Wednesday, June 21, 2006

An Unexpected Alliance: Microsoft and Creative Commons

The past few weeks have featured a lot of bad news for the public domain, but the clouds parted yesterday when Microsoft and Creative Commons announced that Microsoft would release an Add-In that allows users of Office software to assign Creative Commons licenses to documents, spreadsheets, and slideshows. Copyright issues can be a major stumbling block for educators, who face extensive freedoms in the classroom use of copyrighted materials but are prohibited from redistributing or sharing many of the resulting educational productions. This new Add-In offers a major boost to share-alike, noncommercial copyright options that allow for broader noncommercial use of original content.

The word first reached me through TechCrunch [link]; poster Marshall Kirkpatrick also did an interesting interview with Creative Commons CTO Mike Linksvayer in his own blog, Netsquared, back in April. I agree with Kirkpatrick that this development is interestingly timed with Microsoft CEO Bill Gates' announcement of his plans to step down. At this stage, however, it's a bit premature to call it a new chapter for Microsoft.

I'm as surprised by the idea as anyone, but the nagging question remains: Why didn't anyone think of doing this as soon as Creative Commons came along? The most startling thing about this development is the realization that any programmer could have made this Add-In, but no one outside Redmond who speaks Microsoft's proprietary Visual Basic/.NET thought to do so. Add-Ins are often sold as proprietary software, so there certainly could be financial incentive, or it could have been developed and distributed freely, in the spirit of CC itself. Since Microsoft has no control over the use of viable Add-Ins designed to interact with Office applications, at any point in history prior to yesterday's announcement it would have seemed the perfect way to tweak the nose of a corporate giant, and could have made for great PR if timed with a particularly unflattering chess-move by Microsoft. Perhaps this partnership was born that way - someone came along to Microsoft and said, we can do this with or without you, and both parties recognized the strong incentives of working together on the project. But sometimes there's no point in looking a gift horse in the mouth - you're just begging somebody to file down their teeth.

(For help creating your own PowerPoint Add-In Toolbar, see my tutorial on Customizing PowerPoint Toolbars. While you're there you can download my free ToolbarCreator file, which contains the VBA script necessary to produce your own PowerPoint toolbar as well as step-by-step instructions in the form of a PowerPoint slide show.)

Three cheers to Microsoft for weighing in so dramatically for the viability and importance of CC licensing. The next step for the software giant is to shift the feature from an optional, downloadable Add-In - likely to reach only those already somewhat educated about the benefits of CC copyrights - to an out-of-the-box Office feature for the Office 2007 (2008?) rollout, a drop-down list in the file properties window, for example. (Call them at 1-800-MICROSOFT [642-7676] or click here for more ways to bug them to promise this.)

Then, if we could get copyright phreaks like Adobe to add technology to Photoshop and Illustrator that would allow users to tag images with Creative Commons licenses, enticing other software companies to follow suit, someone could write a copyright-scanning Add-In for Office that would alert you to "unverified" images before you publish and expose yourself to possible infringement. (Better not to make this a built-in feature for all of the pertinent Big Brother reasons!) As someone who works regularly in PowerPoint and creates materials for mass distribution, this would be particularly welcome.

For the time being, educators can protect themselves in their image-searches by using Yahoo's pioneering Creative Commons search or Google's Advanced Search, which now offers the option of filtering results based on licensing restrictions.

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