The Psychology of Creative Commons: A response in two parts

Paul Courant recently posted on his blog about changing his Creative Commons license from Attribution-NonCommercial (BY-NC) to Attribution (BY). It has me thinking about the significance of the different licenses, and it also has me wondering whether I should change mine. What follows is my meandering thought process.

For reference, here’s a page that describes all the CC licenses.

Part 1: What does your Creative Commons License say about you?

In his post, Courant writes about what he believes the NonCommercial restriction signifies to others, especially to people in business. He fears that a NonCommercial license marks the person using it as “anti-commerce,” and he is not anti-commerce (he’s an economist, after all) and does not want to be perceived as anti-commerce. This is really interesting. I’ve given some thought to what different CC licenses say about the people using them, but the possibility of appearing anti-commerce hadn’t occured to me.

Some of my opinions about the different licenses have made their way into workshops I’ve taught on the subject, but I’ve never considered these judgments systematically. I decided to give it a shot:

I call the Attribution license the “really generous license.” People who use this license are basically ceding all control over their work, granting blanket permission for anyone to do anything with it, even profit-making things. I assume that Attribution people are financially stable, but I also think of them as a little bit gutsy. I associate BY with people who are very dedicated to the cause of open content.

The Share-Alike (SA) set of licenses are also associated with Free Culturites in my mind, but in a slightly different way. These people care about promoting open content, but they do so in a way that I believe is both idealistic and naive. In my experience, Share-Alike licenses can be very confusing for people not already steeped in Open Source culture, and that limits the ability of those people to use SA-licensed works. For example, I spoke to someone who thought that he couldn’t use an unaltered BY-SA-licensed photograph in a conference presentation unless he licensed the whole presentation BY-SA. He had to sign the copyright over to the conference organizers, and therefore couldn’t apply a CC license, so he thought he couldn’t use the image. Share-Alike only applies to derivative works, but that’s a notoriously hard concept for non-lawyers to understand. As a result, I see SA licensors as people who put the cause of open content above the goal of maximizing future use.

[Leigh Blackall of Otago Polytechnic talks about his take on the limits of Share-Alike in an interesting interview on the Creative Commons blog].

I don’t think much about the No-Derivatives (ND) licenses, mostly because I don’t see them very often. My impression of ND people is that they want to share, and understand the potential power of CC to extend the reach of their work, but they are afraid of losing control. No Derivatives users, especially NonCommercial-No Derivatives users, are Creative Commons dabblers.

And then there’s the Attribution-NonCommercial license, which is the one I use, and it’s my favorite. I sell this license to my classes as a nice balance between sharing your work and protecting your interests. As long as the user is non-commercial – a librarian, a fan, a student – she can do whatever she wants with your work. If the user is planning to make money, she has to ask first. You’re still free to say yes, without compensation even, but you get to decide on a case by case basis.

This formula resonates with the people in my workshops, most of whom are either university faculty or librarians. When they use a NonCommercial license, they’re essentially granting permission to people like themselves: academics, scholars, teachers. People like them, making uses like they might make, are easy to trust. Commercial users, whose motives and methods are different, can feel less trustworthy.

This brings me back to Courant’s concern that profit-making enterprises see NonCommercial license users as anti-commerce, and his implicit suggestion that NC licensors put the cause of anti-commerce above the goal maximizing future use. I realized that in my case, he’s right. I do privilege the teacher, the student, the fan. I see their uses as more valuable, more worthy of my generosity, than the profit-makers’. Is that so wrong?

Part 2: Promoting the progress

Courant’s main reason for dropping the NonCommercial restriction comes from a combination of opinions about economic theory and copyright.

If you believe, as I do, that the purpose of copyright is to “Promote the progress of science and the useful arts”, then it is more important that the work be out in the world being read, and contributing to a larger discourse, than that strangers not be able to make money from it.

I do believe, as he does, that the purpose of copyright is to promote the progress. I love promoting the progress; I do it all the time. I think universities and governments should license everything they do under CC-BY, because maximizing access to scholarly and government works is so very important. But I struggle, as an individual, especially an individual at the bottom of the professional food chain, to feel comfortable offering up my work freely to the profit-makers. I want to contribute to the larger discourse, and I want my works to be read and my photographs to be seen, I just haven’t been ready to give everything away.

But Courant makes a compelling argument:

One maximizes the influence of the work by maximizing potential uses of the work, recognizing that commercial uses have just as much power to promote progress as non-commercial uses…

Maximizing influence sounds good, too. As an individual at the bottom of the professional food chain, I think a lot about maximizing my influence. What’s more, I tell people all the time about how Creative Commons (and Open Access) can help maximize their influence, increase their impact, improve their visibility. It follows that the freer you make a work, the farther it can travel.

When it comes right down to it, the chances that anyone is going to make any money at all from this blog are tiny. My pictures on Flickr are similarly lacking in likely financial value. This exercise is entirely theoretical. However, I am called upon with some regularity to advise people on the choosing of a Creative Commons license, and unpacking my beliefs about the meanings and significances of the different options has been very helpful, for me at least. It will certainly change my standard advice about choosing a license; I used to suggest BY-NC automatically, to everyone. Now I’m more likely to push BY, especially for projects that are meant to serve as resources for a broader community, like wikis or research guides.

Me, I’m sticking with BY-NC for the moment. But watch the sidebar; I might change my mind.

5 thoughts on “The Psychology of Creative Commons: A response in two parts

  1. “…unpacking my beliefs about the meanings and significances of the different options has been very helpful…”
    You’re sensemaking around Creative Commons!

  2. Hi Molly, you made a lot of sense here. You’ve articulated, and given insights, to my thoughts and motivations re: CC much more lucidly than I can. 🙂 Recently I rationalised about my use of CC. I suggested that CC gave peace of mind for people who are already interested in sharing. I guess whether BY-NC or BY only or ND — whatever mode that provides greater peace of mind to the owner is the right sort of licence.

  3. You say that the chances are that anyone would make nay money at all form your blog is tiny — isn’t really the issue though is it? a) So hear I am an author of an upcoming book — what if I want to include a blog post of yours in my book — that’s commercial right — book is sold to Harper Collins. Okay so what if it’s NOT you — what if it’s Scott Adams who created Dilbert — what I put an excerpt from his blog in my book? What if like Bitacle they take your blog and put it as content on their site and sell ads on their site using your content — every one of your blog posts Is that okay? what IS okay. Who knows what pictures are commercial or not. It’s my opinion that every frame of every video and every film is monetizable. YES someone would pay some money for it somewhere? But as I see it it’s probably better to let the legitimate book author include part of your blog posts for promotion for you. With appropriate attribution etc. SEE these are things that publishing company lawyers don’t quite understand yet?

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