point, Lessig says, is the thrill creative people in the Global North can get from knowing that their thinking is not only earning them a living at home but helping address major (and interesting) new challenges elsewhere. "The license has allowed amazing creators to, as they say iin the Open Source community, scratch an itch -- they allow, for example, architects to address certain design challenges in their own work while making that work available to a whole part of the world that needs it to solve other challenges."

And the potential here has just begun to manifest itself.

"What we're really eager to do is see if there is a way to generalize this and see if there are more people making designs who are willing to share them in this way. We're trying to hack the copyright system, in the programmers sense of hack. Not to break it but make it function in ways it wasn't intended to work. That's not because we're opposed to copyright, but because we're opposed to copyright functioning in ways that don't benefit either the author or the end user. Copyright is meant to be a tool to promote invention."

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Unfortunately, the license only practically permits publication in non-electronic means, which in itself is self-defeating with respect to the internet.

Basically, it allows people to sell stuff within their own country, but not to a developed nation. Therefore no foreign exchange occurs other than - hopefully - the influx of information.

The second I, in Trinidad and Tobago, burned something under this license and sent it to the United States - or even made it available on the internet (where we really want everyone to be...) I break the license.

It is good for getting information to developing nations. But once there, it's just free information - if it's textbooks, it is brilliant. But I think it was Cory Doctorow who used this license for a novel, and that's pretty weak. So it depends on how it is used.

Still, with global internet penetration increasing annually, the value of the license should go away with time - not because of the license itself, but because the world is aligning itself slightly more evenly.

Posted by: Taran Rampersad on 16 Nov 06

Interesting that the approach only focuses on creators from developed countries. This might be of more benefit for creators in developing nations.

Posted by: Daniel Haran on 16 Nov 06

Actually Daniel you are incorrect on that account. The use of the developing nations license has been used within developing nations for creators from within the countries (in addition to outside). Tackling issues surrounding building a better environment is not down to a silver bullet from the West or a developing nation but hundreds of thousands of localized solutions that can be shared and adapted by others. This is what our Open Architecture Network is about and why we are supporting the CC Dev. Nat. license. CC is giving the designer control of their intellectual property.

Our organization supports and includes creators from over 104 countries, we've worked with teams from Nigeria, South Africa and Sri Lanka as much as from the Australia, Japan or United States.

There is certainly a potential for a designer from a developing nation that - through using the Dev Nat license - can develop and implement a solution for his or her own country AND license that idea to a developed nation. This gives a creates a reverse micro-financing revenue stream that supports local innovators. Certainly in the unplanned settlements in Africa and India that I've stayed in I have met inventors with more talent and ingenuity than most designers here. we NEED to give them access to the tools we take for granted and allow for a two way street to form (I wrote on this in the Worldchanging book)

I'd also like to see an adaptation of this license into a CC Development License that will allow for open source strategies in dealing with responding to issues such as housing in inner-city America or the Gulf Coast. Poverty and housing crises don't just exist 'there', we need to address issues closer to home as well.

Taran - I totally agree - it depends WHAT the information is. Architecture for Humanity is looking at the potential of open source strategies within construction technologies and design innovation. For example what happens when you open source solar technology.... well you get the barefoot solar engineers at the barefoot college in India (who have solar electrified over 600 villages). That is what WorldChanging is all about.

Posted by: Cameron Sinclair on 17 Nov 06

Well, Cory Doctorow's book was useless under that license. I remember clearly the release of that book - I think I was still writing here at the time - and I immediately started scribbling what could be done with it, business models and so forth. Well, it ended up blowing chunks. I'm not a big fan of Cory's writing, so I tossed him an email (or left a message on his blog or something) and left it at that.

In response to Daniel, you wrote " source strategies in dealing with responding to issues such as housing...". I hate to sound Stallmanish, but I think it's important to differentiate 'open source strategies' from 'open content strategies'. I believe architectural diagrams and other things you are discussing are 'open content'. I know it's not your intent to confuse people, and I certainly do know that you mean well and that 'open source' is a nice buzzphrase... but I think advocating open content at this point is more important. And it's more accurate, especially in the context used here.

Sort of to make my point, you might enjoy this:

When I can dissect a politician legally, I'll believe in open source politics too. :-)

Posted by: Taran Rampersad on 17 Nov 06

The sentence you quote was in relation to utilizing the CC licensing system. While we are focusing on developing a system for open source collaboration you cannot impose or force it - only time will tell it if it is truly a open source system... for now I'll play my cards close and go with strategy.

Posted by: Cameron Sinclair on 19 Nov 06



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