on creative commons licensing

Long ago, I made a decision to publish everything that I do under a simple Creative Commons Attribution license (CC:By). With all of the licenses available, and all of the clauses listed as part of Creative Commons, why did I choose not to invoke them?

I don’t publish things online for fame, nor fortune. I started doing this primarily as an outboard, searchable brain. Over time, the network effects kicked in, and I’ve kept doing it for the additional reasons of sharing thoughts, experiences, and information with the rest of the class. The conversations that take place across the various bits of the social web have become far more important to me than simply publishing content. In order to honour the spirit of the network, attribution for use of content is required – a simple hyperlink – which then teaches Google, Technorati, and the rest of The Machine about the semantic connection between pages (and people).

Why not invoke the Non Commercial clause, as many do? Technically, someone could just collect every blog post I’ve written, and every photo I’ve published to Flickr, and print a book for sale at every bookstore on the planet, without sending me a penny. Yeah. Someone’s going to do that. Hey, if there’s a market for it, go for it. As long as the Attribution clause is honoured, so the millions of people who buy that book know where the stuff came from. Maybe I’ll be able to do the book-signing-circuit and see the world.

The printing-everything-for-profit example is a bit extreme, and silly, but there is a real chance that someone might use a chunk of content, or a photo or two, in a commercial work. Without paying me a single penny. And I’m completely fine with that – as long as Attribution is honoured – because if nothing else, that means that someone is getting some value out of something I’ve done. There’s no harm in including it in a commercial work, and perhaps more importantly, there’s no reason for me to discriminate against projects that have commercial interests. Open content is open content, no matter who uses it, no matter how they use it.

Why not the Share Alike clause? Personally, I feel that’s a bit onerous – saying “I’ll share with you, as long as you adopt the exact philosophy toward sharing content that I do. Otherwise, forget it.” I think it’s a bit conceited to require anyone to adopt a particular license in order to use/reuse/remix/mashup my content.

Why not just release the content into the Public Domain? Well, as I understand it (thanks to clarification by David Wiley and friends), there are legal measures that prevent that. It’s not feasible to cleanly “release” content into the Public Domain – once you publish it, copyright is automatically yours, and various jurisdictions interpret that differently. Given that, the next best thing is the Creative Commons Attribution license – it maintains copyright, with very little friction.

What’s the result of adopting CC:By as my license? For my blog, I think it’s had no real effect. Most of the bits that get reused would have been covered under Fair Use, even if I had adopted a strict license. So, CC:By just makes it clear that I’m cool with people doing whatever they want with my blog posts.

The largest impact of CC:By has been on my photographs that have been published to Flickr. Everyone is free to download the original, full resolution versions of each image. And they’re free to use it for any purpose. That sounds pretty risky. Someone might just grab a bunch of photos and use them in a book, or a game, or a magazine! Yeah. That’s what people have done. So far, I’ve had dozens of photographs republished in dozens of websites, in one board game, in 2 magazines (one as the front cover). And one organization even insisted on paying me for a commercial license (which we arranged separately from the CC:By license so they didn’t have to provide attribution, and only after I repeatedly told them they could use the image for free as long as they provided a link).

Honestly, I’ve stopped keeping track of websites that use my photos – I used to keep a list, but that got too difficult to maintain. I periodically check Technorati and Google for links, and am surprised every now and then by a new website, article, blog post, whatever, using one of my photos. And that makes me smile.

So, while I can’t go to the local CostCo™ and pick up a copy of The Unabridged Works of D’Arcy Norman (handy for those bouts of insomnia), I know that there are people who are getting value out of something that I have created. I’m a firm believer in karma, and what better way generate more of the good stuff?

Which brings me back to the question “why share the content, if it’s not going to pay the bills?” I already have a job, and it pays the bills. To me, the value of contributing to the network far outweighs the cost of locking my content down. Adding any friction to the process of using content will mean one of two things will happen:

  1. the content will be avoided, and something else will be used instead
  2. the content will be used anyway, and the license will be ignored

Either way, the network loses. It costs me absolutely nothing to share my content. I’m already publishing blog posts and photographs primarily for documentation, and secondarily for feedback. Use and reuse are “free” from my perspective. I don’t have to do anything extra to let people use my stuff if they want. But, I’d have to work hard to lock it down.

Update: I almost forgot about some of the places where my photos have wound up as a result of CC:By. One was used in a kid’s book on patterns and shapes. Several have been used in travel guides (for Calgary, Banff, San Francisco, Honolulu, Vancouver, and a couple other places I’m forgetting off the top of my head).

The one reuse of my photos that I wasn’t comfortable with, but still allowed because of the license, was a straight reuse of the banner images I use for my blog. For some reason, that really struck me as an odd thing to do – the banner images all have a personal meaning for me, and seeing them stripped of that meaning and displayed just because they are purty pictures just felt wrong. C’est la vie, as they say in Sweden.

16 thoughts on “on creative commons licensing”

  1. I’ve heard Leigh Blackall talk about copyright and specifically address how “By-No$-ShareAlike” (cc) can be problematic; how a simple “By” (cc) is a better option. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then but still don’t fully understand his perspective. I don’t know if his perspective is the same as yours (you both advocate for “By” (cc)), but this post was the most articulate and clear argument for using a “By” (cc) license I’ve read. Thanks D’Arcy. I’m rethinking my licensing … again. ;-)

  2. Not using the NC license makes perfect sense for you — I think because (1) you’re “a firm beliver in karma”; and (2) you “already have a job.” Regarding #2, for those people whose jobs are directly related (especially monetarily) to their production of content (e.g., for-profit publishing), the decision might be much more complicated. Regarding #1 (karma), I’d say it helps that, again, your job isn’t tied to your content production. (And I’m sure that someone else can talk much more pointedly to the dynamic between money and karma.) Regardless, I suspect that the people who truly need to consider the monetary implications of the NC license are a small minority.

  3. @Darren: thanks. hopefully I wasn’t too rambling this time :-)

    @dtdiggs: I think for a commercial entity, invoking CC:BY-NC makes a lot of sense – a publisher could let people reuse bits as needed, as long as they weren’t trying to grab the commercial market. Perhaps, even, a case could be made for invoking the “No derivatives” clause in that case as well, although I’d personally argue against it. (Cory Doctorow’s books are all released under CC:By-NC-ND, as are the NMC Horizon Reports).

    Even if my day job wasn’t paying the bills, I believe that I’d still be publishing under CC:By. If nothing else, it would help build and maintain a personal reputation, which might be more lucrative (jobs, contracts, projects, etc… coming out of contacts made via that reputation) than content licensing deals. Haven’t tested that theory personally, though.

  4. Gotta ask: why would you personally argue against the by-nc-nd license for publishers? That’s also the license used for EDUCAUSE staff who write for EDUCAUSE REVIEW. BTW, we let non-EDUCAUSE-staff authors choose whichever cc license (if any) they want to use to cover their text.

  5. @dtdiggs: it’s the No Derivatives portion that I’d argue against there. Not allowing people to create derivative works breaks reuse, mashup, repurposing, translating, adapting, rewriting for language levels, etc… With the ND clause, the license basically just grants the right to reproduce the work lock stock and barrel with no edits. That might be valuable for some things, but I think is a bit against the spirit of openness that makes so many cool things possible. With that said, many of the coolest mashups I’ve seen have completely disregarded licenses anyway…

  6. Very well explained, Dr. Norman. A strongly stated sentiment about the value of “giving it away”.

    I pretty much have given away anything I created on these weird typewriter things going back to 1986. And I have gotten much more back in return.

    This year, I did get a $25 check for use of one photo, an all time high.

    I too am a “BY” guy, I think after reading an explanation of it by Beth Kanter, for pretty much the same reasons you cite. The number of documented times some big, nefarious entity was come down and swiped some obscure bloggers stuff and made a mint off of it must be… well, infinitesimally small. It’s a fear based on projections (IMHO).

    But hey, you d have alot of coo pictures, so maybe I should get rich off of them….

    The ND clause on print stuff is a bit greyer, as we do use it in fact for the NMC Horizon Report. It does not preclude quoting and restating the content. Isn’t the history of writing all about making derivatives? I need to mull on that a bit longer.

  7. Hey, now. That’s MR. Norman! I’ve been stalled on the MSc for almost a decade now, never mind the PhD ;-)

    If you do work up a book of my photos, I’d love a copy!

    And I think you’re right that the ND clause still allows quoting. I’m not sure about restating or reworking it, though. I’d want to consult a lawyer before making a decision on that one. Is it possible to specify the level of granularity of the ND clause? Does it apply to the entire work as a whole, or can it apply to individual chapters or sections? Grey areas…

  8. D”Arcy- or should it be “Sensi”- We’ve never met, but, since I stumbled upon your blog a couple of years ago- I’ve felt smarter- and inspired to do “more good.” I believe in Karma more than dogma- and that living the golden rule is the easiest way to survive this thing we call life. I’ve never really given much thought to the CC license- but this post made me want to reexamine it. It’s for that very reason, that every time your feed says there is something new here- I can’t wait to read it. I am really grateful for your sharing of your thoughts- and ideas- and wish you a thousand fall return on your generosity. I keep coming back to something Nicholas Negroponte said in “Being Digital”- way back in, like 1996- “bits not atoms”- the whole point of turning your photos or ideas into a book seems almost so stone age. I’m currently working on a book with an idol of mine (again, thanks to the beauty of the power of this form of communication) and although I want her book to kick ass- and make her a lot of money (because, it is her job) I’d almost rather see it released online- with this post as the preference- and be able to count on people to pay what they think it’s worth much like RadioHead just did with their new album. Unfortunately- that won’t feed her kids or make the house payment- but maybe one day- in a Utopian world- it will, And D’Arcy, you’ll have written the introduction to that in this post. Thank you my friend.

  9. Well explained and argued – I think I’ll have to revisit the NC and Share-alike options I went for on my blog. But as you say, I don’t think it has much relevance on a blog. You are spot on about photographs – I’m not a photographer but like many people Flickr is my new Powerpoint crutch. I only search for images with a CC license, I’m just not going to contact someone and ask if I can use their photo, so by not limiting use they are immediately excluding themselves from exposure. This is Clay Shirky’s argument – given fame vs fortune, fame always wins for the individual, because the likely monetary returns are small. But, as you argue, even if it is your business, you’re better of giving it away and then charging for specific services than restricting access and charging for use. This is gapingvoid’s approach and you’d have to say he has a lot more exposure because his stuff is free to use. And he seems to be doing okay financially from it because this makes him attractive as a consultant to say, Microsoft.

  10. “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”….Lesson #1 Share everything. Thanks for sharing as always and allowing me to “steal” much of your work including your rotating banner concept and wordpress theme choice.

  11. D’Arcy. Long time liker, first time writer, here. Alan sent me over here as I grapple with my own CC v. C thoughts. I sure don’t even know the answer, but I do appreciate this post and all its comments. I do agree I love the fame, but I am also a money whore so I want that, too. How to balance? I get your dropping the derivative shtick, and have taken that to heart, but there are times I do photo shoots for families (think Xmas pics) where I get paid (not a lot) and don’t want to CC that work. Then I gotta remember to flip back to CC for my next set (or cogdog gets barking at me when he wants to snag an image I shot of him!) … anyway, I know several local concert photographers who make their living shooting. They upload as All Rights Reserved and also brand their images with copyright/name/url on their actual photos… I see his point. (One example: http://grtaylor2.com/2010/01/18/hy-watermark-or-brand-your-photos/ ) I almost want to put my name/url on my images and then CC:BY them all, but then there will be those people who will grab the next one since I got writing on my shots (like those idiots who leave the timestamp/date turned on their point and shoots!). I just don’t know.

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