August 27, 2007

Discontent with LiveContent

Author: Bruce Byfield

Perhaps Creative Commons' LiveContent 1.0 CD would work better if more clearly defined. Its Web page enthuses that the project is "an umbrella idea which aims to connect and expand Creative Commons and open source communities," adding that it "works to identify creators and content providers working to share their creations more easily" and "works to support developers and others who build build better technology to distribute these works." In other words, LiveContent is a sampler of free content and free software, but this purpose seems lost in a cloud of rhetoric, even to project members. The CD suffers from lackluster presentation, a mediocre assortment of samplers, and a lack of explanation.

Russell Ossendryver of, the sponsor of last year's template contest, helped Creative Commons put together the LiveContent CD to distribute to American libraries. "We believed that it would be a good opportunity to get libraries to install free and open source software, as well as an opportunity to promote our labels to libraries which happen to be large users," Ossendryver says, adding that free software is already in use in some libraries, partly thanks the open-source-inspired open access movement in academia. Unfortunately, in the first release, relatively little of Ossendryver's intent is evident; he hopes that the next version will be tailored more specifically to libraries.

The CD is a modified version of the Fedora 7 live CD. Bypassing the login screen, it boots directly to a customized GNOME desktop, with a Firefox browser opened to a welcome page -- and that is where the trouble with the presentation begins. Instead of beginning with a concrete explanation of the CD or explaining what Creative Commons and free software are, the welcome page begins by repeating the vague rhetoric of the project wiki. It does not even encourage users to make free use of the material on the CD. If I were someone who had never heard of either Creative Commons or free software, I wouldn't know what to think.

Nor, unfortunately, does the LiveContent customization do much to inspire industry. The default Fedora 7 wallpaper, with its air-brushed armada of balloons ascending to the moon above clouds and mountains, may not be to everybody's taste, but at least it is unquestionably professional. However, LiveContent has replaced it with a lifeless gray-green design of its own with the unhelpful slogan "share, remix, reuse" and the Creative Commons URL. This design depresses even further with a selection of equally somber gray and white icons with noticeably ragged edges that contribute an air of amateurishness to the entire desktop.

The one strength of the desktop is the stripped-down menu that includes slightly more than a dozen icons: Few enough to neither overwhelm newcomers with choice nor keep them from finding flagship free software applications such as the GIMP, Inkscape, and

I question keeping the Install to Hard Drive item in the menu. For one thing, the welcome page fails to give enough warning that it could destroy users' existing operating system if they are not careful. For another, much of even the basic GNOME desktop, such as Evolution, seem to have been stripped from the CD. To install a useful operating system, a new user would need to be aware of which applications are missing -- and, of course, that is exactly the knowledge that they would lack. Instead of being impressed, new users would more likely be frustrated.

As for the free content, it is even sparser than the free software. While the desktop icons are neatly divided into Audio, Video, Image, Text, and Education, the content of the folders is either a collection of URLs (and we all know how exciting lists can be), random (the images, for example, include a concert, a vending machine, a closeup of a sushi plate, and a child holding a fish), or slight (the six-word stories of the VeryShortStories.pdf). If such things are the best that Creative Commons can offer -- and they're not -- then newcomers might very well wonder what the fuss is about.

Just as important as what is there is what is not. The only explanation of Creative Commons is at the bottom of the welcome page, where it can be easily missed, and even that does not explain what the licenses are, why you would want to use them, or how. Some tutorials on these subjects would be welcome. Of course, on second thought, considering the explanations that are given, perhaps it's just as well that users are spared the efforts to provide more detail. But the lack of explanation does little to reflect the creativity and excitement that are the Creative Commons at its best.

The most frustrating thing about the LiveContent disc is how easily a richer selection could be provided.'s free OpenDocument templates are a practical start, but what about a link to or samples from the Open Clip Art Library or the Open Font Library, two of Creative Commons' most useful projects? Or how about more of the countless OpenDocument templates that are available all over the Web, perhaps with a button for installing them directly into an or KOffice installation on the hard drive?

Reasons for the mediocrity of LiveContent are not hard to invent. It's only a first release, after all, and perhaps it was rushed to be ready for the LinuxWorld Expo where it was released. Also, the operating system reduces the space on the CD. But, whatever the reason, the result is disappointing. An appealing and useful introduction to free content and software would be a welcome evangelizing tool, but, in its present form, LiveContent is not what is needed. Perhaps if, as Ossendryver hopes, the next release targets librarians, the project will find the direction it currently lacks and provide a sampler that does more justice to the communities that it is trying to represent.


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