I just felt I needed to get something off my chest regarding how Creative Commons licenses are used these days.

The truth is this: Creative Commons licenses are an excellent idea if you know what you are doing. They are worse than useless if you have zero idea what you are doing. Creative Commons licenses should only be applied consciously, either through a deliberate choice (i.e. people just pick a license and know full well what they’re dealing with) or through clearly stated and well-enforced site policy (i.e. people who contribute to a website under a CC license are fully aware of what they’re doing). And above all, when these licenses are applied, they should be applied consistently and correctly. If the CC licenses are not applied with these things in mind, they’re next to useless and should be treated with utmost suspicion. The way they are used right now, you just can’t trust them in some sites.

Personally, I can only trust the CC license if the person who uses that license deliberately says that they’re using the licenses, in their own words, or otherwise show that they fully understand what the CC licenses really mean. (I know, I haven’t mentioned the CC license rationales with each and every work I’ve published. Hopefully, this post will demonstrate that I do care deeply about CC licenses and I apply them consciously. =)

It’s good that sites like deviantART allow you to post artwork under Creative Commons license, and specifically set the correct license through CC’s license selector. However, I’ve seen a lot of really clueless application of the licenses: People pick a CC license, then go on to add additional terms to the artwork.

A lot of people have picked, say, CC BY-ND-NC license and then say “this image is for personal use only, please don’t distribute this work anywhere outside of deviantART”. This places an additional restriction on top of the CC license, which allows unlimited distribution of the image (for non-commercial use, at very least). This restriction has far-reaching effects: The license is no longer purely a CC license, which means that people have to specifically state those terms if they intend to redistribute the work. It also means that the license isn’t compatible with other CC licenses, since it adds a contradictory requirement. It’s also very likely that the artist didn’t read the license text, and thus doesn’t understand its implications - which means we can’t honestly rely on the license text. There’s been simply too many cases where people picked the CC license and then said “damn, I didn’t want that to happen”. This sort of misunderstandings undermine the reliability of the license statement.

And the silliest people on deviantART use a CC license and put a watermark in. This is more than little self-contradictory, and shows that the artist hasn’t quite gotten the spirit of the CC licenses in the first place. “Hell yeah, I support free culture… with useless contributions.”

How the heck could we fix this mess? Is the CC license selector too easy to use? Should it have additional fields or warnings? “Yes, I undestand the basic rights the license grants to all Creative Commons works, like the right to distribute this particular instance of the work for personal use”? “Yes, I understand I will not place additional restrictions on the use of this particular work”? Not allow automatic watermarks, for purely aesthetic and common-sense reasons?

Sites which apply Creative Commons licenses automatically are very good at eroding the usefulness of CC licenses. This can be done right, if the site is very explicit about the licensing.

Wikipedia is a good example of how to apply CC license. People who contribute material are told, very explicitly, that 1) the works will be under a CC license, 2) the contributions will be edited and redistributed by other people “mercilessly”, and 3) copyright violations and plagiarism are not tolerated and will be treated as a serious matter.

A less good example is status.net/identi.ca: The CC BY license is mentioned site-wide (and, of course, the site is already populated by open source geeks who tend to be well versed in IP matters), but people don’t make a big deal out of it. It’s questionable whether people who use the site are actually acutely aware what the license means for them.

Bad examples? Scribd and Firefox Personas. Both sites apply CC -NC licenses to all works by default. Even a cursory look, however, will show that copyright isn’t treated as a serious matter that needs enforcement in any shape or form. People will submit copyrighted content, fanart, and like - that material just simply isn’t licensable as CC to begin with. Or alternatively, they just submit stuff and don’t even know that the material is now supposedly under a Creative Commons license. This sort of stuff only begets more anger and confusion. Don’t do this.

Also, I’d like to single out one more weird habit where a site isn’t really using the licenses correctly. Elfwood allows artists to use a Creative Commons license… but it limits the license to Swedish jurisdiction, because Elfwood is hosted in Sweden. The fact is, copyright is only concerned about the jurisdiction under which the copyright holder falls, not the host. If I create works, they’re under Finnish copyright terms, no matter where I decide to save them.

Hope this rant makes site owners think a little bit.