ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Not Free Enough —

A word of warning. This is about content license issues. These entries are always classic, in the way that the Hindenburg Disaster was “classic”. Go ahead at own risk.

An interesting situation occurred recently in my mail. I had a customer buy my BBS Documentary, and then write a nice fan mail letter, followed by, “If your next documentary is freely licensed, then please put me on the notification list”.

He included a link. This link, in fact. This was, in other words, his definition of “Free”. It’s very convenient we can do this now, just point somewhere and go “this is what I mean”.

After spending a little while at that site, I sadly had to decide not to put his name on the notification list.

GET LAMP is not going to be Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike. It’ll be Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0. The reason’s pretty simple: I have a number of musicians involved who do not wish the music to be easily placeable on commercially sold compilations. I want to use their music. So I am distributing this work under this license.

Personally, I saw no issue with this, and really still don’t. My stuff, my choice. I have people I respect who are being kind enough to provide all the material they are, and they are letting me release it under this license, and we’ll all by a happy little can of Clamato juice. Under the license it’s being released under, you can throw out huge swaths of the movie, add your own commentary and distribute it, dupe copies or even torrent it, and generally have your way about it. You just can’t sell it or profit by it.

I had forgotten, of course, how divided certain aspects of the license community are about these things. Maybe that was a good thing. I have enough trouble trying to explain to people who don’t care about this that yes, they’re allowed to show my movie to their classes without paying, and yes, they can have showings of it and not pay me, and yes, they can take excerpts of it and put it online all remixed up. I appreciate being asked but they don’t really need to. I understand fully what I did when I went Creative Commons, so the repercussions don’t shock me. (I’m not this lucky in all aspects of my life, but with this, I pretty much knew cold what I am saying when I use these licenses).

But man, what fun little internal battles. The website I was linked to contains a very specific article, directly geared to the general thesis, that thesis being: If you license with a NonCommercial Creative Commons License, you are a Fuck.

The whole site is a Wiki, albeit the kind I prefer, with logins required to mess around with them, and a way to link to a specific revision, as I did above. What’s not directly clear unless you look at it is the whole thing’s run by Erik Moller (sic; I can’t use his properly spelled last name because it breaks the livejournal rss feed to my weblog). You probably don’t know who Erik is. All well and good. If you’ve studied Wikipedia’s internal processes, then you know exactly who he is. He’s about as insider to the Wikipedia “cabal” as you can basically get; one of the all-time apologist characters for its failings and abuses. He recently got Konami-Coded into the higher echelons of the non-profit, and I think that’s about all I’ll discuss about Erik. All I’m saying here is he’s one of the proponents of a manner of thinking I don’t necessarily hop into the haystack with, spouting glee. Let’s get back to the writing instead of the man.

The writing is filled with a lot of that spectacular sleight of hand I’ve come to hate from groups whose general stated purposes sound really wonderful and then you flip over the rock and are horrified. It describes all the reasons you didn’t think your Subtle Plan all the way through before going with the NC version of the Creative Commons license, and you should drop the NC. Here’s one that’s particularly awesome:

“One final factor to keep in mind, especially for wide-spread small scale exploitation, is the enforceability of the license. For example, even a generous interpretation of Wikipedia’s GNU Free Documentation License requires that content users link back to Wikipedia and the article history, and point out that the document is freely licensed.1 As is evident from a brief look at Wikipedia’s own list of mirrors and forks by compliance, many content mirrors completely ignore the GFDL. Some even systematically remove all evidence that the content is from Wikipedia. Such behavior, while illegal, is difficult to punish, as mirrors reside in many different countries. Many have been quickly set up, without anyone in charge of operations. Even though Wikipedia is a large community with a reasonably well-funded parent organization, it is clear that it is hard to enforce even very basic licensing requirements on free content. Ask yourself whether you are truly willing and able to enforce violations of an -NC license. Otherwise, the only people you punish with the restriction are those who are careful to respect your wishes — people who are likely to be amenable to friendly cooperation anyway.”

Read it again, or feel free to hear my interpretation of what he says there: There’s no point in putting a non-commercial restriction on your work, because everyone’s going to ignore you anyway. Damn, that’s a pimp-slap for you, isn’t it. The reason you should license your stuff for the most accessible and widespread distribution is because you, content-boy, are going to get gang-banged against the hordes of users out there, and at least this way you get a free dinner. Sign. Me. Up.

The essay is chock full of some of these winner statements. One indicates that doing this only hurts the little guy. The little newspapers, the small websites, the mom-and-pops of the world who just want to get the biggest benefit of your hard work without opening them to legal liability. It’s about as logical as a drug user explaining why the reason he has to sell your toaster for more meth is to gear the two of you towards a better tomorrow, that is, one where he won’t have to harvest your organs.

But instead of filling your screen with a point-by-point breakdown of where I don’t jibe with Erik’s disagreement, I’d like to get to the interesting stronger issue here.

I don’t often compromise. I am an intractable asshole when it comes to certain things, aspects, and so on. Believe me, more than once I have screwed myself in a fireworks-and-brass-band fashion over a point. Other times I stand ground on stuff that likely means little to anyone who is not, generally, me. Some offhand examples: I refuse to watch Hogan’s Heroes. There’s a pizza place a couple blocks from my house that I won’t go to because I was once left waiting for 25 minutes for someone to take my order. I won’t buy Sony products at all, with the exception of my video editing software. This goes on for page after embarassing page. Been there. Haggled over that. Screamed and moved on.

But somehow it still burns my bacon when I see people informing me, or others like me, how we are doing the wrong thing, a disservice, by not making the stuff we generate distributable in some way. It trip-traps over the troll bridge into somewhere I don’t find very pleasant, or enjoyable. It says, basically, way down there. “Thanks. Gimmie.” It makes me feel like someone’s tugging my pant leg. I don’t like it at all.

And on top of it, we have my little fan, so happy with my first film, laying down his gauntlet of what he thinks a film must be and basically shutting himself out of my next one because it has a license restriction on it. A license restriction that, I’m sorry, I can’t see being a huge deal. Yes, unlike the last time, the schools in question would have to call me if they decide to charge admission to see my film, permission I will give. And if someone wants to have a bake sale and sell dupes of my disc, huzzah. Pick up the goddamn phone and chat with me. Is that so hard?

It comes down to this: while in many cases, I have happily allowed stuff I’ve created or assembled to join the Big Happy Shitball, this does not mean I have, by default, considered this to be the be-all end-all final answer for all future creations. Just because people “can” copy it and will ignore whatever license I put on it, Erik, does not mean that I have to automatically make it easy for them to do so in contradiction of my collaborators’ wishes. We do that, when we work together, you see; focus on the good we’re doing, instead of sneering into our soup when we don’t get it all handed to us on a silver platter with the words “E Pluribus Unum” etched on it.

Oh, well. Maybe next time, big fan.

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  1. James says:

    Another instigator of the site is who comes from a Debian background. I’ll leave it to the reader to look up the DSFG, RFCs and GNU manuals.

  2. Jason Scott says:

    Funnily enough, I consider Benjamin Mako Hill a buddy. We’ll both be at Penguincon this year, for example. He lives right near me, and I borrowed his OLPC for my OLPC rant at Shmoocon last year. Him, I like.

  3. Shii says:

    When I read that essay, the first thing I did was go back to my own website and write this in response:

    There have been rumors on the Internets that caring so much about non-commercial use is a detriment to the free culture movement. A single teardrop falls from my eyes for the cause of the Google spammers who would love so much for me to make my work a common good for their exploitation. Sorry, folks, I wrote this, not you. It is not my intention to donate my thoughts to the malicious content harvest. If any money is made from these articles it should go to Y.T. so I can spend it on candy.

  4. Great post Jason, on the reasons for putting anything under a noncommercial licence. I mean, it’s still a film that will be available, as long someone hosts it for free, on the internet. I think that goes a lot further then most people, and retaining your rights (and more so on those materials you’ve been given permission to use) is important 🙂

    I think you put forward the main point in your summary, and that article does seem entirely off the point. Oh well, if they don’t want to watch it because of the licence used, their loss.

  5. KEvin H says:

    Hey Jason,

    It’s free enough for me. Thanks for making it free at all.