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 Flickr, 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.
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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.