All (User-Generated) Content Doesn’t Want to Be Free: A Q&A with Cambridge Startup RightsAgent About Its New Approach to Copyrighting

Creative Commons License SymbolYou know that little “CC” you see here and there on the Web, in the margins of blogs or attached to photos on Flickr? It stands for the Creative Commons license, and until now, it’s basically been a way for content creators to say, “I don’t approve of traditional copyrights, so I’m just going to give my work away, with a few minor restrictions.” But a Cambridge startup being launched this weekend will add a new dimension to content protection. RightsAgent is rolling out a way for creators to still be liberal and open about sharing their work, while at the same time collecting money for certain uses of it.

The idea behind the Creative Commons licensing scheme, when Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig and some allies got together five years ago to set it up, was to promote a kind of “copyleft”—an alternative to the excesses of traditional copyright law, which was being used at the time to attack MP3 downloaders, rap-song remixers, and other people experimenting with the newfound flexibility of digital media. In effect, the Creative Commons licenses offered writers, photographers, lyricists and other creative folks a new way to explicitly make their content more open—that is, to cede some rights to other users, such as the right to reproduce a work in full or modify it for non-commercial purposes, free of charge.

It was a nice idea that fit well with Lessig’s Free Culture crusade, and it served as an antidote to draconian digital-rights management technologies that threatened (and still threaten) to undermine age-old doctrines about fair use of copyrighted material. But the movement’s feel-good vibe—“Let’s make all content free!”—elided an important point: content creators still need to put dinner on their tables.

RightsAgent’s new online service, which was switched on last night, helps to fill in that missing piece. And appropriately enough, it’s being formally introduced to the public tomorrow at the Creative Commons organization’s fifth birthday celebration in San Francisco.

At the core of the service is a way for users to set up “personal feeds” that include all of the digital content they create, including their blog writings, the photos they put on Flickr, and the videos they post on Revvr. (The service will work with more content sources in the future; RightsAgent’s builders say they wanted to start with the services that already recognize Creative Commons licenses.) RightsAgent users can then choose the type of license under which they’d like to offer that content for various uses—a Creative Commons license, a Rights Agent Commercial license, or traditional “all rights reserved” copyright.

If they choose the RightsAgent Commercial license, which is modeled after a new type of Creative Commons license called Creative Commons Plus, anyone who wants to buy the rights to re-use that content for commercial purposes can do so directly through RightsAgent, which collects a 10 percent commission. People who want to use the content for non-commercial purposes can still do so under a Creative Commons License. Neither the Creative Commons licenses nor traditional copyright, by themselves, offer this kind of flexibility. As Lessig puts it in the company’s launch announcement, “RightsAgent plugs a big hole in the world of user generated creativity, by making it simple for creators to license rights commercially with their creative work.”

Yesterday I had the opportunity to ask RightsAgent’s two co-founders, John Palfrey and Rudy Rouhana, to explain more about the new company, which has a four-person staff and is operating on a seed-stage investment from Menlo Park, CA-based venture firm Venrock and Lexington, MA-based Highland Capital Partners. Palfrey is a lecturer at Harvard Law School and executive director of the school’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Rouhana is a serial entrepreneur and former vice president of Cambridge-based Top Ten Media, which operates new media properties Top 10 Sources and StyleFeeder.

Xconomy: Say more about this hole in the Creative Commons licensing scheme that RightsAgent is filling.

John Palfrey: Creative Commons itself, five years ago when it was founded, filled an extraordinarily important gap in the marketplace. It was very difficult if not impossible for somebody to give away some rights [to their work] and retain other rights. CC became an extremely simple way to do that. Five years later, what’s clear is that there is great value in what some people are generating online, and the gap we think RightsAgent will fill now is that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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6 responses to “All (User-Generated) Content Doesn’t Want to Be Free: A Q&A with Cambridge Startup RightsAgent About Its New Approach to Copyrighting”

  1. This is a really interesting idea.

    Could you guys please consider how this principle could be applied to content in Second Life and other VR environments?

  2. “But the movement’s feel-good vibe—’Let’s make all content free!’—elided an important point: content creators still need to put dinner on their tables.”

    It seems like you’re conflating “free as in beer” with “free as in speech” here. The movement’s goal is not to get many people to merely “give away” their work free of charge — it is to have a free exchange of culture. See my letter to the editor in the NYTimes for further clarification.

    RightsAgent is definitely a step in the right direction, as it provides a simple and efficient method for commercial licensing. Congrats to JP, RR, and their team for launching their new venture!