Why the license? or, Scott Wells for the twenty-second century

A few minutes ago, my friend and colleague Victoria Weinstein, writing as PeaceBang, asked:

Maybe it’s my toddler-addled brain, but I’m confused. Excuse my ignorance, but I bet I’m not the only dummy out there on this. My main question is, “How does this change anything?” Because wouldn’t any ethical person attribute you appropriately even without a license? And wouldn’t (and haven’t) you do/done the same? And wouldn’t sloppy or unethical people continue to quote you or snippet you without proper attribution even with a license?

Is this more of a legal thing or is it more of a community-ethos thing?

It’s a legal thing, that has serious implications about culture.

This creative output is mine. Mine, I tell you. Mine. Mine. Mine. Not yours. Attributing me doesn’t give you a right to use what’s mine and thanking me retroactively doesn’t change that one whit. (And church people can be such kindly thieves when it comes to copyright. One of my most prized possessions in a copy of the 1811 “pirate” edition of Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement. The printer thought Ballou’s words were so important they they must be printed, copyright be — er — damned.)

There are two ways you can use my creative output without my permission.

  • You can wait for my copyright to expire, when it enters the public domain.
  • You can use a sample under the fair use doctrine.

The problem is

  • Copyright has been extended by law from less than half a lifetime (it was 28 years for a long time, if I recall correctly; again, I’m no lawyer) to life plus seventy years for individual’s works in the United States. (This, not his career with Cher, is Sonny Bono’s lasting legacy at the behest of the Disney Empire; The Mouse was about to go into the public domain.)
  • Fair use is a murky realm. If you use it boldly, have your lawyers at the ready.

The effect on culture is powerful. Imagine our historical past where artists, thinkers and scientists could not freely build on the work of others, except where more than a century had passed. A licensing scheme tries to restore some balance.

With the license I chose, someone can make new media of my work, including translations. Text can be incorporated into studies and reports. Sermons can be repreached.

You may not, however, make money from my work, claim it as your own or (and this is the one a lot of people will not understand at first) restrict others from doing the same with your work if it is based on mine: you have to share the freedom on the same terms.

All other rights — publishers, would you like to publish a Boy in the Bands Anthology? producers, Bands! The Musical? — are mine. In case y’all were interested in your financial stake.

But even if I never make a cent — so far, that’s been the case — I figure by opening up some uses of my work, I have a better chance to have some influence than waiting for my work to enter the public domain some time in the twenty-second century.

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