We are delighted to bring you another SAHA Conversation. Our guest this week is Catherine Stihler, CEO of Creative Commons.
Catherine Stihler OBE has been an international champion for openness as a legislator and practitioner for over 20 years.
Born in Scotland, Catherine was educated at the University of St Andrews, where she was awarded a Master of Arts (MA) with Honours in Geography and International Relations, and later a Master of Letters (MLitt) in International Security Studies. She also has a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree from the Open University. In October 2014, Catherine became the 52nd Rector of the University of St Andrews, and today serves as the Chair of the governing body, University Court. In 2018 she was awarded an honorary doctorate (DLitt) in recognition of her service to the university.
She stood for election as a Member of the European Parliament for Scotland in 1999, representing the Labour Party. At the European Parliament she became one of Scotland’s longest-serving and most respected legislators.
Catherine was elected Vice-Chair of the European Parliament’s Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee, founded the Campaign for Parliamentary Reform and the Parliament’s All-Party Library Group, and was instrumental in securing graphic health warnings on cigarette packets across the EU.
In 2019, Catherine was awarded an OBE by Her Majesty the Queen in recognition of her services to politics. That same year, she stood down from the European Parliament to become the Chief Executive Officer of the Open Knowledge Foundation. During her 18-month tenure at the Foundation, Catherine redefined its vision and mission to produce a new strategic direction, re-engaged its global chapters and increased the worldwide profile of the organisation.
In August 2020, Catherine was appointed Chief Executive Officer of Creative Commons, a non-profit organisation that helps overcome legal obstacles to the sharing of knowledge and creativity to address the world’s pressing challenges.
This SAHA Conversation covers several subjects, including reflections on Catherine’s career trajectory and her role as as Chair of the University of St Andrews’ Court. We also discuss the link between arts, humanities and digital technologies, open data, sharing knowledge and the creative commons.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
(Podcast cover profile photo: “Catherine Stihler” by Martin Shields (martinshields.com) licensed under CC BY 4.0)
[00:01:28] Cristina: Catherine, thank you very much for joining our SAHA Conversation today. To start our discussion today, I wanted to ask you: you have a distinguished record as a member of the European Parliament and now you are leading a nonprofit organization, Creative Commons. Can you tell us a little bit more about your career trajectory and how this has intersected with your studies?
[00:01:57] Catherine: So, where to begin? I was elected in 1999 as the youngest member of the European Parliament for the United Kingdom. And it was a bit of a surprise, frankly, to be elected when I was 25. But before that I worked in the House of Commons for the first wheelchair user member of the British Parliament Dame Anne Begg, and it was such a privilege and an honour to work in the House of Commons between 1997 and 1999. Before that I had studied at the University of St Andrews, my undergraduate was in geography and international relations. I had a sabbatical as president of the Students’ Association, where I represented the students of the University of St Andrews, I was their voice and also served on the university Court, which I now chair as the Senior Lay Member. And I was previously Rector of the University of St Andrews between 2014 and 2017. But what I thought was really interesting, Cristina, as an observation was, when I was at high school, Coltness High School in Wishaw, I kind of studied sciences. I did physics, I did chemistry, I did math and in fact, I could have gone to university to study chemistry. But my sister always says that I should have, I was advised really wrongly in the sciences, that that I was always a social scientist, always interested in humanities and the arts. And so it was no surprise that actually when it came to applying to university, that I ended up studying international relations and also the subject of geography, which is considered both a science and an art. And my dad was a geography teacher at Coltness High School, this school I attended the North Lanarkshire.
So it is interesting and curious when you think about your career path how, you know, where you study at school, you go to university. I didn’t start out at university thinking I was going to be a politician, far from it. I didn’t know what I was going to be, but I knew that I was an internationalist that I believed in internationalism. I was a committed European. So I guess it was not maybe a surprise as I got involved in Labour politics and represented the youth of the Labour party, both at a Scottish level and then I was fortunate to be elected to the National Executive Committee of the Labour party between 1995 to 1997 and served in that body as Labour was preparing to go into government and had a landslide in the 97 election.
If you fast forward on, you know, 20 years of serving in the European Parliament representing Scotland, what an honour, what a privilege. And it was during that time that I got involved in issues around openness, whether that was freedom of information, whether that was eBook access and public libraries across Scotland.
And eventually I got involved in copywriting, the copyright debates that went on between 2014 and 2019. And it was that experience of thinking about access to knowledge, thinking about the public domain, what is ours as the public, the public interest, the public good, that has eventually seen my career trajectory go from finishing in the European Parliament, going to run the Open Knowledge Foundation, which I founded … the open definition … and has been a world leader in open data to then running what is one of the most amazing organizations, which is Creative Commons, which is celebrating 20 years… 20 year anniversary. An organization that looked at failed copyright and came up with a some rights reserved copyright model, which is now a global standard of open licensing across the world. And so it’s such an honour and privilege to now run an organization with this global international reach, which is doing in a very practical … we call ourselves a public interest technology … doing something very practical to open knowledge and make it accessible to everyone everywhere across our world today. So a girl from Whishaw who was an internationalist now running a global not-for-profit, you know, there’s a story there, and I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved, but also what I’m going to do next.
[00:05:58] Cristina: Absolutely and that sounds amazing. And we’re going to touch on a few items that you’ve already raised now but just before we do that, I wanted to ask you a little bit more about your connection with the University of St Andrews, as you mentioned you serve now as a Senior Lay Member. And I guess in that position you have been able to observe a little bit the academic landscape of arts and humanities in Scotland. So I wanted to ask you what are your observations of the field?
[00:06:26] Catherine: So firstly, my connection to St Andrews, I was an undergraduate student there. I started my university degree in 1991 which is a long time ago, but I was fortunate not just to do my undergraduate, but to also do my MLitt and I was also exceedingly honoured to have received an honorary doctorate from the university for my services as Rector back in 2018 as well. And now being back on the governing body of the university and looking at… in some universities the position is called Senior Lay Member in others it’s Chair, but in this position, which has come about because of the 2016 Higher Education Governance Act you sit with the Chairs of all Scottish universities and we meet on a monthly basis. And maybe some observations about arts and humanities more generally, and also because I’m working in public interest technology and looking at tech as well…
Never has it been so important that we have a strong arts and humanities base. And I say this because some of the key issues that we’re grappling with in terms of society and in terms of the challenges that we face, whether it’s through climate change or whether it’s through the power of big technology, stems from… you’re an anthropologist Cristina we talked just before… having the ability to see the big picture. Thinking about ethics, particularly when it comes to technology, looking at the world in that aspect of curiosity and the ability to interweave different skillsets, different interests, but also with an academic rigor, I think means that arts and humanities has never been so important.
And I know there are challenges where government today, I saw yesterday that, and it looks very welcome an investment in sciences … I still believe that to have a rich cultural richness that we need to be able to navigate the challenges as I say of climate and technology, we need philosophers, we need anthropologists, we need historians to provide a historical context, we need international relations experts to be able to understand how we can navigate a global world where decisions or communications today are instantaneous and compared to when I started university in 1991, when we didn’t even have an email address. So I think that arts and humanities in Scotland, there’s a strong tradition, but they require support and investment and also thinking about that interdisciplinary ability that the different disciplines have to make a difference for the challenges we face as a society.
[00:09:17] Cristina: And to focus a little bit more on the challenges that you mentioned. Could you expand on that a little bit more? What key international debates do you think arts and humanities contribute to, or should rather contribute to more at the moment?
[00:09:32] Catherine: Well, if I think about the world that I’m in the moment, about public interest technology, the importance of public interest technology compared to proprietary systems, which, you know, make profit out of the way an algorithm will kind of make suggestions and the exploitation of people’s personal data.
I mean just consider some of the things around say an algorithm, you know, someone programs that algorithm to be able to navigate that particular system to make decisions. But when we’re thinking about how we would think about making that a more open and transparent system, you need people who are philosophers, you need people who are interested in ethics, you need a context and so you look at some of the challenges of the way that that technology is developed and you think about how other disciplines and their interventions could make a huge difference. It’s no coincidence, in fact, Gillian Tett’s book, which is AnthroVision, which was saying about, you know, you need anthropologists be involved in all different facets of our society to be able to have a bigger picture. What her point in her book … which she mentioned one technology company that had anthropologists involved who are able to then help and navigate the system to make it better and more understandable. And I just use these as two kind of … one about regulating technology the other about how colleges can play a part.
But I say this in all seriousness, that there is now more important than ever as we look at equity, as we look at ethics, as we look at our society and we look at how decisions are made, particularly around how we make more transparent decisions within the technology sphere. And that’s where I think certain aspects of arts and humanities can play a really critical role in improving transparency and improving technology. So that we can have actually more public interest technology there which serves the public good and serves humanity as a whole
[00:11:46] Cristina: That’s lovely, actually we had another interview with a senior financier from Scotland and he studied philosophy and he shared how actually studying philosophy just helped him be a better banker just because it reframed his way of thinking to such an extent that he was actually better at understanding people.
[00:12:12] Catherine: Yeah, and do you know, I think that’s a really important point because in all organizations, whether it’s a university, whether it’s an investment bank, whether it’s … all organizations are about people, people are the most important to assets; and understanding behaviours, understanding how somebody described to me recently, how we are all wonderfully different and being able to therefore harness that difference in an organization, in a system, is so important so that organization and that system, if it needs to adapt with the changing external environment that we all exist within, it can do so very efficiently and effectively and bring people on board. But if you don’t understand your system, if you don’t understand human behaviour, what a challenge that will be in these changing times that we exist within. So I think that’s such an important observation from your previous interviewee.
[00:13:10] Cristina: Yes, absolutely. Just before we move on to discuss a little bit more about your work with Creative Commons, I wanted to ask: what advice would you give students who are considering joining arts and humanities degrees now, but also what advice would you give those that have just finished and they’re looking ahead to starting their careers?
[00:13:33] Catherine: So as someone who did an arts and humanities …. went down an arts and humanities path, I think that what arts and humanities allows you to do, and it depends on the subject that you choose, but regardless of whether it’s a subject you choose going into study, going into be able to look and navigate… If we look at arts and humanities and we think about the various rich subjects that, you know, that make up those areas, you really have the opportunity to explore in ways and get into that depth of exploration, getting into that detail, using your curiosity. And as many people say, it’s that curiosity and having curiosity which will stand you in good stead in terms of the world today, because many of the jobs that people who are maybe starting at university today … the jobs which are around today which when I started at university we never thought about some of those roles, in terms of, you know, you get data protection officers, trust and safety, all of those different things. And having the ability to be curious, to think out the box, but understand the detail and I guess to see a difference in the world that you’re existing within today. Having that flexibility to be able to navigate, being able to see the challenges and I guess, you know, being able to see that bigger, bigger picture. We were using an analogy yesterday at a team meeting but I think it’s quite relevant for this, is that you’d be able to stand on the balcony and look down the dance floor, but not forget to be in the dance floor as well, to be able to understand the challenges whether it’s the organization or you face individually.
So I do think that I’d encourage those who are thinking about an arts and humanities degree to really go for it and to embrace it. And the lovely thing about a Scottish undergraduate degree is that in your first year you choose three subjects, you drop one and then pick up another new second year and then you get into the depths of the weeds in your third and fourth year. And that wonderful ability to be able to do that deep dive in your third and fourth year but have that flexibility in your first and second years, I think is a really wonderfully, a wonderful part of the Scottish education system. For those who’ve just graduated. I think having an arts and humanities degree gives you an element of flexibility. The world is your oyster. You make of it what you can. And also I do believe we live and exist in a global world and having a global outlook and having a global perspective is so important, particularly as the challenges we face today, whether it’s climate change, inequality, the challenges around technology and how we ensure it is there for the public good, the public interest. I think having an arts and humanities degree prepares you very well for the challenges that we face as a society, as a whole.
[00:16:41] Cristina: Thank you. Just to go back to discuss a little bit more about your role at Creative Commons. Of course, Creative Commons is familiar to most of us today and the organization, as I understand it, advocates for sharing knowledge and culture, and I guess that’s consistent with the academic world also as we’ve noticed quite a lot of discussion at the minute about open access and also about, as you mentioned earlier, inequality, the inequalities in accessing resources, academic resources across the world. But I wanted to ask you: what are your key reflections since you have joined the Creative Commons?
[00:17:27] Catherine: So, Creative Commons we are celebrating our 20th anniversary this year. And so it as a moment of reflection about what we’ve achieved in the past and what we’re going to do in the future. So it’s interesting, you mentioned that the academic backdrop and how, Creative Commons, and maybe I should see something about you know, Creative Commons, the birth of Creative Commons, because it did come out of… it was Larry, Larry Lessig at Harvard University who saw that, you know, the failed sharing model, failed copyright was not allowing for legal sharing and came up with this wonderful idea of a set of licenses, which was a new model. It was completely different from all rights reserved copyright, it was some rights reserved copyright and then the power was with the individual to decide what level they wanted to share. And so an idea that came out, you know, there was Hall Abelson at MIT, Larry Lessig, Jimmy Boyle, these amazing individuals and their ideas. They came with a practical solution to a pressing problem.
And little did they think that 20 years on and Creative Commons licenses would have freed up 2 billion pieces of content across the world. And what started as an issue in North, well the United States of America in terms of copyright challenges there, there’s copyright challenges across the globe. So not only did this organization, was able to tap into something that was happening and creating a solution to a pressing problem, it also created a global community around this issue where we now have over 40 chapters, a global network and at a recent global summit we had 91 countries represented. And so again this kind of global nature of access to knowledge and the ability to share knowledge and culture for everyone everywhere it’s just as relevant today as it was back in… I’d say probably it’s even more relevant today than when we started in 2001. And so just, I mean, when you think about how Creative Commons removes the legal and technical obstacles to sharing knowledge, which helps society overcome its pressing challenges. We’ve been at the forefront of the digital commons for 20 years, partnering with activists and advocates, institutions, government. And our key theme, which came out of our strategy, which was approved at the end of last year, our key theme of better sharing and advocating for open access to knowledge and culture, as I say is just so relevant in the world that we’re existing with today. And you’ve touched upon open access and the importance of open access and open access as a concept is one which is now becoming more mainstream, is one we are seeing the fruits of our labour with this but there is still so much more to do because we know particularly with the current scientific journal publishing models… and this is taking me from arts and humanities just for a moment, but I know it’s relevant to the humanities as well, the cost of open-access is falling on higher education institutions whilst publishers are often reporting record profits. And how can we be in a situation where research, which is a public good, and where we need our research to be open and sharable, why is the cost falling on institutions? And so we have to find different ways, particularly institutions where after the pandemic and the challenges across higher education funding in Scotland… there are real challenges there which we have to address. Opening research is the right thing to do because that research is a public good and we saw the importance of that when we look at the pandemic and the opening up of vaccine research how we were able together to be able to discover that new vaccine in the quickest time ever recorded for vaccine development and, you know, that was a pressing problem and we were able to work together. Now there are challenges over how that IP with shared, particularly in the Global South. And this takes me to the Global South aspect of some of this, because you know, we are thinking about the climate issue just now and Creative Commons is working with a number of organizations just now to really intentionally think about how we can coordinate a better effort to think about open access to scientific research and climate change or biodiversity. And to date there’s not been a really coordinated global way effort to address that challenge of open access to scientific research on climate change or biodiversity. You know, if we don’t share our research, we don’t share our climate research and our climate data, how are we truly going to address this pressing problem that we’re … as we move to COP 26 and the discussions around that.
And so I’m really proud that Creative Commons is working with the Open Society Foundation, SPARC and EIFL to think about these issues and to mount a global campaign to promote open access to climate and biodiversity research. And that will be announced very shortly. So, you know, there’s lots of challenges that we face, but one of the key things that I think Creative Commons really achieves is that it actually has a method where through our licenses, we actually are able not just to talk the talk, but walk the walk about opening research and opening knowledge and opening culture. And maybe I should say, Cristina, that we have just launched our Open GLAM program – that is galleries, libraries, archives, and museums – where we see the importance of opening up those various institutions and how we do that and I’m so proud that we’ve got a dedicated what we have a dedicated GLAM program at Creative Commons to do just that. And that might be of interest to those who are listening from the arts and humanities viewpoint.
[00:24:00] Cristina: Thank you. It’s very interesting to see and actually that connects to my last question. I was listening as I was preparing for this podcast to a podcast that was produced by Creative Commons and in that interview you mentioned Andrew Carnegie and his famous quote ‘let there be light’. And I kind of interpreted that as a metaphor for knowledge and it fits very well with the Creative Commons’ mission I think. So I wanted to ask you, what do you think needs to change or to improve in the way we deal with intellectual property? You’ve already discussed kind of heritage, but I wanted to ask you more generally about arts and humanities works, that opening them up in some way or another maybe could help us build a better future for everyone?
[00:25:08] Catherine: I definitely think so. So if I start with Andrew Carnegie, I live in Dunfermline, which is the ancient capital of Scotland and also the birthplace of Andrew Carnegie. And at the weekend just passed I had friends … it’s very rare at the moment that you get to, you know, when you see people you haven’t seen for years, you know, is a lovely thing. And one of my very good friends was up, it was a friend, actually, who is a former rector and assessor at the University of St Andrews and who was visiting for a very short time, but it was lovely. So we went to the Andrew Carnegie birthplace museum, and it’s just such a fascinating story about a boy who, you know… There was a technological change in time, the hand looms were being replaced and factories were being developed and his family were caught in that technological change. But it was his mother who basically outlined to the family that her twin sisters were in Pittsburgh, that if they wanted a future they needed to sell up and move to the States. And so his mother, and it was actually a family friend to lend them some money because once they sold everything they still didn’t have enough for the passage over to New York. And so it was a family friend, I think they were a baker, gave them the extra bit of the money and the set sail from, you know, from Dunfermline to the Forth and Clyde Canal to Glasgow, then on a boat to New York. And he was 12 years old. But the thing that’s fascinating about him, he discovered that he had a propensity for Morse code. And so he was able as a Telegraph boy… and he became so proficient at this at such a young age. And again, it’s technological changing times. And so, you know, I wonder what he would be today. Would he be a computer coder today? Would he be a data expert today, what would have Carnegie been in terms of that technological change that he would have embraced at that particular moment? But anyway, it was just his skillset was needed. But the thing that was fascinating to me was that his first investment was his mother mortgaging their family home. Again, it’s interesting, the mom’s relationship here, and they invested in American Express. And it was that first investment that allowed him to then build on his clear talent and skills in terms of that new technology of telegraphy and things. But it was also the fact that, you know, as a canny investor, he saw the potential in steel and he invested. And yeah. Anyway, I could talk a long time about this, but I’m fascinated by his mother’s role and her foresight in what she did to get the family out of a situation, to America and being helpful and supportive. And she was supportive all her life to her son. And it’s just, it’s a fascinating story, but Carnegie was also Rector of the University of St Andrews and in the Carnegie museum in Dunfermline there is… his robe is there and a portrait of him in his robe, which is really wonderful to see. But ‘let there be light’. He saw not just the light of knowledge. And remember when he was a Telegraph boy, it was being able to access a local library that allowed him to develop his own thinking and learning.
And so he was committed to knowledge, committed to knowledge sharing, committed to learning, and therefore his passion for libraries, which we still live with today. And his legacy still lives with us today. It’s just quite incredible, but also just, you know, it’s a moment of, again, reflection about the importance of libraries, not just libraries as that light of knowledge, ‘let there be light’. But also the importance of libraries as vital public places and spaces. Libraries today are some of the few public spaces that we all have equal access to. And during lockdown, we saw how hard it was for people that didn’t have internet access. They had no access to the internet because they couldn’t use the local library. So, you know, libraries today are moving with the times and are changing and this real important symbol of ‘let there be light’, light of a public space it’s just still as relevant today as it was when Carnegie had that viewpoint both of knowledge and public spaces.
But you asked me about IP as well, sorry Cristina I could talk about Andrew Carnegie… I just find the Carnegie story just so inspiring. But in terms of where I see intellectual property today, there’s still far more we need to do in terms of sharing and knowledge sharing. And there’s still too many barriers today to that, particularly in the Global South. And if, you know, if we are going to create a more equitable world, we need to address those failures in IP, where sharing, particularly where it’s about the public interest and the public good, are prevented because of private profit and a very different type of interest.
And I believe that, you know, Creative Commons in the creation of the six licenses and the two public domain tools, which are still … It’s our role at Creative Commons to be the stewards of those licenses and public domain tools because it’s those licenses and public domain tools which free up knowledge and culture across our world. And so that’s why we’ve been leaders in open education resources. That’s why we’ve been leaders in trying to open galleries, libraries, archives, and museums. And those that had the digital skills, had the digital investment, were able during lockdown to do some really interesting and innovative things with collections. And so were not just … were not closed in the way that, you know, remained open virtually when they were closed physically. But too many organizations don’t have the investment, are maybe nervous around what you can do legally. How do you apply these tools? So, you know, some of the things that we are trying to do at Creative Commons, particularly around the training of our licenses, we have webinars, bootcamps and we’ve got this Creative Commons Certificate, that program, which helps train educators, librarians, and now we’re developing one for journalists. It’s really an exciting moment to help individuals be able to use our tools, to be able to free up even more knowledge and culture for everyone and everywhere. Creative Commons is all about how we can share better. And at a time where we’re looking at big tech and how sharing is not really sharing, it’s maybe they’re using the word sharing, but it’s not sharing for public good, it’s sharing for private profit. Then we know that there are different ways that we can share, different ways that we can do things better. And I think better sharing really is something we are all keen to do and have the tools to be able to do that. And so Creative Commons I believe is part of that conversation about how we can better share and how we can share more things effectively, equitably, ethically across the world today so that knowledge and culture can be shared with everyone everywhere.
[00:32:36] Cristina: That’s lovely, and actually kind of finishing on a positive note rather than a negative one. Thank you so much for joining our discussion today, it’s been a pleasure to have you over for our SAHA Conversation.
[00:32:54] Catherine: Thank you so much, Cristina. Thank you.