Lessig on Free Bassel

Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons and professor at Harvard Law School, has published on The Wall Street Journal a very touching op-ed for our Bassel Khartabil aka Safadi, detained in Syria since March 2012.

Online Artists Share Work—Tyrants Would Prefer They Share a Cell

A Syrian tech wizard is jailed by the Assad regime. His sin? Spreading the word about utilizing the Internet.


It has been a decade since lawyers and technologists formed the nonprofit corporation Creative Commons to help artists and authors share their work with each other and the world. Creative Commons offered free copyright licenses, tied to underlying computer code that made it simpler for artists and authors to signal the freedoms they want their creativity to carry to prospective users and the world.

Very quickly, a wide range of creators, including scientists, scholars, educators, musicians, bloggers, photographers and filmmakers began using these licenses to make their works more freely available—legally, and within the protective contours of traditional copyright. The resulting explosion of shared material today includes hundreds of millions of photos on Flickr, tens of thousands of “open access” scholarly articles, thousands of videos on YouTube and Blip.tv, and the heart of all free culture, Wikipedia.

For most of us in the West, this movement has supported a new era of creative excitement and intellectual freedom. In some parts of the world, however, the cost of supporting this movement to share information has been high.

Creative Commons began in the U.S. But very quickly the idea spread globally, adapted in each case to fit the copyright laws and language of specific countries. Thousands of volunteers internationally worked to spread the technology, including code indicating that material is covered by a Creative Commons license and thus free to use and adapt, within specified limits.

Yet as Creative Commons spread, its meaning was morphed by the countries that adopted it. In South America, for instance, Creative Commons was regarded as a victory in the battle between North and South—between the West and the rest, so to speak—over intellectual property rights. Brazil’s minister of culture, the musician Gilberto Gil, embraced Creative Commons as a symbol of the new flexibility that he thought copyright law should have.




CC/Joi Ito

Computer programmer and open-source developer Bassel Khartabil

Throughout the Middle East, Creative Commons has become part of a broader and growing movement for freedom that captured the sense of a people starved for access to culture and truth beyond their own borders. With the connections made possible by the Internet, the licenses opened the door wide to legal sharing of all kinds of material.

In nations with repressive regimes, though, governments have grown suspicious and increasingly wary of so-called free culture. Now one early Creative Commons supporter in Syria may face the ultimate penalty for his work to give Syrians an easier way to share their creative work.

Bassel Khartabil is a 31-year-old computer programmer. He is also a pacifist and the Syrian lead for the Creative Commons project. For more than a decade, he has been working locally to integrate Syria into the online world, going into schools and businesses, for instance, to teach them how to use the new tools of technology, and educating future bloggers and website architects.

Mr. Khartabil has also helped spread freely licensed software and culture throughout the region and in so doing encouraged Syrians to develop critical skills like remixing. The ability to take images and other material and mix them into social commentary—as the Jib Jab videos do in the U.S., for instance—is a free-speech right that Americans take for granted. But in a country like Syria, the ability to do something like juxtapose dubious claims by the country’s leadership with more truthful images from other sources makes remixing an important tool for political dissent.

In late 2012, Foreign Policy named Mr. Khartabil one of this year’s top 100 thinkers. The magazine singled him out for “fostering an open-source community in a country long on the margins of the Internet’s youth culture.”

But Mr. Khartabil wasn’t able to accept that honor. He was arrested in March by Syrian authorities because of his work and has been held—at times in utter isolation—ever since. His family fears the very worst.

Mr. Khartabil isn’t a partisan, aligned with one Syrian faction against another. He represents a future, aligned against a totalitarian past. The Syrian government is fearful of the potential threat to the totalizing control that defines the modern Syrian state. The government thus wants to shut the free-software, free-culture movement down, in a way that only a totalitarian regime can.

Syria won’t win this battle in the long term, just as the regime is unlikely to outlast the insurrection now wracking the country. It, too, will learn that the future cannot be stopped, even if the men and women leading it can be silenced.

Mr. Lessig is a professor at Harvard Law School and a member of the board of Creative Commons.

A version of this article appeared January 8, 2013, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Online Artists Share Work—Tyrants Would Prefer They Share a Cell.

Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons, at the Italian Parliament on 11th March

Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons, Director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics and Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, is going to lecture at the Italian Parliament in Rome on 11th March starting at 3pm (free entry with ID, but limited seats available, so the earlier the better. Pls email me so I can send the official invitation to print and bring with you).

Gianfranco Fini, President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, is going to introduce Lessig’s lecture  in the framework of a debate entitled “Internet è libertà” (Internet is freedom) organised by Capitale Digitale, in cooperation with Creative Commons and Nexa Center for Internet and Society in Turin.

A panel debate will follow the lecture with, among the others, Paolo Romani, vice Minister of Communication in the Berlusconi’s government, who gave the name to the controversial Romani decree.

“The law, which bears the signature of Paolo Romani, vice minister of communications for the Berlusconi government, calls for measures that would allow government control of audiovisual content on the web”, as the European Journalism Centre reports.

“In particular, the decree would force anyone wanting to upload videos to the Internet – be they single users or professional publishers – to seek a licence from the Ministry of Communication. Individual users, private citizens, would when uploading videos be equated under the new law with a television station… with all the legal obligations implied”.

In such a difficult time for Italian democracy and with all the controversies raised in the past few days (not only on new Internet and audiovisual law projects but also on the regional elections),  this debate is much more than needed and we’ll see where it will end up.

Public discussion on Creative Commons just started in Jordan

The public discussion of the first Arabic Creative Commons (CC) 3.0 license draft started yesterday. Jordan will be the first Arab country to discuss version 3.0 which is a major step in the diffusion of the CC philosophy across all the Arab world. Creative Commons is an international non profit organization founded in 2001 by Larry Lessig professor of Law in Stanford and author of many important books about the sharing of creativity on the Internet. CC provides free tools that let authors, scientists, artists, and educators easily mark their creative work with the freedoms they want it to carry.

It’s a major shift from the copyright “All Rights Reserved” philosophy to the more flexible “Some Rights Reserved”. This shift is not simply concerning the juridical sphere of legal rights. It goes towards the empowerment of users and creators, educators and artists, individuals and communities of individuals that want to share and learn one from each other in a legal way.

The copyright as a method to protect information goods (video, books, music, etc) was born in a “analogue environment” marked by scarcity of production and difficulty in the distribution process. These material obstacles have been clearly removed in the “digital environment” which is on the contrary marked by the abundance of information goods and by a very easy process both in production and in distribution. But the legal obstacle of “all rights reserved” remains within this changed framework preventing many new subjects to use this huge amounts of information goods to learn, create by themselves and share with the others.

In this perspective, the battle for knowledge sharing is key in the Arab world as it is in Europe and in the US.

Copyright might seem not a big issue in the Arab world, where piracy is widespread and openly tolerated (and many more urgent problems have still to be solved). But, indeed, Arab media is booming thanks to Gulf investments and cash: the Gulf itself is setting the trends and standards for the future of the media all across the Arab region.

Having a closer look to what is currently happening in that part of the Arab world,  we will see that restrictions and persecutions on piracy issues have started, both in Saudi Arabia and in the UAE.

Copyright law is going to be enforced also in the Gulf, and this trend will go soon towards the Arab Mediterranean region.

So it is very key to start a debate on those issues right now. This is not a “technical” discussion happening among lawyers or geeks communities. It is very key for all the communities of individuals, particularly those who believe that the future of humankind lies in the sharing of knowledge and experiences. And the sharing of knowledge and creative works is the only antidote that we have against the alleged “clash of civilization”.

Mabrouk to Ziad Maraqa of Agip organisation, CC Jordan lead, and to all the others in the Arab team, for this first great achievement. Everybody in the Arab world is invited to join the discussion and to contribute to the debate at: