Monday, August 15, 2011

Be open, be nice

One of my friends in the wildlife photography circle is very strict about the copyright notices on his images. A lot of his images have descriptions such as, "Copyrighted by ... and may not be used, downloaded in any form, or Print Media website without written permission of the Photographer." While I don't wish to make a judgement about his choice of restrictive copyright, I personally dislike this approach. I consider it against the very fabric of the sharing culture that makes us human. I take it as granted that writing, photography and music are art forms. No doubt about that. I also take it that artists need to make money. But sharing and making money don't have to be exclusive of each other. My biggest example is Trey Ratcliffe - he's one of the best known travel photographers in the world. Trey travels the world and makes his best photography freely available on the web. His work is acclaimed the world over - he's even on the wall of the Smithsonian. I'm pretty sure Trey makes a lot of money too, and that's because of the word of mouth his photography gets - 175,000 views a day! There's obviously a business model to making money through openness - The Power of Open is a great testimony to that model. In today's blogpost I want to share some notes about openness - photographers, elearning developers, artists, writers are all likely to have a view on this. Feel free to rouse a debate if you wish.

Most of us are not looking for money

The fact is that most content creators don't necessarily want to make money out of the stuff we put out. The internet has given us a medium to share our work which we never had before. When all we had was 35mm film and 36 shots on the film, we'd create the pictures and share the albums with our friends and family - but only those that we met face to face. Today, even our aquaintances and distant friends and relatives can see our work and share their reactions. So yeah, the internet gives us wings we never thought we had. The internet however, is prone to it's ills. People can plagiarise our work, mistakenly or deliberately not point to us as creators. It's a risk - I agree. I am of the belief though, that if someone's a jerk and doesn't understand the effort an artist puts into their work then I'm not going to change him. In fact, if someone does plagiarise my work then I really don't have the means to take that person to court. So I'm not going to lose any sleep over that. What I can do, is make my licensing approach transparent, simple and low barrier so the majority of the (nice) people out there can use my work if they want. So if they want to use it in an article they're writing, sure they can. They want to use it in a presentation - why not? They want to create a derivative work - I'm ok with that too. All I really need is attribution - the fact that my work can get used in several places means that I'm more likely to build a name with that, than I ever will via restrictive copyright. Now I'm not famous and I don't do much to build a followership with my work. I do know though that if I did want that fame - attribution would still be the only thing I'd need.

Openness helps people around us

I love wildlife photography. Actually I like all forms of photography, but wildlife photography is the only thing I'm half good at. Now the beauty of this beast is that it can be a great educational tool for anyone who views my photographs. Since my photographs are under a non-restrictive license, you can add them to Wikipedia and help build a great body of knowledge about the flora and fauna around us. People can use them for their dissertations and studies. Those who want to make a great presentation but have no money to buy stock photography can use my pictures too. By keeping my work open, I believe I'm more likely to help people and leave a bigger dent in the universe. The fact with photography is that I've created neither the moments nor the objects. All I do is to capture them through my own representation. To restrict people from being able to use that representation is perhaps being a bit full of myself. Now this is my approach and I don't say everyone needs to do this - but the only thing I restrict against is the use of my work for commercial purposes. I don't do this because I want a share of the profits or anything - though that would be nice. I take a lot of photographs with people in them. Now I am concerned if a brand decided to use the photo of the tribal woman I shot without giving her some money. Or if they used a photograph of my pretty friend without her explicit permission. Oh yeah, and I also have one more retriction. If you create a derivative of my work and share it with others, you're welcome to do so as long as you share under the same license that I shared the original work with. I don't want my open work to become closed as people create derivatives.

How to add the right copyright notices

Licensing is a matter of choice; however I strongly recommend the Creative Commons licenses for anyone producing artwork. My personal favourite is the Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike license (CC-BY-NC-SA). It allows people to create derivative works and share with others as long as they preserve the license and allows only non-commercial use. There's other less or more restrictive licenses. There are several ways to apply the licenses to your work.
  • If you blog, add the license embed code to the sidebar of your blog (example here). You can use a similar strategy when distributing music.
  • If you take photographs and have a newer Canon DSLR, you can add license information to the EXIF data of your photographs.
  • If you are sharing photographs online on Flickr, then the application allows you to select from a list of Creative Commons licenses.
  • If you're writing an e-book, you can add the license icons and deed to the the document itself.
  • If you're distributing an elearning course, then you can either add the license inside the course or provide a separate license document in the package.
  • If you have documents that support XMP, then you can add license metadata to them.
The key is to make the licensing transparent so that people know what the limitations are and how low the barrier to sharing is. Most people don't mind giving you credit for your work. There are some outlying idiots who we can either lose sleep over or just ignore. I choose to do the latter. If you still don't want to open up your work, at a bare minimum don't watermark your work with ugly patterns just because you're afraid of the crazy bootleggers. Share with confidence - not in fear!

You may think I'm taking the moral high ground here because no one really cares about my work. You could be right if you think that way - I'm no famous artist. That being said, TED, Jonathan Worth, DJ Vadim, Trey Ratcliffe, Curt Smith, Kalyan Varma and others are famous, aren't they? Something works for them because they make their work open. While my advice is only a guideline, their work is an inspiration. I strongly urge all of you to make as much of your work as open as you possibly can. Let's remember that we would have learnt nothing as a human race if anyone who discovered or created anything decided to close down their work under restrictive licenses. I'm more than happy to be part of a debate on this one - I have strong views as you may have noticed. So yeah, if you have a view - let me know.


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