Interview with Heather Ford of iCommons

I recently conducted an email interview with Heather Ford, the Executive Director of iCommons (I mentioned this previously). I asked Heather a couple questions which she graciously answered at length:

What is iCommons?

iCommons is an organisation, incubated by Creative Commons, that aims to bring together the free culture, free software, open access, and open science communities around the world to debate and contribute towards a global ‘commons’ of knowledge and creativity.

What is the relationship between iCommons and Creative Commons?

Well, we’re currently a subsidiary of Creative Commons which means that CC has been really critical in getting us up and running and supporting us in the initial phase of our development. That means that we are part of the CC team and make use of their infrastructure and support.

What do you see as iCommons’ role here in South Africa?

From the very beginning I was determined that, even though the organisation is registered in the UK, that we build our headquarters in the South. Our mandate is to serve the global commons community – but because we’re in South Africa and are reporting on local projects and issues, we have quite a keen focus on the local commons environment and we’re seeing some really great benefits to the South African commons by our presence here. I suppose its due to the fact that we just have more people working on these issues through the iCommons office which means that we have greater capacity to give advice more regularly and speak at conferences and events. South Africa is a great place to be leading this movement – I think we will show some important leadership on these issues in the very near future.

What are some of the more exciting projects you/iCommons are/is involved in here in South Africa?

We’ve just completed a competition on to encourage young musicians in South Africa to produce remixes out of ‘traditional’ sounds from instruments like the mbira, the Mutumba drums and the Umrhube mouth bow. It’s been an awesome competition because we’ve been able to work with community and commercial radio stations, audio heritage archives, and with members of the local internet community. We received some amazing remixes and are thinking of producing a CD of the best ones in the new year.

What do you see as Creative Commons’ role in the protection of content creators’ rights in and to their content?

Creative Commons is centered around the creator making their own decisions about how they wish to share and enable others to experience their creativity. CC provides creators with free tools and also shares stories of people who have used the tools to empower themselves and their communities through what CC CEO, Lawrence Lessig calls a ‘sharing culture’. Protection or enforcement is not part of CC’s mandate – it would obviously be pretty difficult to provide legal support to every person in the world who uses the licences (we’re up to 145 million linkbacks to the licences and its growing every day!) but, with 70 + countries, joining CC legal teams around the world, there has always been great support for those who have defended the licence in courts.

What do you see as the most pressing challenges for local content creators and how could Creative Commons help address those challenges?

I think that the most pressing challenge for local – and indeed *all* content creators – is to find new ways of empowering themselves through the use of new technologies. We’re living in an exciting new world – the Internet offers incredible possibilities for creators to find new business models and new ways of working that enable them to determine the future of their creativity in a way that is very far from the way that culture has been undermined by media monopolies in the past. The challenge is to recognise how to integrate a sharing culture into new ways of working and, in so doing, to develop a brand that is intimately connected to a creator’s community. Creative Commons tries to solve one of those problems – it has developed a set of tools that enable creators to mark the kind of relationship that they want to have with their users. But there are many other problems that we need to solve. This is where iCommons comes in. We’re trying to learn from the free software community to work out how to develop open content using peer-production methods – we’re looking at how to develop multi-dimensional projects that deal with infrastructure and access to the internet, as well as the code to support open creativity – we’re building a more holistic understanding of how different the challenges to creativity are around the world.

How do you see Creative Commons and Copyright co-existing?

Creative Commons relies on copyright for its existence. When people use the licence, they retain their copyright but merely ‘carve out’ certain uses – such as enabling people to make derivatives or to copy as long as it is for non-commercial use. CC is just a ‘some rights reserved’ rather than an ‘all rights reserved’ approach to copyright.

Is Creative Commons an effective licensing scheme or is it open to more abuse without a statute behind it?

Interestingly, there is very little real abuse of the licences – other than one or two cases that have been successfully defended in Europe. The licences don’t require a statute because they rely on copyright law for their enforcement – but to think of enforcement as the measure of the licence’s success is to miss the point of the movement. What we’ve seen is that, on the internet it makes sense to make your creativity or information more accessible, and to build your business model, not around the enforcement of copyright, but by moving the value to another part of the chain – like giving away CDs of your music and selling tickets to see live shows etc.

Do you see governments, particularly our government, enacting laws to entrench Creative Commons as an alternative to traditional copyright?

No, I think that’s the beauty of the licences – you don’t really need to enact new laws. What the government will need to do, however, is to look at using Creative Commons licences (or similar open content licences) to make publicly funded information more accessible, and to investigate how they can support CC textbooks and cultural heritage licenced under CC more effectively. In Brazil, there was a directive by the government that all software produced by the government would be licenced under the CC-GPL – this is something that I think all governments should follow.

Is there a movement to have Creative Commons entrenched in the statute books worldwide?

No. But there is a movement to develop local jurisdiction-specific licences by volunteer lawyers and activists in over 70 countries around the world.

Do you find local content creators to be receptive to Creative Commons? What about organisations like SAMA and RISA?

Local creators who understand the power of the Internet understand and react really well to Creative Commons. They understand how they can use the licences to benefit their art and creativity. RISA representatives attended the workshops in 2004 when we developed the licences using a peer-production methodology – and we hope that we will be able to work with both RISA and SAMA in the future to harmonise the work by artists wishing to use CC licences for at least some of their work.

I would like to thank Heather for taking the time to participate in this interview and look forward to any comments you may have.

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