Saturday, September 15, 2012

Why your community needs a license to share

Last weekend, I participated on a thread that caused me much angst. As someone who's participated in online communities for about 12 years now, I feel strongly about a sense of sharing. And yet I found my sensibilities challenged in this debate about sharing bird photographs under the creative commons license. Let me give you context. Indian Birds is a Facebook group with about 10,000 members. As the name indicates, most of the members are birders, quite a few being bird photographers. A few days back, the owner of the group made a suggestion - to make all postings to the group subject to the Creative Commons license. His intent was that all material and pictures posted on the group will be free:
  • to Share — to copy, distribute and transmit the work
  • and to Remix — to adapt the work
The range of objections I heard to this seemingly well intentioned proposal made me think quite hard about the spirit of sharing on online communities. In effect, as a community manager it made me think about one more thing I'd like to consider - ownership and licensing. Before I get into the details of what this may mean for your new community, let me explain my stance first.

Full Disclosure

I have to be honest. I'm biased towards the Creative Commons licenses. If this changes your views about the value of this article, you may want to stop reading. I also must say that I'm not a supporter of Creative Commons because of some deep desire to be awesome. While I think it's about being nice, I think it's also very practical. It's very difficult for creative people to write proper licenses for their content. Now the moment you publish a piece of work, you automatically own the copyright to it. And yes in cases of photography and similar art work, you can also put up a notice that says:
"Copyrighted by ... and may not be used, downloaded in any form, or Print Media website without written permission of the Photographer."
This however is an untruth. Under the terms of fair use or fair dealing anyone can use your work in part for the purpose of education, criticism, commentary, reference and review. So, in that a statement like the one you see above isn't very useful and it leaves a lot of room for ambiguity. You don't quite indicate the rights you're willing to give to your viewers and the rights you'd like to reserve for yourself. Now you can hire a lawyer to write all of this up for you, but that'll cost a heap of money. Instead, you can choose the Creative Commons licenses and select the rights you wish to reserve for your benefit. There are some great lawyers behind the Creative Commons system and your reserved rights are pretty air tight. But the bigger benefit is that you make your reservations quite explicit by making the rights you give away very clear. Of course there'll always be jerks who violate copyright, and the way to deal with them is no different from the "all rights reserved" world. So, that's my personal stance about Creative Commons - hopefully that sets the record straight.

Licensing community content

One of the things you want in a community that you set up for sharing, is people shouldn't sue each other for the simple act of using content from the community. Now communities are all about sharing. If you don't intend to share and to give other members the ability to benefit from your work, you shouldn't post to the community. If you participate on Indian Birds, you'll see that the majority content is photographs. It's perhaps 95% of the activity. The big question is - if you're unwilling to share, then why would you post a picture? For free publicity and marketing? I guess there are other opportunities for that. This is where some amount of legal protection is necessary. 

Now again you have two options. You can write your own license. This is what we've done for our internal community at ThoughtWorks. All content created by ThoughtWorkers on the community is the property of ThoughtWorks and for the benefit of ThoughtWorkers. So the question of suing each other doesn't arise. In our situation as a consulting firm, this approach makes sense. It may not make sense however for an externally facing community, especially one that's like Indian Birds. This is where an approach like Creative Commons comes in handy and saves you the trouble of writing a license for yourself.

FAQs and misgivings about the Creative Commons licenses

A few days back I watched a great episode of Chase Jarvis live. It was amazing how a well known commerical photographer like Chase promised to put his non-contractual work under the commons to make his commitment to sharing and his rights clear. The episode is very educational for photographers in particular to understand what it means to share their work online and the licensing that makes sense. That said, I realise that Creative Commons still isn't common vocabulary for a lot of people. In view of some of the objections that people raised to these licenses, I thought it might be worthwhile to dispel some of those myths and answer some questions.

I cannot sell any of my work if I apply Creative Commons licensing. If a community uses these licenses, I cannot participate for this reason.
This is incorrect. You can use any of the Creative Commons non commercial license to reserve rights to your work. If your community is also using one of these non commercial licenses, you can quite easily sell the work you share there and also other versions of the same work.

Once I use Creative Commons, I cannot revoke the license at a later stage
This is true, but do remember that this applies only to the version of the work you share under the license. So let's say, you share a low resolution image online and apply a Creative Commons license to it, it's only that picture that is permanently in the commons. The high resolution version and it's other derivatives stay unaffected.

Commercially viable and high quality artwork is never in the commons
Far from the truth. You've got to see the portfolios of Jonathan Worth, Kalyan Varma, Trey Ratcliff, John Harvey and others to know that. In addition, just do a search for Creative Commons photography on Flickr. The number of great photographs you'll see out there is just tremendous! 

If a community adopts Creative Commons licensing then violations become the responsibility of the community too
This depends on who owns the content. If the community is set up so the community itself owns the content, then yes it becomes the responsibility of the organisation running the community to take action against violations of copyright. However, if the community only requires members to post under a Creative Commons license while retaining their copyright, then the community has no liability to get into legal battles. As in any other situation, enforcing copyright is still the responsibility of the artist.

Why should anyone decide the licensing for my work?
You're right. No one should decide the licensing for your work. However if you post to a community you should be willing to share your work. In return for publicity, appreciation and social currency, you give some benefits to the members of the community. If the community adopts a Creative Commons license, this is to balance the rights of community members and copyright holders. In case you're unwilling to share your work, you can still decide to reserve all rights by not posting to the community!

If people want to use my work, why can't they just ask me?
This is usually unnecessary friction. Empirical evidence shows that most people don't ask, they just use your work, either under the terms of fair use or not. Instead, a clear statement that allows people to use your work with attribution under the terms you specify is far lower friction and gets you publicity that you may have not even imagined!

If I use a Creative Commons license, people can modify my work without permission.
You can very easily reserve this right by applying a no derivatives license. This stops people from remixing your work in case you're uncomfortable with it. If your community uses a Creative Commons license, you can speak to your community manager about this.

Why pre-empt the beautiful prospect of a friendship between user and an author/artist that could stem from a request to use a particular piece of work? Why make Creative Commons a middleman?
Sure, you could always argue against the commons this way. Let me tell you of a different perspective though. By virtue of the fact that all my work and this blog fall under the Creative Commons, I've received innumerable words of thanks from people who have just used my work in a presentation or as part of their day to day life. I was quite glad some months back, when a reader of my blog found some articles so useful that he fashioned them into a little ebook. He shared it with me under the Creative Commons license too! It was quite beautiful. Kalyan has a similar story which actually took his photography career to prime-time. So while you may lose one way of striking a relationship, you create several more ways to create this bond.

I'm not trying to make a watertight case for Creative Commons here. I'm sure there'll be more questions. The point I'm trying to make however, is more about the purpose of most online communities than about licensing itself. Licenses only serve to protect the rights of both community members and community authors. We need to ensure that authors still retain the opportunity to benefit from their intellectual property, while community members still benefit by using knowledge shared in that context. With this tension, Creative Commons feels like the simplest solution available to us community managers at this point. If things change anytime soon, I'll have something else to say!
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