Published in


Picturing the Commons

A Photographer’s Tale

Summary: A photographer’s experience freely sharing his content demonstrates the power of the “commons” to generate value both for the public and artists.

Earlier this week we posted a story briefly exploring the history of copyright and the commons, as a companion piece to a post about creating a new open source license model that circulates “gratitude” in the form of usage information back to creators.

Today I stumbled on a piece by Mike Masnick at Techdirt about a Swiss photographer, Samuel Zeller, whose story dovetails really well with some of the points we made earlier this week; and what’s better, it’s a real-life example rather than theory.

Zeller has written on Medium about the success he’s had making his works more freely available for sharing. That is, going against the grain of many artists who strictly control licensing of their works.

His story highlights how a vibrant public domain, or “commons”, is vital to creative collaboration generally. I would argue that while the interaction between the commons (including both PD works and works shared under open licenses) and the pay-for-access world is not well understood, stories like Zeller’s suggest that the former often enhances the latter.

And I don’t think the only reason for this is that “free” content can act as a “loss leader” for eventually charging for one’s content.

Perhaps there’s an analogy here with technological architectures. We have public infrastructures, such as the Internet, that facilitate all of the technologies that get built on top of that substrate. (Something along these lines is what many people see blockchain technology forming for the “internet of value” as well — an underlying, publicly-shared layer upon which many different models will be built.)

Maybe that’s what the public domain is, to some extent: A shared substrate of creativity, which is built by contributions from diverse authors (and even by operation of law assuming copyright terms don’t get extended again). Other models —including the current paid-license model, but which might include many other formulations — can form on top of that layer, drawing on the commons either specifically or just for inspiration, in order to create new derivative works or entirely new works altogether.

Seen in this light, the commons should be encouraged, especially because it was arguably left somewhat untended for many years during the ascendancy of the controlled licensing model. Artists like Zeller appear to be discovering that enhancing the public domain can have many unforeseen rewards, and that those rewards can multiply when the content being shared is of high quality, as at least my untrained eye suggests Zeller’s is. (Note that the “gratitude” license mentioned in our other post could facilitate yet another form of reward to creators in the context of works dedicated to the commons, beyond mere attribution.)

Definitely read Zeller’s story if you get a chance, as well as Masnick’s post about it. Well worth your time.



Musings on Distributed Applications for the Arts and Beyond

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store