In Conversation: Philippe Perreaux

Philippe Perreaux studied Law at the University of Zürich, where he specialized in issues around global copyrights. For over 10 years he’s been legal adviser to major photo agencies, as well as global copyright negotiator for various artists, writers and producers. Over the past five years he has been founder and entrepreneur in fields of New Media, Copyright and Startups. Since 2004, he has been the representative of the alternative licensing system, Creative Commons, in Switzerland. In 2009, he co-founded the Swiss Foundation Public Domain Project: a project to digitize and promote free works of music.

Libby O’Loghlin asks Philippe about Creative Commons licensing, piracy and obscurity, and what the Swiss arm of the Creative Commons organisation is up to.

Aufnahmen von den Mitarbeiter von vom 29. März 2011

Image courtesy: Aufnahmen von den Mitarbeiter von vom 29. März 2011

The Creative Commons (CC) organization is often touted as  a great advocate of  creativity and collaboration. What is the CC philosophy and goal, and what sets its licenses apart from traditional copyright licenses?

Creative Commons (CC) follows an approach that first of all makes Copyright easy for anyone to understand. It is a limited amount of six different licenses, and they are all symbolized through very simple and self-explanatory icons. And, secondly, CC advocates towards a development of the law that supports and encourages all kinds of intellectual or artistic works to be further enriched and continuously cultivated, instead of blocking this.

It is a fair and standardized system that works on a global scale, it is represented in more than 60 countries and languages, and it is just about reaching its next milestone of one billion works that can be found online, licensed with a Creative Commons attribution.

'Anguish', Kevin MacLeod, CC BY 3.0, via

‘Anguish’, Kevin MacLeod, CC BY 3.0, via

What is the public domain, and how (if at all) has the internet affected its definition and value from a legal standpoint?

Public Domains (PD) means that a work is totally free for any kind of re-use. This happens automatically to every work as soon as the legal protection expires, usually 70 years after the author of the original work has passed away. Therefore it concerns older content—never the latest stuff.
The internet has made all sorts of content much more accessible. The only limitation to re-using these sources for free are globally fragmented copyright rules, which make this hard or even impossible. That’s one reason why certain internet projects are focused on public domain works. Makes much more sense for libraries, for example.

Another important discussion is around this question: to what extent do creators of new works insist on their copyright? Many do not at all—billions of people are posting and sharing their own pictures and videos, and do not follow any commercial purpose. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have this content under Public Domain by default? Or what about works that are the result of the work of public institutions funded by public money—should those works not be free to anyone anyway?

Again, Creative Commons aims to make all those questions much more easier and is balanced somewhere between the traditional Copyright and the more and more important Public Domain. CC also offers one license called CC0 (zero): it is the least restrictive license in the whole set of CC licenses.

'Imitation, Genetic Lineages, and Time Influenced the Morphological Evolution of the Violin', Daniel H. Chitwood, CC BY 4.0, via

‘Imitation, Genetic Lineages, and Time Influenced the Morphological Evolution of the Violin’, Daniel H. Chitwood, CC BY 4.0, via

To many content producers (artists, writers), copyright can seem like a complicated legal area that varies from country to country, with specialised and contextualised terminology that can affect us negatively if we get it wrong. As a lawyer yourself, what attracted you to becoming involved in the Creative Commons organization?

Global Copyright is not only way too complicated for non-lawyers, but even for specialized lawyers with decades of experience, it is impossible to know all rules in all countries. I have specialized in this question for more than ten years, and found the rules getting worse and more confusing with every year.

In a globally connected world, in which every online publication can be reached within seconds, this is a totally frustrating situation.

But I found it even more disturbing that almost all of the very few changes to a globally harmonized copyright framework, which were capable of winning a majority on the political stage, are moving straight-forwards in the wrong direction. Obviously driven by huge financial interests of major rights holders. That is not particularly objectionable in itself, but it does not help all the others, who are overall the larger amount of people (individual creators and consumers).

In a digital society, in which sharing is established as a crucial understanding and activity of the population, single-sided and overly restrictive rules do not respect the social behaviour. History has shown in many other legal topics that this approach regularly fails in the long term.

Project: Ballad, Michael Peterson and Kevin Czapiewski, CC BY-SA 3.0, via

Project: Ballad, Michael Peterson and Kevin Czapiewski, CC BY-SA 3.0, via

Tim O’Reilly is often quoted as saying, “The problem for most artists isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity,” and yet, as CC advocate Cory Doctorow has acknowledged, “you can’t eat fame”. This seems to get to the heart of a major fear surrounding digital content production, namely financial recompense. Indeed, a major criticism of Creative Commons licensing (as quoted in Wikipedia) uses this economic argument, adding that, “the lack of rewards for content producers will dissuade artists from publishing their work.” Can you comment on this?

These criticisms arose on the same day as Creative Commons was presented to the broader public. I do not agree with them. And, I like to say, repeating them over years will not make them true in future.

The main wrong, yet most anticipated, argument is that without Creative Commons or any other regulation advocating for a culture of free sharing, or the opportunities of easy sharing, every creator of content would automatically get rich. That is simply not true. It was always hard to monetize thoughts, words, a text, a piece of music, or a painting.

The evolution of digital devices has not made it easier. Not because sharing was so easy in first place, but the process of creating, producing and publishing is now opened to almost anyone. Instead of a small amount of selected and privileged creators, the whole world has started to create and publish. An enormous competition is the result, and it makes it more and more difficult for everyone to stand out and get attention. Usually the main ‘driver’ is that this can be monetized.

Material Design Icons, Google, CC BY-SA 4.0, via

Material Design Icons, Google, CC BY-SA 4.0, via

The second wrong claim in this chain of argument is that people will suddenly stop publishing. If we go back in the history of copyright law, one of the major aims justifying the introduction of those new property rights, besides protecting monopolies of publishers, of course, has always been to motivate creators to continue to create. Creative Commons, in its basic understanding, continues exactly this tradition. It does make it easy for anyone to understand and publish content and drive attention to it.

And, on the counter side, traditional Copyright is starting to get so prohibitive in some cases, that whatever you publish, in this puzzle of global copyright rule, you should first consider that you might get sued before your work gets any attention.

Foremost, agreeing with Cory Doctorow’s saying “you can’t eat fame”—Creative Commons does not prohibit monetizing works in any way. One of the three restrictions of CC is non-commercial/NC, which simply states that no-one gets the right to use this work for a commercial purpose prior to a permission by the author. This permission can or should be connected to money, a licensing deal.

In your observation, do most people who adopt CC licensing use it alongside traditional copyright?

I do not know official figures about this, but it’s again a very good reason to encourage creators to take the chance and use Creative Commons. It is not an exclusive system. You can still monetize your work for business purposes, besides sharing them freely for pure private use. Again, there is an explicit non-commercial restriction allowing to monetize works.

[Creative Commons has just published facts and figures about global CC usage, State of the Commonslink HERE].

Homesick (Keymix), keytronic, CC BY 3.0, via

Homesick (Keymix), keytronic, CC BY 3.0, via

Tell us a bit about the kinds of institutions and individuals who use Creative Commons licensing in Switzerland.

As representatives of Creative Commons in Switzerland, in the starting years we got most inquiries from public institutions. Libraries, Universities, Art Colleges etc. Most of them have implemented Creative Commons into their database systems in the meantime or at least encourage their students and professors to use CC.

In the meantime, companies have also started to come along, who want to publish yearly business reports online, or offer product information as downloadable .pdf’s, and wonder if CC would make sense in their case. Luckily, it does. It makes perfect sense for this kind of content and publications. We hope this trend gets more and more popular.

And of course there are many individual creators and producers, smaller agencies etc. that are starting to use CC for their works, or parts of their collections (music, photography, text, video, graphic design, advertisement campaigns etc.).

Recently, we started to invite people to send us information about their CC-related projects in Switzerland. In future, we want to compile an index for them.

After years of effort (since 2004) informing people about Creative Commons, and convincing rights holders in Switzerland to use these licenses, it is really satisfying to see that the words are starting to spread, and more and more interesting projects and works are joining the movement.

What vision do you have for the Swiss arm of the org?

The situation in Switzerland is very interesting. We have many people creating high-end content, and lots of talented artists, considering the very small size of the country. We have a long tradition of diversity; most people are multilingual and intercultural by default. Mixing, creating, but also inventing new ideas is a great ability of the Swiss. They should be really proud of it, share it, and make it as accessible as possible. And of course—in the best possible case—make a living out of it.

Author: Libby O'Loghlin

Novelist, social entrepreneur, nutrition and narrative coach. Creative Director of The Woolf Quarterly; Co-Founder of WriteCon and The Powerhouse Zurich. Nature is my jam.

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