An Interview with Ahrash Bissell of the Creative Commons
In our last post we expressed our strong support for a free and open web. To try to get to the heart of the Creative Commons movement, we were fortunate to be able to interview Ahrash N. Bissell, Ph.D., the Executive Director of ccLearn (the educational division within the Creative Commons).
Dr. Bissell previously served as the Assistant Director of the Academic Resource Center at Duke University after spending time as a Research Associate in the Department of Biology at the school. Dr. Bissell also worked on data-sharing issues for interdisciplinary research and served a lead adviser for a program to bring science education opportunities to underprivileged middle-school kids.
Though Dr. Bissell began his work with the Creative Commons just last summer, he is already immersed in a variety of projects. As to ccLearn, Bissell notes that his branch of the commons organization seeks to “educate people about copyright” as well as “advocate for open education and the adoption of open educational resources.” As a means to accomplish those ends, Dr. Bissell indicates that ccLearn is also is concerned with “improving the interoperability of present and future resources in a globally interconnected world.”
As is our usual custom, we present the interview in question and answer format.
What were your personal reasons for leaving Duke University to become involved with the Creative Commons organization?
There were several personal reasons why the position at CC was attractive to me. First, I believe that CC licenses, or something like them, are the way of the future, especially in fields where the economies are based on something other than money (e.g., in academics, the economy is based on citations and exposure more than the $$ made). Second, I have always been frustrated by the fact that the tools exist to make data and information sharing extremely easy, which is a necessary prerequisite for synthetic and interdisciplinary research, and yet we are a long way from fully taking advantage of these technologies. The problems are mostly legal and cultural, and organizations like CC are at the forefront of pushing for change. Third, most of my prior work centered on the premise that education is about more than the content. In other words, students don’t sign up for classes to get access to a textbook; rather, they sign up to get access to the environment, the expertise embodied by their teachers, and to get tangible credit for their learning accomplishments. Decades of good pedagogical research have shown that our current “memorize-and-regurgitate” system of formal education is broken and is failing to achieve our national educational goals, yet changing the system is nearly impossible as long as people insist that learning is nothing more than exposure to more information. CC-licensed education materials offer a possible way to break this logjam, since by definition they are free and open to anyone. I believe this should cause educators, administrators, and learners to more carefully consider what added value is obtained by sitting in a classroom. I think there is substantial added value to classrooms, in numerous dimensions, but only if the lessons and indeed whole courses that are designed and taught thoughtfully, ever mindful about the fact that the education should be about more than the content. So my position at CC affords me the opportunity to test out these thoughts and see where they take us.
Can you briefly summarize the Creative Commons philosophy?
For the Creative Commons as a whole, the philosophy essentially boils down to empowering creators to clearly and easily enable their works to be accessed and used by others in myriad, often unforeseen, ways. The CC licenses were inspired by the sense that the current system of copyright is essentially broken, or at least quite inappropriate for modern, digitized, web-based content. But more interesting is the fact that many, many people create things that they want others to share, adapt, and otherwise engage with beyond looking at them. The simple fact is that people really should not be putting their IP on the web unless they want people to share them, and CC makes this both easy and legal. CC licenses have since spawned all sorts of creativity around a platform of sharing: new business models, different ways of communicating, community-generated media, and so on. We cannot predict what will happen with these ideas in the future, nor do we want to be in the position of dictating best or worst examples of using CC licenses. For us, the highest purpose is to allow for creative expression to proceed unfettered by the arbitrary limits of the law when people do not actually desire those limits. There are many who believe that CC is somehow anti-creator (i.e., the licenses only benefit consumers of content), but that is incorrect. First of all, all creators are also consumers, for nothing is created out of thin air. And second of all, we have never said that we believe that all things should be CC licensed; there are some ways in which CC licenses work well, and other situations in which standard copyright is likely to be more appropriate. Fortunately, creators enjoy complete autonomy in deciding what to do.
Can you give readers some sense of what the organization is hoping to accomplish and the impact it is having on the key issues related to copyright laws as well as maintaining an open digital commons accessible to all?
Clearly, in order for this capacity for creativity to be fully realized, a fully open digital commons is crucial. We are fundamentally opposed to any form of top-down control over internet usage and rights. In cases where certain types of content might need to be blocked or controlled (e.g., adult sites when kids have access to machines), those decisions and blocks should be made locally by the affected consumers, not by the media companies, the government, or anyone else. One problem with the current copyright system is that it outlaws most of the social applications of the web, which basically makes criminals of anyone who goes online. Clearly, this is silly, which is why we often point out that CC is copyright, and moreover that CC licenses strengthen respect for copyright since they enable people to do the things they believe they should be able to do anyway, thus clarifying the distinctions between those rights and the lack thereof for all-rights-reserved works.
When people talk about the concept of the Creative Commons, the issue of net neutrality comes up a great deal. In your mind, where do these concepts differ and where do they overlap?
Well, they are definitely related, as I stated above, but not otherwise fully overlapping, though this is now stepping some distance from my expertise. To me, net neutrality is usually focused on ensuring equal treatment of both file types and contents. CC simplify clarifies the conditions under which those file types and contents are made available. So, even in a non-net-neutral world, it is not clear how this would or would not affect CC-licensed materials. On the other hand, CC licenses, like the internet itself, threaten some of the businesses that make a living on distributing materials of limited quantities. These businesses still have a lot of money and tend to throw their weight around in DC (and elsewhere), so CC-licensed materials could be subject to attack if ISPs were in the position of essentially taking bids for the content that is or is not allowed into peoples’ homes. This scary thought has far greater ramifications than anything about CC per se.
In his book, Professor Lessig writes: If the resource is rivalrous, then a system of control is needed to assure that the resource is not depleted-which means the system must assure the resource is both produced and not overused. If the resource is nonrivalrous, then a system of control is needed simply to assure the resource is created—a provisioning problem, as Professor Elinor Ostrom describes it. Once it is created, there is no danger that the resource will be depleted. By definition, a nonrivalrous resource cannot be used up.
Would you take the position that the Internet (specifically, the fiber that connects the world) is rivalrous or nonrivalrous? Some argue that without regulations the Internet arteries will become more clogged than the New Jersey Turnpike during rush hour. In summary, could you address the argument that it would be better to regulate the Internet now before it gets overwhelmed?
This is definitely outside of my area of expertise, but I’ll take a stab anyway. The internet (the fiber) is a physical object, and as such it is rivalrous. However, it is more accurate to think of it, as you did, like a highway, which is understood to be a public good and is therefore built and maintained by public funds, subject not to the rules of economics (in the strictest business sense), but rather to the rules of meeting some basic benchmarks for functionality.
There is no question that there is a real danger that the internet will start to clog up as net traffic increases (some would say we’re already there), but I would not agree that regulation of different types of traffic is the answer. There are many clever ways to manage the flow of information so that peoples’ experiences with the internet are seamless, and of course we can always lay more lines. One of the nice things about the internet at the moment is that fact that everyone involved feels some responsibility for making it function as well as possible. I would worry that if we got the government involved, people would have less incentive to be creative about that aspect of the internet’s development and we would see the pace of technological innovation slow down.
Given the pressure from the Tel-coms, et al, to begin regulating the web, could you describe some potential scenarios of a regulated web? What specific applications might general users lose as a result of regulations? What potential options would those who seek to create new business opportunities through the web lose as a result of regulation?
I can only speculate in the most general of terms, though I have already experienced some frustrations in this regard with Comcast, which has already been accused of violating net neutrality. TelCom regulation is likely to result in greatly reduced capacity to view and share video and other band-width hogging file types (I experienced this myself, as I just mentioned). With restrictions on such content, some sort of bidding or backroom dealing will automatically emerge so that certain sites can avoid the restrictions. Clearly, this cannot be a neutral process, thus undermining some of the most fundamental and democratic aspects of the web. One set of regulations will spawn others, as the government will probably have to force certain network providers to provide unfettered access at certain times, but that’s fraught with uncertainties, and so on. And of course once the regulations kick in for the high-bandwidth files, the lower bandwidth files will almost certainly follow. I would expect the regulatory mindset to quickly assert control over the content as well, so that content from certain sites, countries, cultures, languages, etc., will be banned according the whims of the day. Some of this obviously happens already in places like China, and we have always railed against those policies as being profoundly undemocratic. I would hate to see us go the same route.
Can you give us a concrete example of what has happened in China?
One example is how the same Google search performed in China and in the US returns radically different results, even accounting for language and other regional differences. An obvious example that was shared was a search for “Tienanmen Square”, where a search here shows images of the protests and Chinese tanks that squashed them, whereas the same search in China reveals historical documents about the square and tourist images. Clearly, the Chinese government is not interested in net neutrality in terms of content. I doubt they are the only ones who engage in this practice, and I also doubt that such interventions are limited to the content only. It’s a slippery slope once you start imposing these top down regulations on the types of information (format or content) that can flow through the web.
Could you specify some of the greatest developments to date given a neutral web and flexible copyrights and can you suggest of some applications not yet in place that could come about if the net remains as it is right now?
I definitely do not have a good enough sense of the overall development of the web to give you a decent list. But sites like YouTube, Wikipedia, and most of the social networking (Web 2.0) sites are phenomena that were pipe dreams only a very short time ago. All of these sites depend on an unrestricted flow of data and ideas. As to somewhat related yet at the same time different forms of growth are the business and informational models that have emerged from unfettered access to copyright-free data. Examples such as weather-satellite info, DNA sequences, and so on. And while I am a skeptical of the potential of virtual environments (e.g., Second Life) to supplant real-world experiences, I believe that there is a bold future in virtual environments for training through the exposure to “forbidden” or otherwise impossible experiences. Here again, the capacity for these innovations to be truly transformative depends on a neutral web and flexible copyrights.
Would you make a different list if we did not add to the list the concept of more flexible copyrights but instead focused only on neutral web?
A neutral web seems to me to be crucial for the ongoing generation of novel technologies that leverage the capacities of the web. For example, better, faster web-based platforms for content (docs, videos, songs, etc) creation will probably become the rule rather than the exception, freeing us from our desktops. Truly mobile technologies, using mesh networks and always-on accessibility will transform the ways in which we communicate, and the types of information we presume to always have access to. Novel forms of dissent would be powerful areas of development, but almost certainly impossible if the web is not neutral. There is a lot of activity around the development of products and practices that is apart from copyright, and most of these activities would suffer in some way if the web is not neutral.
Text edited for clarity.