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What Copyright License Should You Choose?

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So, for those of us who don’t know, I’m a bit of an amateur copyright buff, especially in the field of open license. I took a one-semester class on copyright law under the late Dennis Karjala as part of an interdisciplinary program (I am not a lawyer), but even before that, I had a keen interest in the subject of licenses, especially general (mass) licenses.

I’m that one guy who reads the EULA, or at least the interesting bits. Also, I’m focusing on US copyright law. No patent law, no trademark law, no international/foreign laws. I ain’t a lawyer. But I do make open content. And that means I need to know my licenses.

I’m going to break down the terms of what the licenses mean, and talk about the reasons you might choose each one.

First, let’s talk about cost.

Cost has nothing to do with your licensing scheme most of the time. This article has all rights reserved (the default, unless you say otherwise), but it’s still available entirely freely.

You can theoretically have a license agreement that says something like “User shall pay $X in order to be permitted to use/view this content”, but that’s not usually how licenses work (usually the relevant part of a license just says “User must acquire this work from an official channel, e.g. not piracy” if it even goes that far).

So don’t think that any license necessarily changes how you can price and sell your work. Of course, more permissive licenses may mean that other people can redistribute it freely, but that’s not something that keeps you from distributing it however you want (of course, you should consider the consequences of trying to sell something that is available from your neighbor for free at an exorbitant cost).

Just because something is “free” (libre) doesn’t mean it’s free of cost, either. A lot of software has freely available source code (or freely available elements in its source code), but you’ll pay through the nose if you don’t compile it yourself, which is often not in the novices’ purview.

What is a Free License?

A free license can mean different things to different people (and woe befall the person who uses the wrong definition in the wrong group), but it generally refers to licenses that:

Allow people to use/copy works
Allow people to make derivatives of works
Allow people to modify works
Allow people to redistribute your work, and modified versions

Basically, under a standard copyright scheme you’re not free to change or republish something. There are limits to what that means: for instance, you’re not breaking a law by reading this even though I’m reserving the rights to it, because I have implicitly licensed you to read it by posting it publicly.

You can’t copy and paste it elsewhere, though. You can link to it (at least under US law), but not necessarily embed it depending on the methods you use (e.g. if you pull my text raw from the site and repost it elsewhere). You can’t technically even download a copy of it, except for your own personal use, and even that could be shaky (you can use it in the means I provide it, here on Steemit, but not necessarily anywhere else). Every time you’ve downloaded a video from YouTube you’ve violated the DMCA and a slew of other legislation intended to protect big property owners.

Will you get prosecuted? Probably not. There’s a lengthy process involved, and only big corporations or associations really benefit heavily from copyright law. With that said, you could get prosecuted, and the penalties are incredibly harsh if you do get the full brunt of the law, which people do.

If you make a copy, however, you are committing a felony every time you create a copy. This means that if you put an illegal file on a flash-drive, you’ve now committed two felonies. If it’s on your hard-drive when you back it up, that’s a felony. If you torrent it, you’ve already done felonies for days if you’re seeding.

Any mistake, and you’re looking at several-digit fines and jail terms when dealing with restrictive content, even if that occurs at a rate roughly equivalent to being struck with lightning.

And this is where restrictive licenses are less valuable for many circumstances. For instance, unless I ease up on rights restrictions, you couldn’t print this and show it to a class without approaching me for a license. Now, would you be likely to be prosecuted? No. Could you maybe get by with a fair use exception? It’s possible, but not fun. Their lawyer is bigger than yours. Can you usually settle for a fraction of the penalty? Yep. Still not fun.

Free licenses basically say: All those good things you can do with something are officially cool!

Except when they don’t.

Degrees of “Freeness”

Before you do anything with a free license, we should talk about the bugbear in the room: Creative Commons.
Creative Commons covers most of the range of “free licenses”, including some you would probably find incredibly restrictive. We’re also going to use Creative Commons as our example because it’s the most common non-software license out there, even though I have some complaints about it that we’ll see in a bit. It also has some things that tend to violate our tenets of freedom, and we’ll talk about those as well.