Code. Images. Words. Baby.

Volume 9, Issue 87; 21 Sep 2006; last modified 08 Oct 2010

Thoughts on licensing my code, images, and words.

In considering Mark Pilgrim’s recent essay about the “non-commercial” clause in the Creative Commons license,

<foaf:name>Tim Bray</foaf:name>
wonders if the fact that he feels differently about code and non-code makes him weird.

I don't think so. And I'll tell you why. Or, at least, I'll tell you why I feel differently about code and non-code.

When I sit down to write code, I bring a certain set of skills, a certain amount of experience, and a certain quality of gray stuff between my ears. Presented with a problem that can be solved by a simple matter of programming and sufficient time, I can probably craft a solution. Coding is mostly an engineering exercise. There are any number of other bit pushers out there that could also solve the problem.

Giving away code is, in some sense, giving away nothing more than time and convenience. There are lots of reasons to do this, the least egocentric being that I want the convenience and benefit of using other programmer's time. The more I share, the more others will, or at least that's the theory.

When I sit down to write words or I take a photograph, I'm engaged in something different: it's fundamentally not like writing code. To the extent that I'm writing facts or photographing public events, you could find someone else to write the facts or photograph the events, but no one else could write my words or take my photographs.

And that makes me more possessive about those things.

That said, Mark's arguments are compelling. I may drop the “NC” clause from my Creative Commons licensing. I'm going to have to think about it some more.

[With apologies to Gwen Stefani for the title.—ed]


"... no one else could write my words or take my photographs"

Yes, and this makes a written work much more a total work than code. If someone takes a few (or a lot) lines of my code, and reuses those, I don't care (it might even make me happy). But when I write a well-crafted essay, and somebody takes a few paragraphs (not as quotes, but real re-use of prose), intersperses those with their own, and makes a new essay in this way, I'd feel troubled, even when I'm given proper attribution. Picking a few lines of code out of a program is fine. Picking a few lines of prose out of an essay is fine only when one is quoting: 'Marc says "...." and this is nonsense'.

To sum up the difference: you don't quote code, you reuse it but you may only quote my prose, not reuse it.

—Posted by Marc de Graauw on 22 Sep 2006 @ 08:21 UTC #

In a system that relies on eigen-value indexing, failing to cite is theft of force by coercion. It is both a crime of property and a crime against society because it denies the individual their right as the creator and it falsifies the societal memory. It warps the manifold in a way that decays the very means of sharing.

These are not metaphors. These are the way inbound linking systems work. Ultimately, they drive the participants away from open models into models that prevail by protecting the sources for resources through controls ever more Draconian.

—Posted by Len Bullard on 22 Sep 2006 @ 10:35 UTC #

Norm, your point seems somehow off the point. Under the existing CC-by-nc license, I can take your work, insert the word "not" randomly into your sentences, and republish it on my own web site, crediting you. As long as no one pays me for this (as if!), I'm gold. CC-by-nc doesn't even require that I specify that my version differs from yours! (This is why even rms prohibits derivative works of his opinion pieces.)

Consider what I did to one of ESR's rants. That was a fair-use parody, or at least I claim it was (ESR didn't think it was a bit funny). With CC-by-nc, I wouldn't have needed even that defense, and what becomes of that sense of ownership?

—Posted by John Cowan on 22 Sep 2006 @ 02:12 UTC #

As I pointed out in my comment at, I can and did take your photographs, and your panoramic ones at that. Some of the details in your versions are different from mine, but so would the details of your atom2html.xsl when compared with my atom2html.xsl script if we both wrote one. As with the photographs, we'd both be separately using similar technology to achieve nearly identical goals. My Vatican panoramic picture has different people walking through it, bu my atom2html.xsl stylesheet would have different variable names as well, so I'm not sure of your distinction between no one else being able to write your words while someone else could use the same vocabulary and syntax to write keywords that the solve the same problem.

That is, if they had the same problem, just as you and I had the same problem of wanting to bring home a panoramic picture of the Vatican.

—Posted by Bob DuCharme on 22 Sep 2006 @ 07:40 UTC #

By the way, regarding the CAPTCHA feature of your commenting system, I hear they give MacArthur grants for that nowadays.

—Posted by Bob DuCharme on 22 Sep 2006 @ 08:06 UTC #

For simple arithmetic?

—Posted by Norman Walsh on 23 Sep 2006 @ 06:36 UTC #

I agree with John Cowan. The arguments for NC are not really arguments for NC. They are arguments for ND.

I license most of my public photos under CC-by 2.0 (Flickr doesn’t allow 2.5). Someone left a comment on one of my photos that (s)he sells stuff on eBay with my photo printed on. I don’t see why that would hurt me. I’m not in the business of selling photos (neither as such or printed on stuff). Allowing commercial reuse isn’t money away from me. Not letting someone else make money seems irrational to me.

I don’t consider most photos proper works of authorship anyway. I have just made choices of what scenes to capture. I feel less attached to my photos than to my code. I think it would be relatively hard to violate my artistic integrity with the photos. (Actually, CC-by requiring attribution is a risk. If I wasn’t credited, the risk of bad stuff associated with my name would be even lower.)

I agree with RMS that allowing opinion pieces to be changed is not necessary. RMS publishes his opinions under a license that is similar to CC-by-nd, except the license RMS uses fits in one sentence. I have published opinionated stuff under CC-by-nd 2.5.

Yet, I have also published opinions under CC-by-sa 2.5 and intend to do so in the future. On those occasions, I have been paid to do so or I have participated in a project whose documentation policy required it. It is difficult to separate my technology-political opinions from mere howto-stuff. I have chosen to err on the side of freedom. Besides, Continental European copyright law makes it illegal to use my works to defame me or to misrepresent authorship. Of course, someone doing malicious misrepresentations in the U.S. probably wouldn’t care, but I haven’t had that problem, yet.

Oh, and one more reason, why the artist’s French-style relationship to his/her work is bunk: The leadership of the Finnish copyright licensing association for composers and lyricists, Teosto, acknowledges that they “sell music like sausage”. When money talks, the artistic integrity is not that important anymore.

—Posted by Henri Sivonen on 25 Sep 2006 @ 10:52 UTC #

hmmm Why I disagree with this one ;) I mean Mark's comment. The NC clause has a bit more than just "Non Commercial" use. The notion of self regulated free market is just an… illusion. There is no egality (or equity) in free market, if all players do not have the same power. When you are an individual facing a multi-billionaire company, you have very little chances to get your rights enforced. Why? Because you do not have time against a machine, you do not have the money to fight. NC would become more or less useless, if the commercial world was composed of only of people with equal powers. But that's not the case and then till then a big company like SomethingMedia Inc. can use my work without for me the *material* possibility of sharing the benefits and fighting if not used in an appropriate manner, I will not use the "commercial clause" but I will stay with NC.

btw, Technorati, bloglines an others are already abusing the content of NC declared weblogs. Data mining is a commercial use of your content.

—Posted by karl on 26 Sep 2006 @ 07:08 UTC #

I thought you were finally going to package your website source and release it. Oh well.

—Posted by Chris Chiasson on 26 Sep 2006 @ 01:31 UTC #

karl, why do you believe in that that SomethingMedia Inc. would adhere to NC if you believe you have no enforcement leverage anyway? If you believe that would adhere to NC nonetheless, would you not believe that they’d adhere to SA? And wouldn’t SA make for a level playing field?

—Posted by Henri Sivonen on 26 Sep 2006 @ 10:21 UTC #