Q&A: Creative Commons CEO Ryan Merkley on New CC Search Feature

With more than one billion photos, videos, music files, journal articles, and more, Creative Commons-licensed works form a treasure trove of material not only for creative professionals, but people from all fields. Navigating all those works can be a timesuck though and attributing the author and source of the work is often done incorrectly.
 
The Creative Commons organization hopes to change that. It recently launched CC Search, a tool that serves up CC-licensed works and clearly shows authorship, license, and other sourcing information. The new search engine offers a one-click attribution feature that makes it easy to correctly credit the author(s) of various works. It also has a neat list-making feature (more on that below).
 
Currently in beta, CC Search is focused on images for now. It pulls these images from various databases that have great content and application programming interfaces (APIs). Some sources of images include 500 Pixels, Flickr, the New York Public Library, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which recently released 375,000 images to be used for free. In the three weeks since launching CC Search, Creative Commons has already collected a lot of feedback about how to make the tool better and has changed the way search queries work based on the feedback it has received.
 
We spoke with Ryan Merkley, CEO of Creative Commons, about the importance of involving the global community in developing the tool. Here are highlights from our conversation:
 
Cat Johnson: Last time we talked, you were looking at ways to partner with sites that already have Creative Commons content and licensing options. Is the search a first step toward that vision?
 
Ryan Merkley: I would say so. When I talked about the new vision, I talked about creating a vibrant, usable commons powered by collaboration and gratitude. The first step of that is being able to find the things you want to use and to be able to use them properly and to be able to collaborate with others.
 
We set out to find a way to build a front door to the commons. In the developer notes, we go through in long detail the choices we had to make in trying to build something. The short version is that we wanted to build something people could use and respond to in order to figure out the right way to build this. One billion licensed works is a massive collection. It's multiple media types, it's located all over the web on nine million different websites. It's a huge data challenge. It's a huge UX challenge.
 
We wanted to start small and experiment before we went off and just built something. We had two options in wanting to build something small. Option one was to make one media type and try a number of different sources and learn how to put together different sources of data, combined from different databases and present images from all different sources and make them usable. The other option was to look at multiple media types: do a little bit of photos, some videos, some audio, some journal articles, etcetera, and figure out how to put those together in a way that's meaningful. We thought that was a much harder problem and we thought that the prototype we would build from those mixed-media types would be far less useful when the person was trying it out for the first time. So we chose the former and focused on photos for the first iteration.
 
Tell me about the list-making feature.
 
We really wanted to go beyond just discovery because there are other platforms that do discovery. I don't want to compete with Google and Bing and other search providers. What I wanted to do is provide a tool that, unlike those other tools, is focused on use and reuse. One of the ways I want to use content is, I don't want to pick the first thing I find. I want to look at 10 different options and then look at the short list — in photography, we call it lightboxing.
 
The idea of making a list is that I can collect the photo I like ... and I can go back to my list later. I can also share that list with somebody else. The initial idea was just making it easier for people to curate their sets of the things they want, but it turned into a bunch of other things, in part because of the Met. When you release 400,000 images, it's very hard to find your way through a collection that large. The Met had put together some collected sets of different types of works, some of them a bit funny, or the masters, the classics, or certain eras of art. We were able to use our list function to recreate those sets.
 
The Search tool is in beta and you released it as early as possible. Why is that important to Creative Commons and this particular product?
 
Creative Commons strives to be a radically open organization and we want our software development to follow that as well. We want to create something that people can grab onto and that is useful, but is also not so far done that it's too late to provide comments and feedback. We wanted to get out to our various communities and our partners and say, "What do you think and how can we do a better job?"
 
We think it's an opportunity, not just to build something useful, but also to start to shape the different ways in which we are presenting the data and presenting the tools. For example, in working with one of our museum partners, they said they'd really like to credit the work a certain way. One of the things we started talking about is [that they] could create a credit field in their datasets that is formatted exactly the way they want it and we’ll just use that field. That empowers every platform to follow whatever rule they want within those basic parameters. Our basic rule for attribution is title, license, link to license, link to original work, author's name. That's the basic and you can certainly go beyond that, if you want to.
 
Now that we're actually working with the partners on how we put that content out there, we're getting to have a different conversation about how the commons is used and how to make it more useful. That I find really exciting. I'm so glad we had that conversation early rather than design the entire service and then have people say they want us to change it. But if we already have 700 partners and 500 million works, it's too late. I'd much rather start early, learn those challenges, and then iterate.
 
How does the search tool fit into Creative Common's strategic plan to create a vibrant, usable Commons powered by collaboration and gratitude?
 
Providing search makes it easy for people to find what they want, but also facilitates use and reuse. A usable commons is one where you find what you're after and you're able to use it effectively. A collaborative commons with gratitude is one where, when you use the work, you're able to credit the author and you know how to find the source material. A vibrant commons is one where there's lots of great stuff. I think of this as a core component of our strategy going forward: building tools that make the commons more usable and delightful for people who are trying to be creative.
 
Anything you'd like to add?
 
We're looking for people to give us feedback. We're in active development on the project. And two big things for CC: One, we're hiring a developer of product engineering to lead CC Search so, if you're a talented developer and you want to come work with us, we are hiring for that role. It's a chance to shape the commons. It's a big opportunity, and we're very excited about it.
 
Secondly, our Creative Commons Global Summit is coming up in Toronto at the end of April. We've announced a couple of keynotes already: International copyright and intellectual property expert Ruth Okediji and journalist and lawyer Sarah Jeong, author of "The Internet of Garbage." It's going to be a great event. It's an important event for us because we get communities from all over the world together.
 
 
Shareable is a media sponsor of the upcoming Creative Commons Global Summit in Toronto, Canada. 
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