Why I Switched to a Creative Commons License

Earlier this week I shifted the license on this website from a traditional copyright to a Creative Commons license, specifically an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. My reasons for doing this are important, and I want to share them.

I’ve been aware of Creative Commmons licenses for some time and, in spirit, I have always preferred them to the more draconian, commodified and separative alternative.

But in application, I almost always opted for the latter.

Why? Because I was scared. I was especially afraid of two related possibilities: one, that somebody would make money from my work while I was not (or could not), and two, that somebody would copy my work and present it as their own.

Indeed, copyright law emerged in our culture precisely to protect against those two possibilities. Many writers and artists see copyright as their only line of meaningful defense against intellectual theft. If you are making a living this way, the stakes are not insignificant.

My own interest in alternatives grew in direct proportion to changes in the markets for freelance writers. In the late eighties and early nineties when I was beginning to cut my teeth on journalism, you could write a story and publish it in multiple journals or papers. You owned the rights to it. A great deal of the viability for freelance income came from that reselling ability.

Moreover, it reflected a fundamental truth: that the writer was the one who had created the work – she or he had researched, reported, wrote and rewrote and so it was their work. Of course they could sell it and revise it as they saw fit.

That paradigm began slowly shifting until it reached a point where writers were creating a piece of work, selling it – often for less than they’d gotten decades earlier – and surrendering all their rights in the process. A company would buy a story for me for a thousand dollars and then run it in multiple mediums they owned. It was out of my hands.

My friends on the management side of the equation argued that they had no choice. Journalism was dying a death of a thousand cuts. They had to maximize their earning potential. And freelancers were an easy target. I began to wonder: is there an alternative?

When I published poetry – regardless of where it was published – the terms were almost always the same. The publisher got a one-off right to publish the work and then all rights reverted to me. Sometimes they paid me – in money or copies – and sometimes they didn’t. I was grateful for the chance to share my work, but even more grateful for the integrity that accompanied the process.

When I began to write on this website, I didn’t give much thought to copyright. Legally, once you create something, the copyright inheres in you. The legalese you attach only puts the world on notice; it doesn’t automatically affect your rights.

But as more people began to visit, and some of them to “borrow” my posts or significant parts of my posts, I started to wonder: how do I respond to this?

I was cognizant of the lawsuit initiated by the Foundation for Inner Peace in an effort to protect the copyright of A Course in Miracles (FACIM’s take is at least in part represented here). I understood the impulse in a sense, and the legal issues, but it also struck me as wrong-minded in some ways. It wasn’t just about copyright, but trademark, too. People were being told they couldn’t advertise notice of their “A Course in Miracles study group.” The issue seemed to be about control of the message as much as the means by which the message was being transmitted. I don’t know that I could have – or would have – handled the situation any differently, but I certainly gave that possibility some thought.

Of course, the Creative Commons licenses empower creators. They are legally sound and binding, and they are utterly flexible. They take full note of the media publishing culture in which we live. They do not disempower artists; they empower them. Essentially, they recognize the role of the creator as the master of her work, while allowing her to facilitate the kind of sharing and modification that seems fair and reasonable.

Yet each time I moved in that direction, I got scared. I’d put it off. “Don’t be naive,” I’d tell myself. “You’ve got something special here. It’s okay to protect it.”

Eventually, that word – “special” – seeped through. Indeed, it was the whole problem. I had a special relationship with my writing and I did not trust you – or anyone else – to respect it. And the only way to defend myself against your greed and hypocrisy – because you were obviously going to plagiarize me and get rich doing so – was an aggressive strategy of copyright enforcement. All rights reserved and don’t think for a moment I’m afraid to use it.

Of course, that is not a very satisfying way to live or create. Defensiveness – always a byproduct of specialness – never is. The more I looked at it, the more I realized that this was a chance for me to practice faith and to put my money where my mouth so long had been. My values called for a more flexible, generous and progressive approach to ownership – one that reflected an underlying belief in oneness, faith in my brothers and sisters, and a sense of abundance rather than scarcity.

So I mad the switch. And instantly – because it was the right thing to do and the right time to do it – I felt an instant rush of peace and gratitude.

Am I saying that you should follow suit? Or that others who are still using traditional copyright are wrong-minded idiots blaspheming Jesus and Buddha? Or that FIP and FACIM were evil and greedy for initiating legal action with respect to possible copyright violations?

No.

It is important to do what is right for oneself – and what is right for you may not be for me. Such is the nature of forgiveness. Sometimes it takes us a while to learn what is right and longer still to bring it into application. There are no mistakes. It is important to tend to our own garden and let our neighbors tend to theirs.

In other words, it’s not about being right universally but particularly. In this instance, under these circumstances, X is the right thing to do. So I am going to try and do it. I may learn there is another way to go in the future. I may go back to what I did before. But right now, this is where spirit is most resonant.

And, really, that is where we want to be – as writers, artists, teachers, students. We want to be where Spirit most resonates.

Thank you, as always, for sharing the way with me.

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