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 sometimes you want to give away some rights and sometimes you want to get compensated for what you’ve done. In some context, you might want to license your work freely under CC, and in other contexts you might want to get paid. This system allows you that flexibility. In the same way that Paypal created a simple platform for paying for any e-commerce item on the Web, our idea is to create the same kind of mechanism for the sale of Web 2.0, “user-generated content.”

X: Explain how a user’s “personal feed” works on RightsAgent.

JP: First, from the perspective of the person who creates online content, it’s a single place where all of your work can be found. A lot of prominent bloggers and online creators have not just a blog, but also a Flickr feed, Amazon reviews, and videos on Revver and YouTube, and so forth. We create a single place to aggregate those works so other people can subscribe to your feed. The second thing is that it creates a trustworthy system for determining on what basis your works can be licensed. It may be that you want to give everything away, subject to a Creative Commons license. The gap that this fills for those people is that it’s a one-stop shop for all your work, and it creates a time stamp and a level of authenticity when someone licenses your work. One of the concerns that many commercial publishers have had about user-generated content is that they don’t know at what point you put a particular license on your work, and this creates a certain level of trust that you were licensing it that way at a certain time. And if you are Reuters or CNN and you want to re-use this material, it creates a greater level of certainty that the person who claims to have created this content is in fact the creator.

X: In addition to the purchasing system, there’s a commercial and social reputation system built into Rights Agent, with users ranked according to how many pieces of content they’ve sold and given away. What was the point of including those?

Rudy Rouhana: You have to take account of the fact that a lot of people don’t necessarily want to sell their work, but they want to make sure others can re-use it and not have any issues with that. We wanted a reputation system that reflected that. It’s fine if you don’t want to make a buck on everything—you can put your things out there as a purely social transaction, under a Creative Commons license with no money changing hands. You should be recognized for that. At the same time, another element of reputation that is interesting is who is putting content out there that other people are paying to re-use. You, as a producer of content, are more “valuable” if you are producing content that others want to display or integrate. That’s what we bring out.

Also, when we talked to people who might be potential buyers of RightsAgent-licensed content, in the commercial media, we asked them about the stopping points, the things that were keeping them from using user-generated content beyond confidence in the licenses themselves, and the thing we kept hearing was that they want confidence in the producer. This could be someone they’ve never met before, so they’d like to know anything they can know about this person that would give them a little more confidence.

X: You’ve built in support for Flickr and Revver, so that people can include their photos and videos from those sites in their RightsAgent feed. But there are many other sites full of user-generated content—YouTube, for example. Do you plan to talk with them as well?

RR: To be clear, we have not actually had to talk with Flickr or Revver. We’re just using their APIs [application programming interfaces] to validate that people registering their Flickr or Revver streams with us are the true owners. We picked them because those are two sites which already support Creative Commons Licenses. But we are certainly looking to add support for as many content sites as we can. Ultimately, as long as the platform that hosts the content has an RSS or Atom feed, it’s something we can consider supporting.

X: Do you ever worry that if bloggers and photographers and others have an easier way to charge for their content, it will put a damper on the wonderful, open conversations going on across the Web? Isn’t it key to the vitality of the blogosphere that people like Robert Scoble are basically giving away so much of their content?

JP: I very much hope that the rich conversations that go on in the blogosphere will continue to go on on a free basis. [But] I think there are many instances where somebody like Scoble will create a blog post that they’re delighted to have someone re-use for noncommercial purposes, but if somebody wants to run ads around it or use it as a column in a newspaper, they might like to get paid for it. I actually think that will be a good thing overall for the Internet economically—it will create a secondary market for some of this content. I don’t think the introduction of some financial transactions into the mix is going to ruin the blogosphere. I think it can create richer conversations. We have basketball players who play for free in the Olympics and get paid to play in the NBA, and those are both good things.

X: John, you lead the Berkman Center, which is a non-profit, and the Creative Commons organization is also non-profit. But RightsAgent is a for-profit business. Why did you go that direction?

JP: We see ourselves as part of the Creative Commons ecosystem, but for sure, we are for-profit. My very strong sense is that sometimes by using private capital and the market system you can do things that are very hard to do through charity and the public interest system. Our goal is to make this a successful company in the Paul Newman style. We will give money back to Creative Commons and other good works over time.

X: You turned on your site last night, and you’re having your coming-out on Saturday. Are you ready for an onslaught of Web traffic this weekend?

JP: Absolutely, we are excited for it. We’ve been working on this for a long time, and preparing very carefully. We will be delighted to have an onslaught.

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • 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?

  • “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!