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Copyright law is dastardly business, with more nickel-and-diming and squabbling over percentages than most people probably gather. The music and film industries have gone batshit with copyright law since the rise of the internet, as evidenced by all the tricky take down notices and bogus fair use violation actions taken against YouTubers and bloggers every day.

Imagine if everyone who contributed to the ingredients of a can of soup had a different stake in the overall profit of the can, then on top of that, the percentages paid out to the pea farmers and noodle makers changed depending on what side of the ocean the soup was purchased on. Same farmer; same soup. Once the soup gets old, and the farmers are dead no one can really claim the money anymore (unless they stick a new label on it and add a dash of salt). Books, more so than canned goods, have a tremendous shelf life.

Like with the music industry, the publishing industry is going crazy on trying to tighten up their copyright protections as they march timidly and reluctantly into a digital model. Also like the music industry, their main purpose of copyright is to retain as much money as possible for themselves at the expense (literally, and understandably) of their customers. The knee jerk reaction to this statement is “but the artists deserve to be paid for their work.” And indeed they do.

Authors make money from royalties on sales, say 5-10% per book for the average author. They get a (usually pretty meager unless your Stephen King) advance, and don’t collect on the royalties until their advance is covered. Once the book makes the transition from hardcover run to paperback, the author’s earnings drop significantly. (The Dear Author blog has a nice breakdown of how this works in a digital setting.) It’s an undertandable reaction to think that the rise of ebooks might cut into print runs and hurt authors, especially when companies like Amazon take a ridiculously large cut of the pie. But as we’ve mentioned so often on this site (and pulled straight from like minded thinkers) free ebooks and even internet piracy can help authors, perhaps more than it can hurt them. Many people, myself included, buy the stuff they want, and download a whole lot of stuff they wouldn’t otherwise pay for. I’ve discovered a lot of good artists, authors, musicians, and movies this way, and many of them have made money from me since. Expanded exposure can be invaluable, especially when compared to a $.32 (yes, cent) cut of a paperback novel.

This is why I find ebook DRM so silly. I want to own my books, I want to draw in their margins (or save my note files to them, whatever), to share them with my friends. Buying a DRMed book is like buying a book that self destructs if you take it off of your bookshelf and lend it to a friend. Read it and then it more or less has to sit out of sight. Books are meant to be shared. And while I’m on the subject, if authors are really that concerned about ebooks killing their royalties, why didn’t the Authors’ Guild sic their attack dogs on all those damn libraries that dare share books with the public for free?

Books are more important than just means of profits for authors and publishers. They are important to readers, they mean something to us. As does all art. This is why fair use is important for books as well as other media. Art remains an evolving concept, where each generation builds off (or builds against) what came before. There is, of course, a fine line between homage and plagiarism, and that’s were Creative Commons is stepping in and trying to evolve our notions of copyright and sharing.

A Creative Commons license allows an author or artist to decide the parameters of how his or her work is shared. Will you allow your song to be remixed, your book to be copied for free in writing classes, will you modify your license to require a percentage of the profits from anything that borrows from your work? It is flexible, and it makes sense, and it leaves the power in the hands of those who created the work, rather than those with the most lawyers on retainer.

Their mission is simple and straightforward:

Creative Commons is a nonprofit corporation dedicated to making it easier for people to share and build upon the work of others, consistent with the rules of copyright.

We provide free licenses and other legal tools to mark creative work with the freedom the creator wants it to carry, so others can share, remix, use commercially, or any combination thereof.

[emphasis theirs]

In a mere 8 years they’ve already licensed over 120 million works, under the four main headings of Attribution, Share-alike, Noncommercial, and No Derivative Works. The license names are rather self explanatory, but you can read more here. This is building the internet into a broadening public domain, where art as business and art as a social right can coexist peacefully and without passwords. It’s not just for small fries either, with heavy hitters like Nine Inch Nails and writers such as Cory Doctorow seeing much success with these licenses. And it’s best for readers and users, who have un- or lightly fettered access to a wide variety of culture and art on the internet (not unlike visiting a library rather than a Borders).

This was the part where I was going to break down the basic differences between Creative Commons and copyright, but I then I came across this excellent example, so in the interest of sharing work, I’m going to point you directly their show at the end of this paragraph. Unfortunately, I can’t embed it (it’s a flickr slideshow-book-thing), but I’m going to have the link open in this window in order for the show to get full attention.

Watch the slideshow here: A Tale of Two Fish by Yiibu.