Is Creative Commons Right For You?


Over the past few weeks, I’ve been writing a great deal about the importance of licensing your content. Last week I wrote a column about why you should always clearly license your work, no matter what terms you choose. I also announced my talk at WordCamp Dallas, which will be on getting free content for your site and will deal heavily with content licensing.

As a result of this, many people have been emailing me asking about how I feel they should license their content, in particular whether Creative Commons is right for them. However, sadly, some of these people I’ve had to dissuade from using it.

To give you an idea of where I am coming from, I am a huge supporter of Creative Commons and have licensed everything I have posted on my sites under one of their licenses since shortly after version 1.0 was launched in 2002. I recommend Creative Commons to almost everyone I meet and actively discourage people from creating their own licenses.

However, this doesn’t mean that CC is for everyone. Not everyone who posts their work online is a good candidate for CC nor should they use it. Not only can it hurt your livelihood, but using it incorrectly might also damage the Creative Commons cause by letting people walk away with an unwarranted negative impression of the licenses.

This is why, before putting the CC logo on your site and announcing your new terms, it is important to take a minute and ask yourself if it is really right for you.

The Debate Over Going “Green”

If you don’t operate a business on your site, licensing your content under a CC license probably is a “nothing to lose” situation, especially if you retain commercial interest in your work. However, if you do run a business or otherwise earn a living online, it is important to consider how your content being copied may help/hurt your bottom line.

In some cases, it may help a great deal. For example, with this site, my allowing of attributed copying of my articles have helped my writing here reach new audiences and, with it, my name and my consulting practices. However, if I sold the content on this site, for example, as an eBook, it might be very different as even non-commercial copying could take away from sales.

However, that isn’t always the case. There have been many books that have been released under a CC license, generating a large amount of free downloads, but still sold well in both hardcopy and Kindle formats. For example, all of Professor Lawrence Lessig‘s books are licensed under a CC license (save Remix, which is awaiting the launch of the CC versionThe book is available under a CC license here) and all have sold well.

The question becomes simple, will allowing copying of your work, in particular non-commercial copying as you can refuse to allow commercial use, help or hurt you?

I often tell people to think of this in terms of file sharing. If there were a file sharing network dedicated to your type of content and it correctly attributed all of your work, would you gain or lose money from your work being on it? This really hinges on what your bigger problem is: Obscurity or customer conversion.

As Cory Doctorow points out, for most creatives, obscurity is the greatest obstacle. However, one does not have to be very famous for customer conversion to become a problem too. For example, an artist that becomes popular in a circle that sells stickers small prints may run into trouble if they CC license their work as users that may previously have been customers can simply print their own of reasonable quality and do so legally.

Though this is a problem whether or not a work is CC licensed, some people will always do as they please regardless of the terms, adding that level of permission can encourage the behavior and, in some cases, lead to other, less desirable copying due to confusion about the license.

In short, it is clear that some people gain a great deal of benefit from using a CC license, in addition to the idea of supporting the larger commons, but it isn’t right for everyone. The harder part is trying to determine which category any one person falls into.

Asking the Right Questions

When debating whether to use a CC license, I typically ask people the following questions:

  1. Personal Satisfaction: Would other people copying your content with attribution give you a sense of personal satisfaction or would you be upset that people were benefing from your work, even if just non-commercially, without you being involved?
  2. Business Model: Does your business model rely heavily upon you selling copies that would likely be easily replaced by free distribution? For example, are you musician that makes the bulk of their revenue from song sales rather than live performances?
  3. Content Type: Would free copies of your work replace paid ones trivially? With some content a free copy just isn’t the same as a paid one. PDFs don’t replace physical books, for example. On the other hand, free MP3s are the exact same as paid ones. Also, how easily is attribution affixed to your content? Would it likely be lost as it is copied?
  4. Audience Type: Is your audience fairly tech-savvy and likely to understand what a CC license is an how to follow it? Would they likely misinterpret it? Will they take advantage of it?
  5. Search Engine Benefit: How ciritical is the content in question to your search engine ranking? Would the incoming links help more than the duplicated content? Though it is a minor issue if the content is correctly attributed and linked, it is important to consider, especially if your site is new and doesn’t have a lot of search engine recognition.

No one of these questions can answer whether a CC license is right for you. You have to weigh all of the factors and decide if, overall, it is better to have one or not.

However, the good news is that CC is not an all-or-nothing proposition. You can license items separately so long as you make it extremely clear what items are and are not covered. This means that, if you think it might be a good move, you can test it on a few of your works to see how well it goes. You can also reserve all the rights to your work initially and, once enough time has passed, place it under a CC license.

But while experimenting with CC may be a good idea for many, if not most, there are a few times to definitely stay away from it. For example, placing marketing copy under a CC license is dangerous as it also affects your trademark rights and is something that is supposed to uniquely identify your business. Likewise, content made at the request of a client, but you hold the rights to, should never be CC licensed without the client’s permission. Allowing copying of work created on someone else’s dime is poor form

Bottom Line

Most bloggers and most content creators have little to lose and, quite possibly, a great deal to gain from using CC licenses. Despite that though, it is worth taking a few minutes to reflect on how it will affect you both personally and business-wise before putting the logo on your site. Doing so serves both yourself and the efforts of the CC organization.

My personal experience has been pretty tepid. I’ve seen a lot of people use my content in ways that mesh with my licenses and many people violate them. I’m unsure if that usage would change any if I had removed the license, but it always helped me show people where the line was drawn and, when someone crossed it, provide guidance for making things right.

Also, there have been a few people that have been very aggressive about using my content correctly and doing so liberally. They’ve been the primary drivers in getting my work into new hands and, for that, I am grateful.

But even though the overall benefits to me have been rather modest, CC licensing can help others do more with their own work. As such, it is worth carefully considering and weighing the advantages of using it.

After all, to a creator CC licensing isn’t just about contributing to the commons, though it is a big part, it is also about ensuring that one’s content works as hard for its creator as the creator did in making it.

This is contrary to what Mark Helprin has to say.

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