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Copywrong Revisited

September 10, 2003

When is an orange not an orange? When someone colors it purple. I have learned more about copyrights and licensing in the past 24 hours than I ever thought I’d need to.

This post is about the general issue. The specific dispute has been resolved, as the person I was quoting has both privately and publicly apologized and settled this in a way acceptable to me and hopefully all the Zen Garden authors. The funny thing about repentence is that it places the accuser in a spot of feeling guilty for doing the accusing in the first place, but I digress, and we’ve moved on.

It would seem that Creative Commons is a tangle of worms, and the simple three-step process they offer when selecting a license is overly simplistic. Back in May when I evaluated CC and chose the license I did, I made sure to read the full legal code and didn’t find anything that I couldn’t agree with. Experience since has highlighted the problems with CC licenses in real world conditions which I never could have foreseen at the time:

  • ‘Derivative Work’ is an undefined term. Technically, someone could grab any work governed by this license, modify a single pixel, and re-release it as their own ‘derivative work’, and that’s okay.
  • ‘Attribution’ is an undefined term. The same person is not obligated to credit the original author visibly; they could just bury their attribution in an obscure spot of the source file that no one but the most conscientious developer will ever see.
  • The license is definitive. You cannot add terms on top of it. This effectively means you lose any control of your copyright beyond what Creative Commons affords. This is what I got tripped up on; I assumed it was okay to further refine some points, considering I/we still owned the copyright on the original work.
  • The license is non-revokable. If someone chooses to do something with your work that you don’t approve of (think hate or porn sites here) you’re out of luck. Worse: they have to attribute you. You can’t even request they use your work but not associate it with you. Stew on that for a while, it’ll leave a bad taste in your mouth.

I wanted to keep things simple and open. To me, and to many of you, there are clear lines between fair use, respectable use, and outright theft. To others, there aren’t, and this is why things will have to change.

I want people to be able to use these .css files. I want them to learn from them, I want them to take the techniques within and produce new work with them. That’s how I and many others learned what we know, and I want to fully encourage it to continue.

But I don’t want wholesale copying. Images or no, the designs are not templates. Zen Garden submitters are not spending their free time putting together work so that others may re-use and possibly profit from it. This, it would seem, is what some can’t differentiate. There’s no license in the world that says “use some, but not all,” and even if there were, the definition of “some” is too vague to be legally binding.

So, because of the few, the many once again suffer. I now have to spend the next few weeks refining a more specific license for the Zen Garden. The spirit of openness and learning will be preserved as far as it can, but since it was obviously too open to begin with, it will be much more restrictive.

None of us is glad to see it come to this. I think Michael said it best in this comment:

The sad part in all of this is the legalistic vantage points that everyone has to come from nowadays.

It can’t just be about what’s proper, polite, courtious, considerate, correct, or nice.

It has to be about what the license says, what the offender feels entightled to, how far the offender feels he can go with it, what the letter of the law says can and can’t happen.

It can’t be a nice little “oh sorry”, “hey, no problem” affair. It’s gotta be “sorry bucko you lose, too bad” and “listen here you jerk”. Maybe I’m just a little polly-anna but I expect better behavior out of people whether or not there’s a license covering that behavior. It saddens me that there are people out there so immature and so self-absorbed that they just can’t understand it when people don’t want to give them the world for free and act belligerent when people challenge them for that behavior.