Deprecating Creative Commons -NC may not be a good idea.

There are serious calls to remove the -NC and -ND license options from Creative Commons 4.0. The reasons are solid in their domain (software, science and education) and well thought out, but I suspect they’re still badly wrong and will hinder the idea of sharing culture outside that domain. Culture is not (quite) software.

I’m not a fan of -NC and I do think the world would be better off without it in the long run, but you can’t just declare it so in the short run. My thesis is that there is a strong demand for an -NC option, by-nc-sa accurately describes how Internet culture actually works and that without -NC, people will share significantly less in general than they would with it. Either the -NC licenses will linger without maintenance, or stuff that would have been released -NC will just be left all rights reserved.

I’ve had occasion to explain to people how proper free licenses work and why Wikipedia uses them. You can reliably explode their heads by explaining just what “free content” means. For them, by-nc-nd is radical openness. There’s a lot of room out in the big world to spread the very notion of shareability and letting go of control.

For an encyclopedia, and education in general, you actually want to allow all the stuff -NC forbids. For other fields, you may actually not. People also have a strong resistance to allowing someone else to make money from their work when they don’t. (For whatever reason.)

Quite a lot of photographers happily -NC their images but want to be able to sell them. I submit that having their images -NC is better for the world than having them all rights reserved. (That being so very concerned about £5 a year from Getty Images is frankly delusional when you’ve spent thousands of quid and hundreds of hours getting there doesn’t change this.)

Bloggers don’t necessarily want to put everything under a CC-by-sa licence. Ask the ones who’ve had the Guardian reproduce their stuff in Trolling Is Free without asking, notice or preserving the licence (but with their name and a lifted photo). This blog isn’t under any CC licence. Even Richard Stallman doesn’t put everything he writes under a free licence.

I noticed a while ago (though I can’t find where I said so Update: here) that Internet folk culture — Tumblrs, fan fiction, LiveJournal icons, that sort of thing — tends to an ethos of the following:

  • can reuse each other’s stuff;
  • give credit;
  • not doing it for money.

Note that that just happens to add up to by-nc-sa. So that licence is a good fit for the categories in people’s heads. And it doesn’t matter that -nc is a magical category, which sounds simple in English but turns out to be fractally complicated when you look closely, nor that the ethos of “noncommerciality” is a First World luxury that, applied to science, software or educational materials, results in reifying various privileges at the expense of doing the thing you thought you were actually doing.

(The other reason for noncommerciality is that culture as it’s actually practiced these days is a string of copyright violations, and not taking money increases the chances of being allowed to keep doing it. And with much Internet folk art, tracing the copyright is just stupidly unfeasible. Copyright doesn’t encourage culture, it blocks it by claiming ownership of the building blocks of thought.)

I suspect this is a subclass of “nobody gives a shit about freedom 0 until the lack of it bites them in the arse personally.”

I think the correct course of action for us is:

  1. Maintain Wikimedia as a firm bastion of proper free content, without any -NC or -ND.
  2. Continue to encourage sharing in the wider culture, using -NC where suitable.

I could, of course, be wrong in practice.