Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Tuesday 19/7/2005Contrarianism can make vivid journalism. [Omnes: Oh no it doesn't!

Tuesday 19/7/2005

Contrarianism can make vivid journalism. [Omnes: Oh no it doesn't! Goodwins: Oh yes it does!]. The fine art of selecting a sacred cow and saying it's a pig can inject a useful jolt of surrealism into the veins to unblock the blood clots of assumption, but it's not without its risks. Used too often, it can generate an unhealthy addiction to the rush of attention it brings — and as that rush diminishes on repeated application, the urge to up the dose can lead one into a state of advanced disassociated irony.

It was thus with some interest that I watched two of my favourite contrarianists get to grips with one of my favourite heavenly bovines. First to shout "Hey, Bull!" was John Dvorak, with whom I shared a magazine for five years in the paper-based 1990s. For most of that time, he stuck to his side of the Atlantic and I to mine, but there were plenty of occasions when we found ourselves at the same event. My advice to anyone similarly blessed is to stick tight: the man has a psychic ability to find the oldest and most unfeasibly expensive brandy within twenty miles, and thence to locate the only PR within thirty who can pay for it. I owe my only experiences of spirits older than myself to Dvorak, and that buys a considerable amount of affection.

But what on earth was he on when he ladled out the boo juice over Creative Commons? A bunch of misguided idealists poisoning copyright? A licence-like entity that does nothing but prevent commercialisation of ideas? A power-grabbing middleman appropriating the right to mediate otherwise unhindered transactions of intellectual effort? Where did that lot come from?

I use CC for my photographs on Flickr, not because I have some ill-formed wish to appear hip and trendy (if I want to do that, I tend to adopt my own contrarian inverted snobbery — usually with unintended, self-defeating results) but because I find it a very convenient way to express how I wish to use my copyright. If you can think of something fun and good to do with my IP then go ahead, you have my explicit and well-defined permission to do so freely, but if it's intended to make money then talk to me first. CC breaks down the mystique of copyright and makes it useful; it's anti-FUD. Convenience amplifies utility, and copyright is supposed to be useful.

Following on from Dvorak's peculiar cookery, Andrew Orlowski applies the sprinklies to the top of the cake. Orlowski and I have sat opposite each other in practice but rarely in spirit; yet oh boy, can he be hard to keep up with. While the rest of us are pootling around in three dimensions he has some sort of intellectual warp drive that lets him twist the fabric of spacetime and deliver context from outside any known frame of reference. Often this is as invigoratingly unique as a snapshot from Hubble: this time he seems to be overdosing on Dvorakian radiation from a contrarian event horizon.

CC is bad, he says, because it restricts and distorts the potential of creativity to a particular and limiting materialistic and technological context, it doesn't solve the big problem of getting paid, and it doesn't produce much worth having anyway. Bunch of old hippies who don't even like good music. Pah.

Which are odd sins to lay at the door of an idea that if you don't like, you don't have to use, one which explicitly helps people get their ideas out there with at least some chance of a cultural or material return. It's true that most CC stuff is uninspiring but I don't think Sturgeon's Law has been repealed yet, and you can hardly blame Professor Lessig for the Grateful Dead. And yes, it is a big fat digital thing, part of the same big fat digital thing that lets Orlowski (and I) lay out our wares in front of hundreds of millions of potential readers, instead of the few tens of thousands who read the trade press back in the day. Is that not a significant difference?

Still, if it gets people talking…