Why I use a non-commercial license.

Submitted by naught101 on Sat, 03/01/2008 - 11:54

There's a huge wave of open-licensing sweeping the 'net, and it's starting to get into the real world. This is definitely a good thing - freedom of information is a great. The most common licenses, such as the GNU FDL, or the Creative Commons BY-SA stipulate that anyone can use the works, as long as they acknowledge the author, and that they keep it free (usually by using the same license). The last tactic has been called "viral" by numerous capitalists, and they are correct, it is. Eventually it will take over the world, or at least a large part of it. I can't wait.

Creative Commons, and perhaps a few other licences, give people the option to license their work with a "non-commercial" (NC) clause, This is strongly derided amongst the free software movement particularly, as economic exploitation by a creator is considered a freedom and a right. This is argued well on the Freedom Defined wiki.

There are two main arguments against using an NC license, the first is economic, the second in a matter of compatibility. A third minor argument against the CC-BY-NC-SA, is an argument against creative commons itself. I will deal with these in the above order.

The problem with the economic arguments is that they argue for the rights of the creator, but completely ignore the rights of the audience - where freedom of information really matters.

First, I should point out that the CC-BY-NC-SA license says that no-one may exercise their copy-left rights "in any manner that is primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation". This obviously does not include recuperating costs of reproduction - even if cost recuperation could be considered "private monetary compensation", which it probably can, no-one reproduces something primarily to cover costs. In other words, if someone reproduces something released under a creative commons license and recuperates costs, they are still legally acting within the restrictions of the license. If they make profit, they are not.

In this case, the audience is actually protected from exploitation, as the publisher, ie. a magazine or advertiser, cannot charge exorbitant rates for publishing a piece of work that they didn't create (there's a good example of this is on techrivet and on flickr.com), but small time users, zine creators, bloggers are free to use the work (except those making a profit, a concept conflated with cost recuperation on the Freedom Defined wiki). Fundamentally, a non-commercial license will only affect the rich (magazine buying public, for example), and middle-men who, frankly, need to be affected (middle-men should not exist, except where necessary, and never for profit. There is more worth-while work to do).

This means that all kinds of media and groups CAN use the work freely: community radio stations, Not-For-Profit organisations, collectively run media (such as New Internationalist, or Indymedia), and they can recuperate their costs, and they can probably even make a bit of profit, as long as that profit goes back into the organisation (ie. not individual profits). But corporate media - media which is primarily run as a profit making venture - is locked out. That's exactly what I want. I really don't want NewsCorp making money from my labours. They already make enough money with the crap the sell, not to mention the way they support the capitalist system, which I consider highly immoral.

I'm in it for the commons. And the people who need the commons the most are the poor. The rich already have enough resources, they can sort themselves out. And imposing profit on a product is a form of restricting the freedom of the commons (arguably recuperating costs would put the price of some products out of some people's reach, however not to do so would hardly be sustainable for the distributor, and would finally destroy the supply line entirely).

The Second argument, that the NC license creates a rift in the free content movement, is true, but I don't consider this problematic, or even true, necessarily. I highly respect anyone who uses a share-alike license, regardless of their stance on the non-commercial license. But I consider the non-commercial license more useful for my purposes.

From the other side, the argument runs that adding an NC clause restricts the core freedoms of the commons. However, I would argue that profit making should not be a core freedom of the commons - Profit is not created out of thin air (this is a core part of the neo-classical economic fallacy), rather, it is simply resources (generally either physical resources, or time, and also ideas in an intellectual property regime) moved from one place to another. Anyone making a profit from the commons is ripping off someone else. I would argue that it should be a core for people to have the right to freedom from being economically exploited.

The argument includes a practical side: that content can't easily be merged, for example, between envirowiki (CC-BY-NC-SA) and wikipedia (GFDL). I can see the point in this argument - it would make writing envirowiki much easier if I could pinch large chunks from wikipedia - but I also see an advantage in the separation: it helps forster diversity (something I value very highly). Because I have to write envirowiki articles from scratch, I get to do more research, and the final result will be two different perspectives on different issues, which can be extremely valuable.

The final part of the second argument is one that I like because it's circular: the NC license should not be used because it's viral, that is content under and NC license, even if modified, will always remain under the NC license. I like it for the same reason that capitalist hate all copy-left licenses.

On the final argument, against Creative Commons as a corporation, that is that they are a tool of the capitalist capitalist system. I can't really respond to that, I don't know how true it is yet. Regardless, I don't particularly think there's anything wrong with using a concept from such a corporation. True there's the trademark thing, but I don't think that's a such a problem. If creative commons had a physical product, and related resource exploitation, like most corporations, I would think differently, for sure, but the domain of ideas is logically infinite, unlike the physical world.

The NC license is more restrictive, but the restriction can be seen as a protection from the other side. The arguements against NC, and the more general arguments for free licenses have, so far, been completely artist/creator-centric. But the rights of the audience should have just as much consideration given to them, and so far that hasn't happened, at least no explicitly. One of the fundumental problems with capitalism and intellectual property is profit: rich people restricting the ability of the poor to live and learn by making them pay exhobitant amounts. If an alternative doesn't act to stop that, then what's the point?

I would like to say that my ideas on this are definitely NOT fixed. I'm still considering the whole concept, and would greatly appreciate feedback.


"arguably recuperating costs would put the price of some products out of some people’s reach, however not to do so would hardly be sustainable for the distributor, and would finally destroy the supply line entirely": I think this gets to (one) crux of the problem: what is meant by recuperating costs? if it's simply materials (or 'net access, etc), and not time, then the supply line might also fail (more likely for some things than others, such as niche requirements) because no one may have the time or inclination to produce the material unless they're being compensated for their time.

I agree that it doesn't seem reasonable to make a profit selling someone else's information (whether it's taking explicitly open-source material or pinching a scientists idea and patenting it), but this doesn't address the case of modification of material.

However, as far as an NC clause being unreasonable, those who want to make profit (small or large, or simply to cover time spent or more) from some form of information can simply produce their own information and use whatever license they like with it.

James (not verified)

Tue, 07/20/2010 - 09:21

If stuff like the Linux kernel and GNOME were released under a non-commercial licence they would not be what they are today. Companies like Red Hat and Cannonical (far from the "capo scum" stereotype you apply all too regularly) have contributed positively to the open-source community - while still making money. Additionally, their ability to make money by providing support services is probably a key factor in Internet hosting companies using Linux. So if we all used non-commercial licenses closed-source companies like Microsoft would be milking it even more, ironically.

On a more technical note, the economy is not a zero-sum game. You say that profit is always made at the expense of someone else - an introductory course in economics would show this up for the fallacy that it is.


James: of course. I never said that everyone else should use NC licenses. And I do use GFDL and CC-BY-SA licenses elsewhere - mostly where I'm collaborating with other people, and want the information to be as widely accessible to others as possible - for example drupal development. Envirowiki has also switched to CC-BY-SA, (albeit mostly for compatibility reasons). Basically, I'm just using it for my creative content (which probably no-one could make profit off anyway >:)

On the technical note: I don't see how the economy can't be a zero-sum game. Basic neo-classical economics teaches that infinite growth is possible and, more or less, inevitable. But it completely ignores the natural limits on the economy: we're limited in space - we only have one planet, and we're rapidly approaching peaks in nearly every mineral, and bio-resources (forests and fisheries, etc) are diminishing and crashing. Of course there's this bizarre notion that we can switch to a services economy and everything will be alright. But both supply and demand in a services economy are limited by time, and population, which is limited by space, as above. A basic understanding of population dynamics will show you that the quicker we grow and outstrip our resources base, the quicker we fall. (The only place I'm aware of that profit is truly made from nothing is fractional reserve banking, which banks use to lend people money that doesn't exist, and make profit from the interest. But that creates inflation, and the only real effect is to move wealth from the poor to the rich).

Another way of looking at it is that modern economics ignores "externalities". That is, social harm and environmental damage (which should, in economic terms, more properly be considered loss of capital). Until economics starts seriously looking at these problems from an ecological perspective, we're pretty much headed towards disaster. I don't want to be a part of that.

James (not verified)

Tue, 07/20/2010 - 10:07

That's a pretty fair post!

The economics discussion is probably a little too deep for a small Wordpress comments section. I do agree that externalities should be dealt with, and that an approach like this would be great for the environment.

As regards zero-sum, not everything primarily relies on finite resources. Computer development, for example. As I said, too deep a discussion. Cheers for the reply, and sorry if I was a little militant earlier!