Creative Commons

You don’t have to ask WE for permission!

Interview with Joi Ito

we: Joi you are an entrepreneur and you invest a lot of money in startups, but you still spend a lot of your time on NGOs like Global Voices and others. Why are you doing this? What is your motivation?

Joi: I used to work in mainstream media and with large corporations. And honestly I felt very stifled, I couldn’t do what I wanted to do without asking for a lot of permission. What I saw with the internet was that it was a great way for people to innovate, to think and create without asking permission, without having to wait until they are older. It was an amazingly open thing. And for me, innovation, whether it’s political innovation or technical innovation or any kind of positive change, is supported by this idea of the open internet.
We have various layers: very early we had the ethernet, and then we had the Internet protocol TCP/IP, and then we had the web and now we have Creative Commons, which is very similar because it’s trying to create an open protocol that allows things to connect without asking permission. Because in the past, you had asked permission to connect a modem to the Internet. Then you had to ask permission before you set up a site. And now you have to ask permission before you use somebody’s content. And the idea of Creative Commons is to make a protocol that makes it easy to connect without asking permission. This makes it impossible for large companies and governments to control the interconnect.
The non-profit things that I do and the for-profit things that I do are very similar because the for-profit companies that I invest in are trying to innovate in technology and social software by using the Internet. They are typically very small teams of people who create some product. And I think these small start-ups are creating the technology and the infrastructure that builds these open networks. And they have the DNA of the open networks. And the non-profits that I work in like Global Voices, Witness or Mozilla, Creative Commons, they are all non-profits that help try to coordinate all the people who are involved in trying to create this open Internet.

For me I think that the open internet is not only an important business thing, I think it’s the pillar for an open society in the 21st century.

we: With the rise of the internet – has your idea of ”We“ changed?

Joi: Yes, very much. I think that ”We“ is a very good word because ”We“ used to mean your family and then it became your company and then it became your country and then it becomes the world. And then it becomes the non-human animals and the environment. I think that having the ”We“ as big as possible is a really important part.
But: You can read all you want about other people, but unless you care, you don’t do anything. I was talking to a lot of American media people regarding Global Voices and asked: Why don’t you cover Africa more? They said: Americans won’t buy it, they don’t care. Because it’s not ”We“ to them. Right? And so I think that what Global Voices and the global internet is helping us do is to feel like everyone as a ”We“.

we: Could you explain the difference between the concept of the copyright and the principles of Creative Commons?

Joi: The way that copyright is used today is used to reserve all rights. So the typically under-copyright law if you scribble something on a piece of paper, you automatically have a copyright to that. But on the web, when you want to be very quick and you don’t want each person asking permission, what you need to do is to mark your work with the permissions you’re granting, which doesn’t have to be all permissions. So with Creative Commons there are certain licenses that don’t allow derivative works, some don’t allow commercial use, and so forth. But the idea is that you want to make it very clear what copyrights you have.
The bigger part is that it’s better for society if you share because you’re creating a commons. Like educational resources, many people should share them and people should work together because it helps education globally. And so we are pushing educators not to use restrictive licenses but to share as much as possible.

we: How sustainable do you think is the Creative Commons approach? Where do you see the pitfalls for the copyleft approach on the net?

Joi: Well, copyleft is one of the pieces of Creative Commons. We are pushing people towards openness, but we will also allow for instance somebody to create a fairly restrictive license, non-commercial use, no derivatives, share alike. So Creative Commons goes all the way from copyleft to very restrictive licenses. We are creating a choice for everyone.
If you look at our licenses, year after year they tend to become more free. That trend is important. If you give somebody a choice to become a little bit free, then they take it. Because the other approach is to say: here is a line, you’re either free or you’re not. That’s one way. And my way is: let’s get them in and then move them along the line. Because an educator, who should sign away almost all the rights is very different from a musician who signed to a record label, who can’t. But maybe he can just give away the sampling, for non-commercial use.
Our mission is to make the world more free. But I think the way we do it is by creating examples and case studies. And so obviously the people who are philosophically similar to us we just can talk to them. But people who aren’t we have to convince them in other ways. And one of the ways you convince them is that they are going to make more money or the business is going to be more successful or they’ll become more famous.

we: Why do you think it’s so hard to convince people?

Joi: I think people have a natural fear being exploited. In many countries, big companies exploit people. And they don’t realize that sharing is not about being allowing people to exploit you. Imagine a blogger who uses a Creative Commons license. And they say: well, this means somebody could print out my blog and make a book and sell it. And I said: yes, but they probably won’t. What’s going to happen is that someone is going to want to use your site. If they don’t speak Japanese, it’s going to be hard for them to ask permission. But if you have a Creative Commons license on your site, they’ll use it and they will give you a link. And that link is actually worth more than money.

But lot of people still think the old way, which is: if I do something I get paid. Rather than: if I do something I share and people come back to me and I gain value and then I can sell other things. Information is really a very hard thing to sell. Information is how you participate in a conversation. And once you are in the conversation, then you can sell other things like box sets and sign things.

And I think that even if you are sometimes exploited, the benefit should outweigh the costs because some entrepreneur in Africa printing your book, that’s good for you because you’re not going to make money from that anyway you know. So I think a lot about it is conversation. A lot of it is letting somebody try a little bit and then feeling it, but I think we are getting very close to making a big impact.

we: Will Creative Commons ultimately lead to the death of the author and the rise of an emerging but impersonal “We“?

Joi: No, I don’t think so. There are communities like Wikipedia, Wikimedia who attribute to the community rather than themselves. And they are very much a ”We“. But I think that there are authors who are very single mode like documentary producers and others who don’t like the remix part. Creative Commons is going to try to provide a choice for every kind of creator. And I think different creators have different modes of creativity. It will be much easier to become ”We’s“ like Linux and these open source projects. But I don’t think the individual author will disappear because I think voice and perspective is important.

we: Do you believe that there will be a time when all mass media content will be available legally to anybody anytime?

Joi: Yes, I think so. I think that right now we are shifting modes. Where before the costs of production and distribution were so high that people had to recoup that costs by charging and having business models, the costs of creation and distribution of information now is becoming nearly zero. So once you have every single TV show, movie and song on your iPod, no one has to deliver it for you. Now it’s a discovery problem. How do you figure out what you want to see? How do you find the stuff that’s relevant to you?

we: So how do mass media guys have to change?

Joi: I think first of all, they have to realize that marketing their product is going to be the hardest problem, not the distribution. And so the whole way they think about things is going to be different. What they really need to understand is that the conversation and word of mouth are the key to marketing. And the only way you participate in the conversation is by sharing. The other thing is that the audience is now part of the conversation and part of the production. If you look at ”Lost“ and some of the really successful American and Japanese television shows, they adapt based on the behavior of their fans. I think they have to listen. And I think that really successful mainstream media guys are listening very carefully to what people are saying. And they are actually participating in that conversation.

we: In the we-world, the art of letting go seems to be one key to create innovative and creative ideas. Why do you think it is so hard for people to give away control? We teaches us that letting go means getting more.

I think one of the basic fundamental problems is that happiness has been measured by what I would call pleasure. But money, things, fame… these are all things that even if you get some, you never get enough. Seeking pleasure is how we are used to drive ourselves and how politicians and the economy want the workers to drive themselves. But real happiness comes from finding something sustainable like a family and feeling good about what you are doing now rather than what you’re trying to get. That kind of thinking is somewhat philosophical, somewhat religious, but to me I think that’s the philosophy that drives the ”We“. And obviously, you have moments where you are goal-driven and you have to focus and do all this other stuff, but overwhelmingly, if you stop worrying about trying to become the richest guy on the block, have the best car, you more enjoy the participation in the community. Because human beings have a very social nature and participating and being part of a community, being part of a family, that has a huge amount of satisfaction and I think that’s been kind of lost as a goal for many people.

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