Some time in 2005, I ran into Jane Ginsburg and we fell into conversation. Professor Ginsberg is wicked smart and teaches copyright law at Columbia University. That day, she grilled me about Creative Commons licenses. We talked over the practical benefits of CC licensing versus using the public domain to share content.
I gathered from her questions that she saw CC licensing as an empty symbolic act less useful for sharing than the public domain. She couldn’t see a business model in CC licensing, so she categorized the licenses as only useful for amateurs. What’s more, she wondered why amateurs, being unlikely to ever enforce their copyrights, would get excited over licensing terms.
We struggled over these questions. I admit I didn’t do a great job of explaining the appeal of CC licenses. I kept trying to press the practical advantages, and I mostly ignored the symbolic, emotional, and aspirational values that are the foundation of the CC community.
Then, today, I read about the zero-rupee note, a piece of paper designed to have zero practical value but which holds great symbolic significance. People in India are protesting public corruption by using the valueless notes to pay bribes. The amazing thing is that it appears to be working. One sentence stands out because it rings as true for the Creative Commons as it is does for the zero-rupee note:
This last point—people knowing that they are not alone in the fight—seems to be the biggest hurdle when it comes to transforming norms
Symbols matter. Community matters. And the most important thing the Creative Commons does is transform the norms around sharing. That, more than the practical implications of the terms in the licenses, is the reason why Creative Commons is so important.
When I left Jane’s office that day in 2005, she smiled because she had pressed me on a number of issues. We had a good discussion, but I left unhappy because I hadn’t given good enough answers to change her views. I should have made my case better, and I shouldn’t have ignored that sharing is an emotional, communal act. Maybe, a few years later, I should give it another shot and do a better job this time.