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Software tool promises 1-click colonialism

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The music industry has a long and shameful history of robbing black artists of their rights. Now along comes some new software that will help speed up the job. Think of it as a sort of 1-Click "non-payment" system.

Liblicense is a project that Creative Commons hopes to integrate with MIT Media Lab's OLPC, or One Laptop Per Child initiative. That's the rubbishy sub-notebook designed for developing countries, that developing countries don't seem to want very much. (Shockingly, the ungrateful recipients seem to prefer real computers).

The genius of the move is that instead of needing to hire shifty lawyers to bamboozle artists out of the right to be paid, Creative Commons makes the process not only voluntary, but automated, too. Liblicense will greatly ease the process of assigning a Creative Commons license to creative material straight from the desktop.

"Imagine finding a brilliant poem on a blog through Liferea you can base a video or song off of," burbles one of the developers Scott Shawcroft.

Now imagine making a million-selling hit from one of these poems, and not having to pay the original author a penny. Cute, isn't it?

The system depends on ignorance, of course. Today, there's nothing to stop poets posting brilliant poems to the internet while retaining their full rights. There's nothing to stop you reading them. And there's nothing to stop songwriters "basing" songs from these poems - although if they "base" a hit by plagiarizing the material a little too obviously, they can expect a lawsuit. The system works very well, although it's loaded heavily in favour of plagiarizers. Getting someone to bat on your behalf if you're up against a Bono isn't easy, and is harder still if you're in Ethiopia or Mali.

But up pops Creative Commons, with a solution to a problem that doesn't exist - with a solution that generates its own byzantine technical problems that you'd have to be a lawyer or a nerd to love.

(Not surprisingly, lawyers and nerds are the two groups keenest on this innovation).

The problem is, Commonistas are so evangelical about their crusade, they often neglect to explain the implications fully. If you, as a creator, forget to stick an NC (or "non-commercial use only") attribute on your license, you formally forgo any chance of being paid, except by kind strangers throwing a penny into your begging bowl. Adding the NC attribute is greatly frowned-upon by 'The Movement', which calls it "very rarely justifiable on economic or ideological grounds". However, that's only because, their helpful explanation points out, " ... the decision to give away your work for free already eliminates most large scale commercial uses.

Guess whether that particular wealth-warning will be slapped on the side of an OLPC notebook?

Here's an example of the confusion generated by these anti-copyright crusaders. When The Register drew attention to these problems two years ago, an agitated songwriter wrote in asking how a couple of songs he'd released under a CC license could be extracted from the license. He couldn't do it, however, because he discovered the licenses are irrevocable. Oops.

(One can imagine situations where CC may actually be useful - such as on educational material, or reference material such as The Highway Code. But when it comes to works of art, the Commonistas are as naive as a hippo wandering into a minefield).

Much of Web 2.0 involves what's called "sharecropping", with aggregators profiting from the selfless unpaid labour of volunteers. The 1-Click Colonialism™ promised by the LibLicense/OLPC integration seems to use new technology to take us even further into the past. ®

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