Rethinking Creative Commons

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I remem­ber see­ing this art­icle on the Stoa sug­gest­ing that –NC was a bad thing for Creative Commons and stifled the use of pho­tos. I remem­ber think­ing to have a look, but never got round to it. Now I’ve sat down and read through the whole thing.

I’ll be hon­est I don’t under­stand Creative Commons. I real­ise it’s a way of licen­cing mater­ial without los­ing all rights to it, but when I’m given an array of mod­i­fi­ers, –BY, –SA, –ND and so on I just went for what I thought was the safest option. It’s always easier to turn a no into a yes than the other way round. My pho­tos, where pos­sible, have been licenced as BY/NC/SA. All the licences have the attri­bu­tion clause, so BY is a no-brainer.

SA is share-alike. I could have chosen ND, no deriv­at­ives, but that seemed need­lessly restrict­ive. I could forsee that people might want to re-use the pho­tos by adding labels or high­light­ing fea­tures. I also chose NC for non-Commercial. The reason for this was that I didn’t want someone to lift my work and sell it for profit. It’s not likely, but it’s the principle.

Erik Möller has four points why this NC clause is a bad idea.

  • They make your work incom­pat­ible with a grow­ing body of free con­tent, even if you do want to allow deriv­at­ive works or combinations.
  • They may rule out other basic uses which you want to allow.
  • They sup­port cur­rent, near-infinite copy­right terms.
  • They are unlikely to increase the poten­tial profit from your work, and a share-alike license serves the goal to pro­tect your work from exploit­a­tion equally well.

Not all of these objec­tions move me.

They make your work incom­pat­ible with a grow­ing body of free con­tent, even if you do want to allow deriv­at­ive works or com­bin­a­tions.
That’s a shame, but I can live with that. I’ve often no burn­ing desire to see my work widely dis­sem­in­ated. For instance if some­body else’s photo of Olympia is used instead of mine, then it’s no great loss. A lot of aca­dem­ics might well want to keep con­trol over where their work appears. For instance one friend had her work lif­ted and repro­duced on the web with the wrong illus­tra­tions. The goals free of cost and free­dom of use are two dif­fer­ent things. If you con­sider your work a piece of art then you can be under­stand­ably pro­tect­ive of it.

They sup­port cur­rent, near-infinite copy­right terms.
Again this is a ques­tion of whether or not you feel this is a prob­lem. Most people are con­sumers rather than pro­du­cers. If your work relies on the sale of copy­righted mater­ial, freel­ance journ­al­ism springs to mind, then copy­right might be essen­tial. I did think that near-infinite was hyper­bolae, but every time that damn mouse is about to be released into the wild copy­right gets exten­ded. There’s some­thing that offends about a copy­right law that gets mod­i­fied to bene­fit copy­right own­ers rather than the artists whose work keeps get­ting with­held from the pub­lic domain. Surely Arthur Conan Doyle doesn’t need more roy­al­ties? Yet if I were a bene­factor I might well say that the copy­right should be an inher­it­ance like phys­ical prop­erty is.

They may rule out other basic uses which you want to allow.
This is the argu­ment that ulti­mately per­suaded me there was a prob­lem with –NC. Why release some­thing under a CC licence rather than copy­right? I’m happy for people to reuse my pho­tos. I don’t even really object to someone mak­ing a profit with their help – if they’re pro­du­cing some­thing that’s value-added. For instance if someone were to pro­duce a CD-ROM guide to Sicily I’ve no objec­tion to them using my pho­tos as illus­tra­tions. I’m not los­ing out by their use and they’re pro­du­cing some­thing use­ful. I’ve been con­tac­ted by magazines and a Polish travel agency about the use of pho­tos. They’re all com­mer­cial, but I’ve made them pho­tos avail­able at no charge because they weren’t exploit­at­ive uses, which brings me to the final point.

They are unlikely to increase the poten­tial profit from your work, and a share-alike license serves the goal to pro­tect your work from exploit­a­tion equally well.
The only thing that would really bother me would be some­thing like if someone trawled the web and made a simple stock photo site who made a profit from reselling mine and other people’s pho­tos. Möller has an answer:

The moment you choose any Creative Commons license, you choose to give away your work. Any mar­ket built around con­tent which is avail­able for free must either rely on good­will or ignorance.

The poten­tial to bene­fit fin­an­cially from mere dis­tri­bu­tion is there­fore quite small. Where it exists due to a pre­dom­in­ance of old media, it is likely to dis­ap­pear rap­idly. The people who are likely to be hurt by an –NC license are not large cor­por­a­tions, but small pub­lic­a­tions like web­logs, advertising-funded radio sta­tions, or local newspapers.

Once again I have to ask why am I releas­ing some­thing as CC? If I want to make a profit from some­thing then I can leave under ©opy­right. CC is a way to release mater­ial for pub­lic use without being exploited or uncred­ited. I could get miffed if someone sold some­thing that was purely my work re-hashed, but as Möller notes –SA does pro­tect against that. Even if you lift a photo to use at CaféPress under –SA I can ask for the edited ver­sion of the photo and then open my own store. I’m not even against com­mer­cial use if I’m asked. So long as there’s a credit I’m usu­ally happy to do so.

I think CC isn’t simply a lite ver­sion of copy­right. It involves think­ing about the use of mater­ial in a dif­fer­ent way to copy­right. I’m not rul­ing out hold copy­right on some mater­ial I pro­duce. I’m in favour for lifelong copy­right for cre­at­ors for artistic reas­ons rather than com­mer­cial reas­ons. I can even see that a lim­ited post-mortem right has sound com­mer­cial reas­ons, though I balk at the neces­sity for sev­enty years. I don’t think you have to choose to be in one camp or another, there’s much to be said for pick­ing and choos­ing what rights go with what out­put. In the case of the pho­tos I put up on Flickr, they’re there because I find them use­ful. If someone else can use them, so much the better.

The pho­tos I can licence will be moved to a BY-SA licence, as and when I get round to it. I think I’ve done the UK and Sicily albums. The thought of chan­ging over the 100+ Hadrian’s Wall pho­tos gives me a pain, so they may take longer.