ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Why the BBS Documentary is Creative Commons —

I’ve been hemming and hawing about doing this entry, going over how to approach it in my mind, starting and restarting what statements to put in it, what comments to make, and so on. I get like this about some entries and this one is a pretty important one, so realize what went into it.

The BBS Documentary has been released under a Creative Commons Attribute-Sharealike 2.0 license. The “Creative Commons” movement means different things to different people, so of course you should check their website to get the full story on this, but I’m going to paraphrase it for my needs.

Creative Commons is a group of rock and roll lawyers who basically looked at the currently draconian copyright law and decided to back-hack in an alternative copyright that would allow various uses of content and material in a way that was clear and distinct for all parties. Whereas current copyright law in the United States basically says that if a child touches a CD without paying for it ahead of time, that child may be shot in the head…. creative commons says that the kid can go and play with the CD and make strange sounds with its content or add some beats or sample it or whatever, depending on the license. Oh, and you can’t shoot the child in the head.

Like a lot of people, I am generally a content acquirer and not as much a content generator. I don’t consider to be much in the way of my own generated content; I’ve probably added 10 to 20 megabytes of descriptive text to index about 2 gigabytes of text on the main site, with similar ratios in other sub-sites. That’s just indexing. I’ve written articles and I’ve even been known to make a song or two, but that’s nothing compared to the piles of CDs I’ve bought over the years. Therefore, from that position, it is very easy to look at current copyright law, shake my tiny fist, and go “grrrrr” like a puppy. What have I got to lose, right? So sure, free the content, open source the moon, give me, give me, give me.

It is an entire other situation when you look at something like this documentary; the four year production time I quote on the site and elsewhere is not fake; I started in June of 2001 and DVDs went out to homes in May of 2005. It really did take that long. And I really did spend upwards of a year of waking hours working on the project, from e-mails and analyzing essays and old files, to the production process of filming and travelling and interviewing, to the months of editing, culling hundreds of hours of footage into honed, informative, entertaining but honest authentic narrative. It was, basically, the biggest media thing I’ve made ever. It is also, at the end, for sale, a sellable product on three DVDs and a very nice package.

Like a lot of people, I am not entirely comfortable talking about The Money, but if you calculate my personal time as worthless, that is, that I don’t include the actual per-hour cost of me doing this, then you end up with the costs of duplication and the costs of production. The costs of production include buying equipment, computer parts/hard drives, travel, meals, speeding tickets for trying to get to the next interview too quickly, and a ton of little sundry items like tolls, shipping packs, admission to conventions, and so on. If you add up these two sets of costs (and again, not count my time) we come up somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty thousand dollars.

Since the documentary worked out to an eight episode 5.5 hour collection, with 80 minutes of bonus, and will ultimately yield 100 hours or more of interviews that will be released, it is a bargain beyond bargains. But of course saying that is a shell game; it’s like saying “I saved so much money on this sale”. The fact is, I spent a lot of cash, and time.

So, ultimately, I am charging people for this documentary. I am charging $50. People ask me the material cost of the DVDs themselves and the packaging, and of course that’s a fraction. But it doesn’t count the other costs in making what goes on the DVDs. This price has caused some people to balk, understandably, in a world where you can buy “Dirty Dancing” for $3.99 in the aisle with the beach balls. That’s the nature of things. The documentary website goes into the full feature set and explanation of how great the whole thing is and why you should buy a copy, so I won’t do that here, other than to say, I’ve now seen the films over 200 times apiece, and I still watch some of them. For fun. But still, fifty bucks is fifty bucks.

Now, under copyright law in the United States, I have, as a content creator, an amazing arsenal of statutes and legal decisions at my disposal to make your life, assuming you are playing the part of someone copying my films without my permission, into a bitter fucking hell. I mean, a seriously bad, stinky, horrifying pit of suck. I can threaten you with years of jail. I can sue you in civil court while pursuing a criminal case against you on a state and federal level. If I am feeling somewhat kinky I can try and drag Interpol into the whole mess. And the laws out there, approved, let me attempt to have you put away for YEARS. Absolutely YEARS of your life for videotaping a copy of my film.

In other words, I have an enormous amount of incentive to be a jerk.

And yes, it’s so easy, having now created something that has the potential to cost me a lot of money, to reach out and want to use these tools for my own end. Even though, in my own high school and college years, I made songs that used samples from professional productions, even if I took screengrabs from films and put them on a website to make a funny parody in 1995, I see my own work and the temptation is there to go “No, this is different. This is my stuff and you can’t have my stuff without paying for it.”

But that’s not what I did. Instead, I stayed true to my belief system and licensed it under Creative Commons, giving away a lot of the tools that US copyright law grants me, because they’re are By the Jerks, for the Jerks, and should perish from this Earth.

It was in some ways a tough decision, because you want to “protect” yourself, but then you realize you’re not really “protecting” anything; all you’re doing is being a paranoid twitch-bag. And once you realize this, then it becomes a little easier.

Here is my secret 11 herbs and spices recipe for how I approached creating the documentary and then Creative Commons licensing the final work.

Create a really good movie.
I mean, just go overboard. Totally do as much research as you can, spend months working stuff out, talk to thousands of people on the subject, compose tools for tracking that information you gather. Get a mailing list with advisors. Film everywhere, do all the background filming, don’t blink when opportunities arise. Get footage like you wouldn’t believe, and then edit that thing for months on end until it absolutely sings. Then kick it in the crotch and make it sing louder and on key.

Result: You have a product that people respect.

Create some kick-ass packaging.
Find out what your printing company offers, then ask for a custom version. Take enormous insane risks in the creation of the packaging so that it has a unique feel. Use full color. Use photos. Get a professional cover artist to make you some custom artwork that catches the eye like a fishhook. Embed little messages into the artwork. Get artists from around the world to contribute little pieces. Find out what’s required to make the package look unique, and then exceed it.

Result: You have a package that can’t be easily reproduced digitally, and which represents a unique experience in owning it.

Make it easy to order and ask questions.
Use Paypal, Kagi, Amazon, whoever wants to sell it. Allow yourself to be contacted for questions and inquiries. Be responsive. Treat people who want to buy your work with respect and honor, do not cheat them or claim your work is something it is not. Allow them to see previews, to see what they’re getting. Be upfront and honest if there are delays and explain carefully what is going on so people who give you money are not in the dark and feeling like they were had. Share your pain and your happiness as the person working on your project.

Result: Customers will respect your work and effort and purchase instead of copying it, since it’s just as easy.

Be available for autographs and discussions.
Answer e-mail as quickly as you can. If people want you to autograph the package, be willing to do so, no questions asked. Go to places where people who buy your works are around, and answer questions/show them you’re a real person. Do not use agents, handlers, bodyguards, bouncers or an entourage to make people feel you consider them a “problem” in your life.

Result: People will know you’re a person who has sunk themselves and their spirit into the product.

Realize that some people simply do not buy media anymore.
Even if you are honest, open, friendly, making a kick-ass product and totally changing the world with your little whooziz, some people, on principle, do not pay for media. This is what they do and they have tools to get media for free, tools that are better than your tools are and which are much more ubiquitous and better updated. In realizing this, perhaps you will stop treating every single person who purchases your product like a scumbag, guilty until proven innocent, beneath and below you. A number of people do not pay. This happens at the circus, the rock concert, your local supermarket and at your job. To turn your customer base into a constantly-on-alert totalitarian wasteland is not the effective solution. Instead, assume that if you’ve actually made a unique, interesting product and put your heart into it and made something that can’t truly be duplicated, people will pay. And if you treat them like they’re human beings, they’ll ask other people to pay too.

Result: You save a lot of lawyers fees, and people feel like customers and not shotgun targets. Also, your breath will smell better.

You can see where I’m going with this, I hope.

The Creative Commons Attribute ShakeAlike license says, in effect, that people can copy, remix, sample, fiddle with, and otherwise treat the BBS Documentary’s content as one might treat a piece of fabric in your home: in pretty much any way you want, to whatever ends, including commercial. The difference is the usual digital magic that you can make endless copies forever, but otherwise, it’s just another item in your home and on your computer that you own, basically. The rules are pretty simple: if you make something using it, you have to also allow people to use your something the same way, and you have to let people know you got it from Jason Scott’s BBS Documentary. Otherwise, go absolutely nuts, kids. Do things without fear of being sent to jail (and jail is a horrible place, believe me) and improve and build on the BBS Documentary so that it has a place in popular culture and education for years, maybe decades to come.

It is incumbent upon me to provide something worth buying, that is, the packaging is nice, the printing was professional, my research site and my story are easily found, and the process of ordering copies is painless and easy. If I fail you, if I have packaging that’s horrible or indifferent (think of so many “re-releases” of old albums), or a product that’s not worth buying (think of 90 percent of the crap in the world) or I make it so you have to sign away 3 children to buy a copy (think of “Click-through agreements” and “shrink-wrap licenses”), then I’m not really trying to attract your business, am I? I’m making your life a living hell in an attempt to make my life heaven. Why should you go the extra step to pay me?

I hope that the ordering page is easy to use and clear on what you get. I hope the website is informative, fun, and intruiging to browse. I hope that my own story of creating this work inspires people to pay me for it. But I realize this will not always be the case. I am not going to set the world on fire because of it. Respect flows both ways, and I get and recieve it in my mailbox on a daily basis now.

Now, here is one important misconception I have to address, related to all this, and which naturally shows up when people hear about the Creative Commons license.

Just because I have Creative Commons licensed this documentary does not mean I don’t like getting paid for it.

I hope that’s clear. What I’ve done is say “I’m not going to be a jerk-nut and threaten and insinuate and treat you like scum and tell you what you can and can’t do with the DVDs once you buy them.” In another way I’m saying “I realize that some people will not buy them and watch them anyway… oh well! I am happy they are seeing it. I hope they might still consider paying for it, but hope is what it is.”

I’ve seen people say “He wants us to torrent it, he wants us to copy it and give it away.” Well, no. I don’t want that; I want people to buy it and show it to whoever they want and blow a copy to a friend who wants to see one of the episodes but probably wouldn’t buy it anyway, or to take it to a friend’s house and play it for a dozen people. I want people to discuss the stuff in it, remember the good times with BBSes, generally think about that history and maybe consider writing down their own or making their own documentary. That’s what I want.

What I will get is going to range wildly, and that’s fine; people who will buy it, will buy it. (And thank you for doing so.) People who do not want to buy it will not buy it. It is, literally, out of my hands. I will not thrash and cry as if this is a new situation in the world.

I’ve cooked up my herbs and spices as I’ve listed above so that it’s something worth paying for. I didn’t just do the least amount of work necessary for it to be considered “not a total ripoff” and then market the living crap out of it to flim-flam people into paying good money for bad product. Believe me, I see a lot of stuff where that’s obviously what’s going on, and it’s why certain parts of the world are jaded and misanthropic about being made to pay for certain products.

In one of my world-famous metaphors, it’s like buying bread. You don’t feel ripped off buying bread; you don’t go “holy nails, why is this bread twenty dollars? In fact, it’s stale! It’s not even BREAD. It’s some sort of “best of bread” with a couple pieces of other loaves of bread stitched together!” Yet people feel this way about media and other products all the time. I’ve tried to make a decent, good, solid loaf of bread here, which tastes good, is what it says it is, and doesn’t cheat you.

So there we go, a long-winded essay indeed, but I hope it makes clear once and for all my feelings about all this. This is all an enormous risk I am taking, one being taken in the pursuit of a principle, and people have lost livelihoods and happiness pursuing principles. On the other hand, some people have become quite wealthy. I wouldn’t mind becoming wealthy, and maybe all this work I’ve done with this documentary will make me wealthy. But even if it doesn’t, I know that I achieved what I achieved without throwing my audience and customers into a meat grinder. And that’s a pretty good thing to know.

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  1. kral oyun says:

    I’m confident this will benefit you, and all of us, in the long run, and I’m glad we’ve all got your voice and your vision to help advance open culture

  2. Oyun says:

    You have set some of my fears at ease! Nice job!

  3. This is a wonderful read, and really rather inspiring to me – thanks for writing it. If I weren’t so broke at the moment, I’d buy your film in a heartbeat.

  4. sÄŸoperrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

  5. kral oyun says:

    ‘It was in some ways a tough decision, because you want to “protect” yourself, but then you realize you’re not really “protecting” anything; all you’re doing is being a paranoid twitch-bag. And once you realize this, then it becomes a little easier.’

    well said! Having been through this myself when I finally figured out that open sourcing code *works*, I can say that you’ve hit the nail on the head there. Thanks for a great article.

  6. Watched the episode “Art scene”

    i can understand the wanting to get some money for your work, but why not have an alternate means to get that money? if people want to use Bittorrent then _let them_… just allow for them to get you whatever money they feel appropriate… its not ripping if they still keep your name and give _you_ credit…

    just a thought! awsome work man!

  7. oyun says:

    Watched the episode “Art scene”

    i can understand the wanting to get some money for your work, but why not have an alternate means to get that money? if people want to use Bittorrent then _let them_… just allow for them to get you whatever money they feel appropriate… its not ripping if they still keep your name and give _you_ credit…

    just a thought! awsome work man!

  8. oyun says:

    You have set some of my fears at ease! Nice job!

  9. This is a nice. Thanks.

  10. This is fantastic and interesting. Thanks.

  11. Oyun says:

    You have set some of my fears at ease! Nice job.

  12. sohbet says:

    Watched the episode “Art scene”

    i can understand the wanting to get some money for your work, but why not have an alternate means to get that money? if people want to use Bittorrent then _let them_… just allow for them to get you whatever money they feel appropriate… its not ripping if they still keep your name and give _you_ credit…

    just a thought! awsome work man!

  13. Otel says:

    Kudos to you!! I hope the dvd sales are large and you make a packet!, I am happy that people are starting to disregard consumerism and materialism that own them.