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.

9 thoughts on “Deprecating Creative Commons -NC may not be a good idea.”

  1. However, they’re right that the name NonCommercial is highly misleading and something like CommercialMonopoly is better:
    1) I so, so, so often bumped into people telling me “oh, but I’m doing this thing for free, not for [anyone’s] profit, so it’s a NonCommercial thing, I’ll stick to -NC!”.
    2) Even those who understand what -NC means don’t understand that -SA is actually a better protection because bigger corporations “stealing” your work (creating a derivative wrok from it) for profit don’t want to release their work under any CC license.

  2. Dammit, as usual, you’re right and I don’t have much to add. NC is really painful in reality – is an academic institution “commercial”? And the sooner everyone comes around to the view that other people making money off your content is a good thing, not a bad, the better off we’ll all be.

    There’s a tiny proportion of us free content creators who ever had any pretentions of making a living from our stuff. Maybe -NC is useful to them, but for everyone else, I think it creates an unnecessary and complicated choice: “Wait, should I allow commercial use? Maybe I shouldn’t.”

    OTOH, simply scrapping something because we’d prefer it didn’t exist creates all kinds of other problems.

  3. ll my kids soccer pictures are marked CC-BY-SA-NC. That allows parents and kids to make a collage of images for calendars, school projects, christmas cards, etc. This prohibits Addidas from using pictures of our kids in ads without our explicit permission like they could under just CC-BY (at least not without threat of lawsuit). And without depending on privacy rights that may or may not exist.

    See Chang v Virgin. (

  4. Nigel – yeah, that model rights aren’t nearly as easy to act on a violation of as copyrights are. A copyright licence is arguably the wrong tool for the job, but I do see your point in terms of using something that will achieve the desired effect.

  5. Hey David, what you’re saying makes a whole lot of sense. It just sickens me to see people on a “freehad” against certain CC options and then do it in the Orwellian name of “freedom”.

    I have music on bandcamp that is CC BY-NC. The reason I have a NC license is so I can receive royalties (whatever little I can) from a collections agency and to make money off of my work. I also have a flickr page of photos I dedicated to the same license. The reason I put my photos in a BY-NC license is so nobody would make money off of them without me getting a slice of the pie.

    I would also like to say that I think the SA condition is even more dangerous than the NC one for this reason: SA mandates that you use a similar or the same license, but it’s not always clear whether you can do that, thus inhibiting actual freedom. The NC condition may be confusing to the layman, but there’s a lot of “noncommercial” space out there that should be clear, like the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg.

    My next album will be © All Rights Reserved, but I’m just experimenting with business models. I’d be more than happy to see it “illegally” downloaded and remixed (but not used commercially or sans credit).

    There are some pieces of content I dedicated into the public domain, because I think BY and especially BY-SA are too restrictive.

    If you are still pissed that some of my works are not copyleft or public domain, not to worry. I’m going to dedicate every piece of content I ever created into the public domain as soon as I die.

  6. The problem with the commercial CC-SA licences is that you’re basically feeding your content free to scraper sites which merely turn your text into gibberish, strip out images and repost to their own ad-laden, spammy pages in an attempt to fool search engines.

    All that spam is now in direct competition with the original website for positioning in search results, the freedom to take the entire content of a site and dump it onto a commercial rival site does hurt the original project.

    The search engines attempt to compensate by penalising duplicate content, but how does one decide which is the originating site and which is spam?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *