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ChoralTech: The Creative Commons, and a Different Way to Share

As conductors, both we and our ensembles generate a tremendous amount of information - some of it in aural or visual performance, some of it in our research and program notes, and some in our presentations, journal notes and articles for professional organizations. In the past, we had only two options when it came to our own intellectual property: copyright it, in which case nobody could legally share it, or throw it to the winds without restriction, in which case it could be freely distributed, modified or copied. While these copyright options served an era in which copying, editing and redistributing were time- and resource-intensive work, computers and the Internet have made it much easier for our work to spread the world and influence others in a variety of ways. The Creative Commons organization has developed and supports a method of intellectual property that's much more nuanced and appropriate to the digital sharing age. If you or your ensemble generate intellectual property, the Creative Commons system may give you more options to share and control your hard work.
What is Intellectual Property? What can I claim?
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and none of this should constitute legal advice.
Simply put, intellectual property ("IP") covers information, art or products of your creativity and hard work. In the digital age, intellectual property is data. Your program notes are a result of your intellectual work, so they are your intellectual property. Likewise, your ensemble's performance of a piece is that group's IP - a result of that combination of performers and your vision for the particular performance. You can record and distribute that performance and claim it as "yours"-- just as I could perform the same piece 2 months later and claim that performance as "mine."
That's broad strokes-- there are some essential details to consider. First, you can't claim something which is already out in the public sphere. I can perform the Verdi Requiem, record it, and distribute it as my performance. I can't claim the Verdi Requiem as mine, though, since it's already out in the sphere and obviously isn't my work. Second, copyright rolls uphill and starts with the original creator of the work. In other words, I own the copyright to any of my compositions. If a choir purchases one piece from me (I wouldn't recommend it-- they're terrible), then I give them the right to perform it. That's why octavos often have something written on them like "for non-commercial performance only." My copyright as creator of the piece supercedes yours as the "purchaser."
So what does the creator of an IP have in their copyright? The big ones that apply to us most often are distribution, commercial performance and derivative works. Distribution means that when I buy 80 copies of a piece, I can neither copy those to distribute to 100 singers, nor can I resell them. The issue of "selling used works" is actually much murkier than most people realize, but it's way past the scope of this article. Commercial performance means that I can't perform it for profit without royalties going back to the original copyright holder. Derivative works means that I can't create a work that is "obviously derivative" (i.e. directly derived from) somebody else's IP. There's one more wrinkle to consider: copyright is automatically awarded to the first person who can claim ownership/creation of an idea, whether or not they display the copyright logo or fill out the legal paperwork. In other words, this article is already copyrighted by virtue of my name being on it and there being a date at the top.
This means that technically speaking (again-- not a lawyer):
  • You can't share a video of another choir's performance. You like the video that a friend sent you? Tough-- sit on it.
  • You want to share a video of your choir's performance of a copyrighted work? Copyright says no.
  • You give a new text translation of a traditional work to an interest session group and tell them "Please, use this in your programs! I waive my copyright protections!"? They can now modify it wholly at will and change your work to meet and fit their own.
The Creative Commons
The idea of the Creative Commons is two-fold: first, to identify restrictions to IP that are more in line with the digital sharing age, and second, to allow people more specific choices than "on-or-off" for their own IP.
All quoted directly from :
This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation.
Attribution - Share Alike
This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you an license their new creations under the identical terms.
Attribution - No Derivative Works
This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.
Attribution - Non Commercial
This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don't have to license their derivative works on the same terms.
Attribution - Non Commercial - Share Alike
This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-comercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.
Attribution - Non Commercial - No Derivative Works
This license is the most restrictive of the our six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can't change them in any way or use them commercially.
You can see how these licenses give a wide range of settings for your IP. Artists, scientists and educators are turning to the Creative Commons to be able to share each other's works more fluidly. As creator of a piece of intellectual property (again, even if it's just a recording of a performance of a work that's not currently under copyright), you can choose any of these levels to reflect how you'd like the piece to be shared.
The Creative Commons website has links to many people who are using the Creative Commons "in the wild" as a form of protection, including the White House. Would you consider using any of these for your works? Have you come across people using the Creative Commons licenses? Would this offer you the ability to share things in a way that traditional copyright doesn't? Comment below!