Sunday Extra: Why Creative Commons Can Be Awesome (Or Fail)

So one of the things that I love about Creative Commons is how it’s really brought certain things to light. Stuff like Eclipse Phase has proven that you can give away products for free and still sell copies based on people’s enjoyment of your work; it’s a platinum seller at DriveThruRPG (disclaimer: I’m a reviewer there), but it’s also available for free from anyone who cares to send you a copy; the developer even has download links on his blog! Still, Creative Commons has some problems with it.

The first problem, obviously, is the question of misuse. A lot of people don’t understand CC licenses very well, especially since they are essentially a limited waiver of copyright protection. Long story short: if you use a CC item inside its restrictions, you’re fine, if you don’t it’s just as bad as normal piracy, and there’s some wiggle room. For instance, non-commercial clauses-this site has advertisements, so it’s legally dubious if I can host NC licensed stuff on here. Most people would probably be fine with it, but I still have to contact every author separately and make sure that they don’t mind. In addition, it sort of runs contrary to CC’s core ideals; the free sharing of information, especially when one considers that there is no obligation behind the download of materials from my site. In addition, there are questions about how deep some of this stuff runs; I want to sell access to So You Want To Play?, but I don’t want to freely publish my resource list because it’s one of my selling points; sometimes people use CC as a way to say “you can pass this to your buddies”, but don’t really mean that anyone can distribute it freely, which is one of my major gripes with the NC license.

The second problem is the question of legality. As far as I can tell, CC’s legal in most places, including the US, where I live but some places, again, don’t interpret it the same way as others, either due to quirks in their legal system or through their copyright systems being incompatible. As an author publishing something under CC, you’ll never run into trouble, but it can cause some angst for people who are trying to use it. In addition, someone filing a copyright take-down complaint under DMCA doesn’t necessarily need to prove anything before the host gets into trouble, so even people who stick within the CC limits can get a fraudulent claim against them, versus just using their own original content. In fact, at least in 2008 this was an epidemic, though the study was published by Chilling Effect, which means that samples may have been interpreted with bias or provided mainly by those who were attacked illegitimately using DMCA and complained to the site.

A final problem is, quite simply, the misperception of CC. While, for the most part, CC works are of decent quality, a lot of people look at them in two different ways: either a way to barely cede any rights while keeping their copyright (what I call the “hey, the pirates were going to share it anyway” approach) mostly intact, or a thing that essentially loses them all their rights. The first approach, is, I think, the most heinous; the derivative banning BY-NC-ND clause is pretty much saying “I made this and you can give it to friends, but not improve it or abridge it, nor sell it”. I respect the use of the non-commercial clause, because it’s something that I used to be really adamant on, but if you cut out every last right except sharing you’ve basically restricted people to stagnation, the exact opposite of what the license is supposed to promote, since they cannot actually do stuff like taking a snippet out except for falling under the frail umbrella of free use, which is typically not worth going to court over.

The good news, however, is that there are licenses that truly protect authors without trampling on freedoms. Most of the time a Share Alike works just as well as an No Derivatives clause to prevent abuses of your work, and a non-commercial clause can be helpful but also is rarely necessary- an attribution clause means that, since common sense ethics requires that the license and attribution must be available before sale by a third party, you might have some people try to resell your content (usually with significant modifications) but you will not run into this issue without seeing your own traffic and potentially even sales increase.

So, in short, CC is one of the best things to happen to modern media, allowing incredible freedom and quality without causing artists and authors to stop eating. In fact, I think that some works succeed because they’re under the Creative Commons, since I can tell you for a fact that I’m more comfortable playing a game I know I can toss to my friends and share rather than one that I have to keep under lock and key on my hard drive. Unfortunately, its similarity to traditional copyright restrictions can mean that some people abuse it-since almost everyone has some sort of monetization it’s possible to essentially lockout a ton of distribution points for your work and maintain a semi-monopoly.

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