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American Today


For Carroll, Copyright Is Creative

By Mike Unger

Michael Carroll

Michael Carroll (Photo: courtesy of WCL)

Michael Carroll sees the artistry in copyright law. 

“Every copyright lawyer I know has a creative side,” said the Washington College of Law professor, himself an amateur guitarist. “It’s the area of law that deals with popular culture. Music, movies, books. They all realized they weren’t going to be professional creators, but they wanted to stay involved in creativity.”

The dawning of the digital age has led the arts and the law to a crossroads, and Carroll, a teacher, scholar, and a founder of the landmark nonprofit online licensing site, is helping direct traffic.

“If you’re hopeful about the future, then intellectual property law is an area that you’re interested in, because it’s the body of law that deals with people who are trying to invent the future, either in the technical side or the cultural side,” he said. “So it’s a fun field for optimists.”

Carroll has been bullish on the future since growing up listening to the roar of lions and howl of monkeys near the National Zoo, just a few miles from American University. The son of William Carroll, a government lawyer who now is an adjunct professor at AU, Michael Carroll worked as a journalist, teacher in Africa, and in the nonprofit world before going to law school in the
mid ’90s.

“The story is I fought the law and the law won,” he said. “I didn’t really want to pursue that as a career. When I got into the nonprofit world I learned that without an advanced degree you can’t really go very far. At that point, I said the world is telling me I need an advanced degree, the law degree is the most flexible degree, it’s the degree I’m most suited for. I went to law school with a strong inclination toward teaching. I always thought it would be a calling that would be rewarding.”

It was critically important to Carroll that no matter what he studied, it somehow be intertwined with the budding technology of the time, the Internet.

“You could see that digital connectivity was going to change the way we live and experience music, movies, and books,” he said. “The writing was on the wall, or on the screen, as it would be. I knew the Internet was going to be the next big thing, and I wanted to figure out how I was going to play. From the law side there were really two things you could focus on. One was telecommunications law, but I didn’t think the FCC was going to guide the growth of the Internet. Intellectual property was the other.”

Carroll quickly immersed himself in cyber law, an umbrella term for the myriad ways the law responds to the Internet.

“The law almost always has to follow the technology,” he said. “There have been times when the law has tried to anticipate technological development and regulate it in advance, and almost always the technology goes around that.

“The music industry in the early ’90s thought music was going to go digital, but they thought it was going to digital audio tape. So there’s this whole section of the copyright act all about people that manufacture digital audio tape machines. But the CD ended up becoming the digital format of choice, and when they developed the CD, nobody realized you’d be able to rip those files and trade them on the Internet. At least no one in the music industry. So generally the law has to play catch-up.”

That lightning quick pace makes cyber law a particularly attractive field for young law students, Carroll believes.

“You’re always a little breathless because there are so many cases to read and developments to follow,” he said. “Because it’s new, as a young lawyer, they’re going to have more opportunities to get more responsibility. If a new statute comes out, there’s not an older lawyer who has a lot of familiarity with it.”

Seeking to bring some order to the Wild West of information the Internet had become at the turn of the century, Carroll cofounded Creative Commons in 2001. The nonprofit creates online legal and technical tools that enable people to copyright their work for free.

“Good lawyers like to be problem solvers, and this was a problem that lots of people were having,” he said. “Copyright is automatic. You have to do something to change the deal. We wanted to make it quick and easy for you to let the world know, hey, I’m sharing this, but I want to keep a couple of rights.

“The copyright licenses that we created have six basic options. The most open is you can do anything you want with this, as long as you give me credit. The most restrictive is you can use this and make copies and share it, but only if you give me credit, you’re only doing it noncommercially, and you’re not changing it.”

Creative Commons’ copyrights have become ubiquitous on the Web. There are more than 200 million links to its license page, and in 2008 President Obama’s online campaign page used one of the organization’s copyrights.

“We’re now up to about [users from] 50 countries,” Carroll said. “There’s a whole network of people who see the value of open content. For me there were different moments of fulfillment. The first one was when the New York Times started telling people their content was under a Creative Commons license.”

The organization now is delving into the worlds of education and science, hoping to make it easier for people to share their research in a legal manner.

“I want these bodies of law to do their job properly,” Carroll said. “I think intellectual property law has a job to do in society, and it’s generally to promote the progress of science and useful arts. We’ve always known that progress requires a balance of interests.

“The speed of technological advance makes it hard, because even if we get the balance right, it’s yesterday’s balance.

“We’re in the middle of a big transformational period in our culture and our history, and we won’t even really know what it means until some later time. This is as powerful as the introduction of the printing press. It changes the way we communicate, it changes the way we think. It’s thrilling.”