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Big Ideas

Eric Steuer: Creative Commons

We talk with Creative Commons' Eric Steuer about his new "remixable music and art show" with LA's Dublab crew and how sharing really is caring.


Eric Steuer, the creative director of Creative Commons may rival a Kindergarten classroom when it comes to talking about sharing. But, lucky for us, he also reminds us why we were drilled on the concept so early on. Sharing isn’t infantile; it’s essential.  Steuer notes, “when work is created but then locked up in a silo so that no one else can do anything but look at it passively, it doesn’t reach its full potential.”

Founded on avoiding this silo-effect, Creative Commons is, in Steuer’s words, “a nonprofit organization that works to make it easier for authors, artists, scientists and educators to share work and collaborate.” Operating online, “Creative Commons provides free, easy-to use tools that give everyone from individual creators to major companies and institutions a simple, standardized way to make their creative work available to the public under the legal terms that they choose.”

A recent project called Into Infinity illustrates what Steuer’s work with Creative Commons is all about. Created in collaboration with an art nonprofit called Dublab, Into Infinity is a “remixable music and art show.” Visitors to the on-line exhibition site find a custom designed 12” circular canvas paired with an eight-second audio loop. Each time the page is refreshed, a new “eye and ear” combination is created. One minute, you may find the music of Dntel (a.k.a. Jimmy Tamborello of The Postal Service) accompanying an illustration by graffiti artist Kofie, and the next minute a Lucky Dragons piece paired with a whimsical drawing by Brooklyn artist Michi Louise Turner. With the exhibit itself a testament to the benefits of collaboration, it’s not surprising that the creators encourage the sharing and remixing of the project by publishing it under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license. It allows visitors to use the images or sounds of Into Infinity for their own works as long as they give proper attribution to the original artists and use the works for strictly non-commercial projects.

About projects like Into Infinity, Steuer says “it’s been really fulfilling to see over the last few years how creators can benefit by opening up the work that they do so that people can share it, use it, and rework it into new things – everything from general ideas to specific pieces of content. Everyone from musicians to educators and scientists are seeing the potential in taking a more permissive approach to how they will allow their creations to be used by others.  Artists are seeing that their work can be more widely distributed and that allowing people to use their work as a source material can result in really great new work that can also increase the value of the original work. Academics and scientists are seeing that by contributing their knowledge to the world’s collective pool of information that they are able to educate more efficiently and solve problems more quickly.”

I have a lot of ideas, and many of them are terrible. But I’m only able to realize what they’re worth after spending some time working the details out, pitching them to friends, collecting feedback, and doing some research into how other people may have treated similar ideas.

In fact, Steuer notes that Creative Commons even came about by way of borrowing from previous ideas. He says, “The organization itself was modeled after concepts that came out of the open source software world, where there needed to be a licensing infrastructure in place so that everyone contributing to programming projects in distributed ways knew that their work would be legally interoperable.”

With so much going on at Creative Commons – the organization has licensed over 130 million works including a Nine Inch Nails album – it seems like Steuer’s job as creative director would keep him booked. Not true. He writes for Wired magazine, participates in the hip-hop group Meanest Man Contest, and runs a record label, Sneakmove, with friends. Managing so many activities can’t be easy, but Steuer has learned a few things along the way that make it all do-able.

First, to avoid an overwhelming number of projects, some un-doable, he’s sure to treat his ideas with a sharply critical eye. He explains, “I have a lot of ideas, and many of them are terrible. But I’m only able to realize what they’re worth after spending some time working the details out, pitching them to friends, collecting feedback, and doing some research into how other people may have treated similar ideas. I get too excited about stuff sometimes and I’m impulsive enough where if I didn’t make sure to check myself a little and take some time to stand back assess what my ideas are really worth, then I’d probably end up going on a lot of wild goose chases.”

When it comes to ideas that actually make the cut, Steuer is sure to keep them well organized. “I keep a long, ongoing list of ideas and contacts and projects and tasks,” he says. “I don’t worry about trying to organize things at the front end. Instead, I just get everything out of my head and on paper and then refer to the list every few days, take stock of what’s there, and sort, and create action items. Usually, I find that a lot of the stuff on my to-do list has already been done in the normal course of progressing through the workweek. The rest of it is stuff that I can organize based on how important it seems after a few days of having not thought about it.”

Finally, for someone so appreciative of sharing, creative collaboration is essential to the manifestation and upkeep of ideas. “Encouraging everyone on a team to understand that they are creative and to tap into their creativity to collaboratively develop solutions,” is invaluable to Steuer. What’s more, his work with Creative Commons has taught him that creative people populate some pretty unexpected professions. He says, “I think most people are a lot more creative than they give themselves credit for. I work directly with technologists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, program leaders, fundraisers, and people who look for ways to organize communities around specific ideas. They’re all creative, but many of them don’t have job descriptions that specifically call this fact out.”

Considering Steuer’s body of advice has helped along the progress of so many projects–Creative Commons, a magazine, a record label, and a musical group–it’s not just sound, it’s share-able. Pass it on; we’re pretty sure he wouldn’t mind.

Comments (1)
  • MyoidenRamre

    Yeah, yeah – it’s hard to imagine cyber-life now without CC – great stuff.

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