Why YouTube should support Creative Commons now

YouTube should support Creative Commons

I was in Miami last week to meet with my fellow screeners from the Knight News Challenge and Jay Dedman and Ryanne Hodson, two vlogger friends whom I met through coworking, started talking about content licensing, specifically as related to President-Elect Barack Obama’s weekly address, which, if things go according to plan, will continue to be broadcast on YouTube.

The question came up: what license should Barack Obama use for his content? This, in turn, revealed a more fundamental question: why doesn’t YouTube let you pick a license for the work that you upload (and must, given the terms of the site, own the rights to in the first place)? And if this omission isn’t intentional (that is, no one decided against such a feature, it just hasn’t bubbled up in the priority queue yet), then what can be done to facilitate the adoption of Creative Commons on the site?

To date, few video sharing sites, save Blip.tv and Flickr (even if they only deal with long photos), have actually embraced Creative Commons to any appreciable degree. Ironically, of all sites, YouTube seems the most likely candidate to adopt Creative Commons, given its rampant remix and republish culture (a culture which continues to vex major movie studies and other fastidious copyright owners).

One might make the argument that, considering the history of illegally shared copyrighted material on YouTube, enabling Creative Commons would simply lead to people mislicensing work that they don’t own… but I think that’s a strawman argument that falls down in practice for a number of reasons:

  • First of all, all sites that enable the use of CC licenses offer the scheme as opt-in, defaulting to the traditional all rights reserved use of copyright. Enabling the choice of Creative Commons wouldn’t necessarily affect this default.
  • Second, unauthorized sharing of content or digital media under any license is still illegal, whether the relicensed work is licensed under Creative Commons or copyright.
  • Third, YouTube, and any other media sharing site, bears some responsibility for the content published on their site, and, regardless of license, reserves the right to remove any material that fails to comply completely with its Terms of Service.
  • Fourth, the choice of a Creative Commons license is usually a deliberate act (going back to my first point) intended to convey an intention. The value of this intention — specifically, to enable the lawful reuse and republishing of content or media by others without prior per-instance consent — is a net positive to the health of a social ecosystem insomuch as this choice enables a specific form of freedom: that is, the freedom to give away one’s work under certain, less-restrictive stipulations than the law allows, to aid in establishing a positive culture of sharing and creativity (as we’ve seen on , SoundCloud and CC Mixter).

Preventing people from choosing a more liberal license conceivably restricts expression, insomuch as it restricts an “efficient, content-enriching value chain” from forming within a legal framework. Or, because all material is currently licensed under the most restrictive regime on YouTube, every re-use of a portion of media must therefore be licensed on a per-instance basis, considerably impeding the legal reuse of other people’s work.

. . .

Now, I want to point out something interesting here… as specifically related to both this moment in time and about government ownership of media. A recently released report from the GAO on Energy Efficiency carried with it the following statement on copyright:

This is a work of the U.S. government and is not subject to copyright protection in the United States. The published product may be reproduced and distributed in its entirety without further permission from GAO. However, because this work may contain copyrighted images or other material, permission from the copyright holder may be necessary if you wish to reproduce this material separately.

Though it can’t simply put this work into the public domain because of the potential copyrighted materials embedded therein, this statement is about as close as you can get for an assembled work produced by the government.

Now consider that Obama’s weekly “radio address” is self-contained media, not contingent upon the use or reuse of any other copyrighted work. It bears considering what license (if any) should apply (keeping in mind that the government is funded by tax-payer dollars). If not the public domain, under what license should Obama’s weekly addresses be shared? Certainly not all rights reserved! — unfortunately, YouTube offers no other option and thus, regardless of what Obama or the Change.gov folks would prefer, they’re stuck with a single, monolithic licensing scheme.

Interestingly, Google, YouTube’s owner, has supported Creative Commons in the past, notably with their collaboration with Radiohead on the House of Cards open source initiative and with the licensing of the Summer of Code documentation (Yahoo has a similar project with Flickr’s hosting of the Library of Congress’ photo archive under a liberal license).

I think that it’s critical for YouTube to adopt the Creative Commons licensing scheme now, as Barack Obama begins to use the site for his weekly address, because of the powerful signal it would send, in the context of what I imagine will be a steady increase and importance of the use of social media and web video by government agencies.

Don Norman recently wrote an essay on the importance of social signifiers, and I think it underscores my point as to why this issue is pressing now. In contrast to the popular concept of “affordances” in design and design thinking, Norman writes:

A “signifier” is some sort of indicator, some signal in the physical or social world that can be interpreted meaningfully. Signifiers signify critical information, even if the signifier itself is an accidental byproduct of the world. Social signifiers are those that are relevant to social usages. Some social indicators simply are the unintended but informative result of the behavior of others.

. . .

I call any physically perceivable cue a signifier, whether it is incidental or deliberate. A social signifier is one that is either created or interpreted by people or society, signifying social activity or appropriate social behavior.

The “appropriate social behavior”, or behavior that I think Obama should model in his weekly podcasts is that of open and free licensing, introducing the world of YouTube viewers to an alternative form of licensing, that would enable them to better understand and signal to others their intent and desire to share, and to have their creative works reused, without the need to ask for permission first.

For Obama media to be offered under a CC license (with the licensed embedded in the media itself) would signal his seriousness about embracing openness, transparency and the nature of discourse on the web. It would also signify a shift towards the type of collaboration typified by Web 2.0 social sites, enabling a modern dialectic relationship between the citizenry and its government.

I believe that now is the time for this change to happen, and for YouTube to prioritize the choice of Creative Commons licensing for the entire YouTube community.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

11 thoughts on “Why YouTube should support Creative Commons now”

  1. great way to state the case.
    I’ve never felt the folks at Youtube were necessarily against CC. Hopefully, it’s just a matter of a random meeting between the right people at the cafeteria to decide, “hey, let’s turn on CC today”. Maybe this post will be the thing to initiate that conversation.

  2. IANAL, but isn’t the US government not legally allowed to hold copyrights? (Hence why, for example, everything from NASA is in the Public Domain.)

    Also, while I agree with you that YouTube should make licensing more obvious, you can certainly license YouTube items now by stating your license and providing a link in the description.

    Also, YouTube is kind of a horrible platform for free content, since it requires flash and provides no good way to download content in any format (and especially not in a free format).

  3. Here here! I also think it’s important that TV shows who use YT clips give proper attribution to the video creator. In particular, I think CSPAN should be making an effort to display proper credit for the folks who’s video’s they are showing.

    @stephen: I think you are basically correct, however I believe there are a few exceptions, such as postage stamps.

  4. According to Wikipedia, Stephen is mostly correct (the work is licensed under a “noncopyright”), except in the cases, as I mentioned, where other people’s copyrighted work is used or where the government has purchased copyrighted works (and therefore owns the copyright). Since so much of government work is performed by contractors these days, I’m curious as to the license of such actors’ work… in any case…

    As for the YouTube medium, I’m sympathetic to the argument about proprietary formats, but the reality is 1) Obama is already using YouTube (and few other video sites (save Hulu?) would likely be able to support such bandwidth/hosting needs) 2) the Flash format is the most widely supported mechanism for delivering video content today. Ideally this will change someday, but for now, we must deal with the web as it is, since it’s being used in its “imperfect” state. Until we deal with the problem of rich-media delivery in non-proprietary formats, at least those who figure it out (or reshare someone else’s YouTube content to their own account) should be able to do so given proper licensing.

  5. Thanks for the great post – spot on!

    There’s one point I’d like to add as it came up in a discussion at Web 2.0 Expo Europe recently: Besides the services implementing CC at all (preferably even as default), how can it be made easier for professionals to also use CC licensed content?

    Example: If you’re a journalist working on a deadline and would like to use a CC licensed photo, it’s often tough to get in touch with the author quickly enough to sort out the commercial aspects in time.

    Of course many authors put their stuff under a very liberal CC BY license, requiring only attribution and allowing freely for commercial use. The majority, though, it seems, goes for CC BY-NC-SA, allowing for non-commercial use, but not for commercial use. My guess is, though, that a lot of those authors wouldn’t mind having their images used commercially and making some money on the side as long as they have control over who uses them.

    So my question to you: Would it make sense to implement (to phrase it overly simple) to implement a button on Flickr/YouTube/Blip etc. that gives authors a chance to say: click here, I’ll get a text message right away and you’ll get my “go”/”no go” within 5 mins. If the answer is yes, here’s my PayPal account, please send me $1.50. Thanks!

    Maybe it’s not as easy, but I think CC could help those active in the long tail a great deal to both share their stuff for personal use and also make some cash on the side?

  6. I think one reason the government uses so many contractors is precisely so that they can copyright their work product….

    I think it’d be great for the Obama posts on YouTube to be licensed under CC, but they probably can’t be since even CC is a form of copyright and the government can’t produce copyright.

    Of course, if the video was shot by a TV network (such as ABC News, who release a podcast version of the addresses, as I found out Yesterday on iTunes) then it could fall to the TV network to embrace CC, which seems hardly likely.

  7. We did a project last year at politicalvideo.org, where we made Bush speeches available for download and remix. We scraped the REAL/WMV videos off whitehouse.gov, which has no mention of copyright.

    We believe that speeches of our President on a government site are public domain. We did some research and found several citation like this: http://digital-law-online.info/lpdi1./treatise8.html “It can be assumed that, where a Government agency commissions a work for its own use merely as an alternative to having one of its own employees prepare the work, the right to secure a private copyright would be withheld.”

    So even if a private contractor records government events for the government, it’s still owned by the people since they are not adding anything of value to the work.

    Funny enough, I met one of the guys who ran whitehouse.gov for President Bush. When I asked him if the videos were in the public domain, he said “of course”. When I asked him why they didn’t make clear the copyright, he kind of shrugged.

    Carl Malamund has done ground breaking work slogging through the lack of government asserting clear/false copyrights on public documents: http://public.resource.org

    In the end, we’re talking about Youtube just letting creators choose the copyright they want. Blip.tv has done this for three years to great effect. All this is just about creating a structure in which we can be transparent with copyright for videos, instead of the shadowy world that exists now.

  8. Chris,

    Youtube requires that all uploaders own the copyright to the work they submit, and that the uploader give YT and the community a commercial reuse license.

    It would be great to have YT use CC (I asked them a couple of years ago and didn’t get the sense they understood any of this at all) but Barak Obama’s talks are already under the manditory commercial reuse license (in other words, it’s not in question).

    I’d like to see Obama spread all his videos all over as well (not just YT), and put them out under a “no rights reserved” – public domain license cuing people to the fact that the rights are public domain as well.

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