Global Economics

Online Sharing with Creative Commons


The Japanese Net entrepreneur Joichi Ito makes a case for free-content distribution on the Internet. Nine Inch Nails is an early adopter

Not long after Joichi Ito uploaded a photo he had taken of Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia last year, he noticed something odd. Most of the Internet luminaries and technology gurus who had write-ups on Wikipedia had poor-quality photos or none at all. It wasn't just that. "I realized that some famous people have no free photos online," says Ito, a U.S.-educated Japanese venture capitalist and co-founder of Digital Garage, a Tokyo Net startup incubator.

Ito decided to do something about it. Last May he started turning his Leica and medium-format cameras on practically anyone he met on his travels. Ito spent half the year crisscrossing the globe for meetings and conferences, and within months he had a trove of thousands of images: from O'Reilly Media founder Tim O'Reilly, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, to film directors George Lucas and J.J. Abrams (of Cloverfield and Mission: Impossible III fame). There were even shots of Ito's own sister Mizuko and other family members.

Now he plans to publish them in a book, titled Freesoul. But Ito doesn't expect to profit. In September, when the book goes on sale on Amazon (AMZN), Ito will give away the photos online. Anyone will be able to download, re-use, republish, or remix the photos for free; Ito only asks that they credit him for the originals. He thinks more people will download the photos than buy the book. "If we sell a couple thousand copies [to recoup the costs], that's fine," says the boyish 42-year-old Ito.

Giving it Away on the Internet

Ito isn't just some amateur shutterbug with an altruistic streak. In April he took over as the head of Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that offers copyright licenses for creative works. Creative Commons is the brainchild of Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig. He started it in 2001 because he felt that traditional copyright laws might hamper sharing over the Internet. Typically, Creative Commons licenses let creators give their works away online. But they can choose to let others use the work for commercial purposes, as Ito's book will, or restrict their work to noncommercial uses.

The handover from Lessig to Ito marks a new phase. Lessig was the visionary whose credentials as a legal expert and former Supreme Court clerk gave the organization credibility with lawyers. Ito is cut from different cloth. He created one of the first Web pages, experimented with hacking, started Japan's first commercial Internet service provider before the Net caught on, and has kept an online diary about his exploits since the mid-1990s, before "blogging" became a household term. Many hope Ito will recruit more entrepreneurs, businesses, and ordinary Net users. "Joi brings a set of applied experiences from the unavoidably rough-and-tumble world of business," says Reuben Steiger, former chief evangelist of Linden Labs and CEO of San Francisco consulting firm Millions of Us.

Ito has set himself an ambitious goal: to turn Creative Commons into a global mass-market brand. "The mission is to simplify licensing to make it easier for normal people to use copyright without hiring fancy lawyers," he says. That goal is a long way off. Creative Commons estimates that just 140 million online works sport its logo. Its critics say the licenses add legal complexity to copyright disputes.

Even so, the movement has influential backers. Microsoft's (MSFT) Word, Excel, and Powerpoint software now come with tools to set up Creative Commons licenses, and Google (GOOG) and Yahoo (YHOO) allow users to search for Creative Commons-licensed films, photos, and books. More than 200 universities worldwide have joined OpenCourseWare, a group that distributes Creative Commons-licensed course materials for free. (Through OpenCourseWare, Japan's Shinsei Bank said in April it would let the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur teach students about the intricacies of the bank's computer network.)

Making Money by Being Free

In March rock band Nine Inch Nails released songs using the license. And on Aug. 13 a Washington federal appeals court ruled on a case that lets artists and programmers use contracts to distribute free software and digital works for the public good.

By publishing Freesouls, Ito puts himself at the center of the debate over Creative Commons. It's one way to find out where the organization's shortcomings lie. That's important as the free-content-distribution model continues to evolve. "I believe a lot of people will make money on it," he says. "I want to prove that by writing books and investing in companies that will make money on it. Hopefully, a lot of people will replicate that."

But Ito also frets about the possible conflicts of interest in his dual role of businessman and Creative Commons chief executive. To keep his critics at bay, he regularly discloses details about his $40-million fund's investments and his appointments to corporate boards.

Credit Where It's Due

Ideally, artists who give away some of their works to advertise their talents might later receive paying jobs. But not everyone who uses Creative Commons-licensed content knows the rules. For example: Last July, BusinessWeek included in an online slide show Ito's photo of eBay (EBAY) founder Pierre Omidyar from photo-sharing site Flickr (YHOO) but didn't credit him for it. After someone saw the photo and alerted him, he sent an e-mail asking for attribution. The next day, BusinessWeek added his name in the photo's caption.

The same could happen with Freesouls. To avoid privacy disputes, he asked every person who appears in the book to sign a waiver ("which was a pain," he says). He also had to explain that they weren't just granting him permission to use their images. The Creative Commons license will let anyone download the photos for free and publish them—and keep all the profits.


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