If Walter Elias Disney hadn’t been able to use the stories of the Brothers Grimm as the basis of his animated film empire, Disneyland—and by extension, Disney World, Epcot Center, the acquisition of ABC, and the entire development of central Florida—might not have happened, at least as we know it today.

Using the same line of thinking, the Internet and World Wide Web might not have been created for the common good if people such as Dr. David Reed (the father of TCP/IP and “end-to-end design” theory) and Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of hypertext and the World Wide Web) had copyrighted their ideas and merely sat around collecting license fees.

The point is this: You have a good idea for a new software application. Outstanding! By all means, make as much money from it as you can—that’s our culture of capitalism. But don’t be afraid to share your idea, at least under some specific rules. Your idea might unlock someone else’s creativity.

All the good ideas get locked up forever
This kind of logic makes the traditional U.S. business community uncomfortable. A recurring theme in the open-source software community for years, this new way of looking at intellectual property is coming together at a new nonprofit organization called Creative Commons, introduced recently at the O’Reilly Emerging Technologies conference in Santa Clara, CA.

At a standing-room-only panel discussion entitled “The Future of Ideas” that wrapped up the conference, Reed was joined by Stanford University law professor and author Lawrence Lessig (The Future of Ideas), Carl Malamud of the Internet Multicasting Service, and publisher Tim O’Reilly himself. The discussion centered on what Creative Commons aims to accomplish, because “that’s where the future of ideas is going,” O’Reilly told me afterward. “Without a well-defined public domain, all the good ideas get locked up forever.”

Lessig concurred. “Our constitution says that copyright has to be limited to fuel a public domain so that other people can build on top of it—like the Disney corporation built on top of the Brothers Grimm,” Lessig said. “By the same standard, people should be able to build on top of the work of Disney.”

Of course, creating something new and then sharing it with the world flies in the face of U.S. copyright law, which ostensibly protects the intellectual property of inventors from those who would “steal” ideas and use them for financial profit or to gain simple notoriety. That’s the American way, right? You invent something; you keep all rights to the idea for a long time (currently 48 years per renewal).

Ideas get stale in the deep freeze
Thousands of ideas—good, bad, and so-so—are copyrighted or patented and then locked away in a deep freeze for years. What good are they, Lessig, Reed, and others argue, if nobody knows about them or can use them for other creative purposes? How many people have the time to sift through patent and copyright listings to find something they can build upon?

Creative Commons seeks to demystify the U.S. public domain. It also represents a way for artists, writers, and others to easily register their work outside of U.S. copyright to freely share it according to its creator’s wishes. Creative Commons also helps copyright holders release their works on terms that are more generous than default copyrights. And it helps creators understand the terms under which their work may be used and assign rights under those terms.

The idea is that making it easier to place material in the public domain will in itself encourage more people to do so, which will fuel others’ creativity. Creative Commons furthers this goal by providing a relatively simple online forum that anybody can use.

Executive Director Molly Shaffer Van Houweling and the Creative Commons staff are writing a set of licenses governing the terms under which a given work can be copied and used by otherswithout being hamstrung by the obsolete, one-size-fits-all rules we have today. Creators, not government, should set restrictions on the use of their intellectual property, Creative Commons argues. For example, software developers who want to add to their professional reputations can permit others to copy their application for noncommercial use. Graphic designers might allow unlimited copying of certain work as long as it is credited. CC’s goal is to make these new licenses machine-readable so that anyone can search the Internet for software, written works, images, or music that can be copied without legal entanglements.

What developers can do
Malamud recommends that developers “go out and write a useful piece of software, and then place it immediately into the public domain,” using the Creative Commons Web site.

Lessig has two more ideas: “The next best thing would be to write something else—either a letter to an elected government representative about the lack of a real public domain or a check to Creative Commons so we can do it for you.”

Creative Commons or intellectual property free-for-all?

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