A Colossal Missing of the Point

Some years ago I had the opportunity to address a class taught by my good friend Erik Duval. I spoke about blogging. One of his students, eager to show how technically competent he was, glibly pointed out that the “blogging software” that was just becoming popular (Movable Type as I recall) did not provide any new capabilities. He could already do everything MT did using emacs. Erik’s response ran along the lines of, “Ok, Mr. Smarty Pants. Everyone else will use MT to post their online writing assignments this semester, but you can do all of yours by hand.” After only a moment’s reflection, he realized he had won the battle but lost the war.

Most frequently, great advances come not in creating brand new capabilities, but in greatly simplifying our ability to perform tasks we were already capable of completing. We could already plow the field before the tractor. We could already cut the grass before the lawnmower. We could already copy books before the printing press. We could already kill each other before the gun. We could already travel from city to city before the automobile. We could already travel from continent to continent before the airplane. We could already multiply and divide numbers before the calculator. We could already type dissertations before the word processor. We could already write computer programs before the IDE. We could already send letters before email. We could already share pictures with family members before Flickr. We could already keep up with friends before Facebook… The length of this list of examples is only limited by the amount of time one spends making it.

And so it is that Joe Clark completely misses the point in his reading of John Hilton’s First Monday article From PDF to MP3. The core of Clark’s complaint is:

The article attempts to demonstrate the usefulness of Creative Commons licensing in the creation of alternate formats – and fails…. Nothing was specially enabled by Creative Commons…. Everything creators of derivative versions did they could have done without Creative Commons licensing just by asking for permission.

And so I add to the list above, ‘We could already acquire rights to produce derivative works before Creative Commons.’ By logically connecting Creative Commons to the list of other innovations in the category “changes things I could only do tediously, slowly, and expensively before into things I can do easily, quickly, and inexpensively now,” Clark’s critique only reflects poorly on itself. (Why is it that people who don’t want to share insist on criticizing people who do want to? Is it guilt?)

As I’ve said before, the primary purpose of open licenses is to remove friction from the system – to make it smooth, easy, instantaneous, and free to acquire permissions to make use of work that people choose to share. And yes, open licenses are a huge innovation on par with the airplane or the calculator.


Tony Karrer’s recent article on the Failure of Creative Commons Licenses demonstrates one of the ways in which CC licenses fail to reduce friction, and therefore fail to accomplish their primary purpose.

Readers of my blog know that while some individuals are morally opposed to the Noncommercial clause in CC licenses, I have no such moral objection. My objections to the NC clause have always been technical in nature. My concern continues to be that the no one (including Creative Commons) knows what the clause means, what it permits, or what it prohibits (and this despite the extremely poorly named Defining noncommercial study in which CC asked the community to tell them what they think noncommercial means).

Hundreds if not thousands of blog posts have been written on this topic. Tony’s earlier post asking if a for-profit company can include NC licensed content in internal training for its own employees stumbles into a quagmire several years old. He sent his question to the cc-community mailing list and was almost deafened by the silence. Only one person offered an answer, and that answer included:

Contact the copyright holder to verify that… their understanding of what the license permits and your understanding of what the license permits are congruent

In other words, the NC CC licenses make something I could only do tediously, slowly, and expensively before equally tedious, slow, and expensive to do now.

In one of my many posts on this topic over the years, in 2007 I wrote:

The lack of a clear, official definition of NC transports us backwards in time to a day when site owners were required to write their own terms of use, and when site users were required to read them in detail. Surely this isn’t innovation…. The NC clause is suppose to remove friction from the system, but does not. It only (rather deviously) appears to do so. Until the definition is clarified we are no better off than we were before – we all still have to write our own terms of use. And our users are even worse off than before – what appears to be a coherent, simple message conveyed by a small green icon at the bottom of a million web sites is really either pages of legal explanation granting differing rights on each site or the worst kind of vagueness in the cases where no extra legal explanation is given.

Which leads me to ponder the following scenario:

1. Two websites publish materials under the BY-NC-SA license.
2. Each site includes a “What we mean by noncommercial” page in order to try to reduce friction.
3. The first site defines noncommercial as a function of the user. “Are you an individual, library, school, or not-for-profit? Then you meet our definition of noncommercial.” (e.g., the Magnatune interpretation.)
4. The second site defines noncommercial as a function of the use. “As long as you don’t try to make money from our content, you’re cool regardless of what kind of entity you are” (e.g., the MIT OCW interpretation.)

MIT OCW and Magnatune are (deservedly) two of the most popular collections of CC-licensed material around. Here’s the question: even though they are both licensed BY-NC-SA, can I really remix MIT OCW material with Magnatune material, since they interpret NC differently and therefore aren’t really the same license? Whose definition would I follow, since they contradict each other? (MIT OCW explicitly says “Determination of commercial vs. non-commercial purpose is based on the use, not the user.”)

Individually, MIT OCW and Magnatune have done “the right thing” ™ by defining clearly what they mean by NC, thereby reducing friction for users. The remix question is separate from the friction question, but it should still bother us nonetheless. Do we really expect people to abide by the terms of our licenses or not? If we’re not clear about what those terms are, what do we expect to get in terms of user behavior? Likely garbage in, garbage out.

Jeepers this thing is a mess. I’d almost managed to put it out of my mind until Tony brought it up again.

2 thoughts on “A Colossal Missing of the Point”

  1. Thanks for posting on this. I’m glad to have someone who knows about this stuff give a bit of confirmation, but I somewhat wish that I was just missing an obvious answer. Or maybe it’s that everyone CC-NC or SA license needs to have additional specification like MIT and Magnatune have done.

  2. I’d love it if we could find some sort of fix for this. In an environment where it only takes a couple loud people to kill any momentum, the NC license is often a necessary evil.

    I’m running an open teaching materials project at my institution, and we’ve decided to go with the NC license, at least to start, because it’s easy to tie an MIT-style NC license to the mission of the college — whereas the attribution-only license stumbles into the sort of compensation and mission thicket that can destroy a nascent project.

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