An internet clearinghouse launched May 16 aims to counteract the barriers to creativity its founders believe is fostered by current copyright law fosters. The clearinghouse is meant to help educators, students, artists, and researchers find creative works they can use without fear of being sued for copyright infringement.

The Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization based at Stanford University and formed by legal scholars and web publishers, will encourage authors and other creative persons to donate selected writings, music, video, and other works for free exchange.

A student filmmaker needing a shot of the New York skyline could then use the clearinghouse to find royalty-free footage, or a small-town school drama department with limited funding could find plays to perform for free.

Currently, a filmmaker or drama director must track down a copyright holder, obtain permission, and often pay royalties. Unpopular projects might never take off if copyright holders won’t license their works, and confusion often exists as to whether works are protected under copyright law.

Copyright holders who choose to participate in the Commons may set general conditions for use of their works, such as allowing royalty-free use only in noncommercial settings, but they won’t be able to veto individual projects.

Users would be able to search for digital and physical materials at

Glenn Brown, assistant director of the project, said the web site does not host any content itself and does not offer educators the ability to link directly to the materials. What it does do is locate works that artists have agreed to share without penalty.

“We are like a card catalogue. We can link you to the information that you are looking for,” he said.

According to Brown, the site could be used by teachers who direct their students to create their own web pages, but who want to make sure the information compiled does not violate copyright law or fair-use exceptions.

Spearheading the effort is Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, a prominent scholar who complains that the current strict legal interpretation of intellectual property rights frequently stifles the type of sharing that spurs innovation.

The Creative Commons seeks to counteract that tendency.

Molly S. VanHouweling, the project’s executive director, said the clearinghouse is ideal for start-up bands and lesser-known authors who want their works more widely heard or read.

More established creators, meanwhile, might wish to donate their works so noncommercial projects could succeed, she said.

Contributors retain copyrights on their works. They can still sell them; for instance, they can offer them through the project royalty-free for noncommercial use but charge others independent of the Commons.

The Creative Commons has raised nearly $900,000, mostly from the Center for the Public Domain, a nonprofit foundation.

The clearinghouse is necessary, its founders say, because the scope of copyright law has grown over the years.

Initially, a book’s author or publisher had to register works with the U.S. Copyright Office. Now, a copyright is automatic.

And while copyrights lasted 14 years in 1790, Congress gradually extended them. A 1998 law protects works owned by individuals for 70 years after their death and those owned by corporations for 95 years.

The extension means that web sites must wait longer to legally post works that once would have quickly entered the public domain. Web publisher Eric Eldred, a board member for the Creative Commons, is among the plaintiffs challenging the 1998 extension in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Several groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have pledged administrative support. O’Reilly and Associates, a technical publisher, plans to donate some of its books, while the Internet Archive and Prelinger Archives are looking to contribute their archives of moving images, according to VanHouweling.

The Creative Commons will need much more to be useful. Organizers are hoping to get more contributions over the next several months and begin allowing exchanges by the fall.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, a University of Wisconsin professor critical of modern copyright laws, praised the initiative as enabling creators to become less than totally beholden to traditional publishers and distributors.

But the Commons won’t address key objections raised with a separate 1998 law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which makes it illegal to circumvent copy-protection technologies or discuss methods for doing so.

Critics say the prohibitions restrict scholarly research and other “fair uses” that are normally legal under copyright law.


The Creative Commons