Keeping the Open Source / Creative Commons Eco-System Healthy

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When writing blog posts, particularly for clients without a budget for images, I rely heavily on the kindness of strangers — those strangers who post their photographs to Flickr under one Creative Commons license or another. I’ve been known to get downright snooty about how carefully I search out the images I can legal use; it irritates me to no end when someone tries to tell me that they can just use any image they find online. But while I have my nose in the air, I also feel a bit hypocritical: I’m not contributing images back to the Creative Commons pool that other people can use for their own projects.

Photography isn’t my passion; I mess around with Instagram and other photo apps, but I don’t do much else. I don’t have a lot of photos I feel are worth releasing to the world.

I don’t think I’m taking advantage of all those photographers who feel comfortable sharing their work despite my pangs of guilt. I’m religious about providing links back to the work of the photographer (or other creative) who provided the work I’m relying on. When requested, I’ve even gone back and edited old posts to make sure that I’m linking to a creative’s preferred online presence or using the anchor text the photographer prefers.

Appropriate attribution is the least I can do, though. Good stock photography is expensive and photographers licensing their work under Creative Commons are (at least theoretically) foregoing some income. Links are something of a currency, at least online, but they may not be enough to keep the Creative Commons ecosystem healthy. What I should do, at least in my own mind, is to release some amount of my own writing under a Creative Commons license, to be freely used.

So why don’t I release my own work under a Creative Commons license?

Part of it is a question of mechanics: I earn my living from my writing, at least the first time a given article or ebook appears anywhere. Licensing work in such a way that I can get paid requires hanging on to copyright, at least in the short-term. I’m not saying that those photographers posting their work under Creative Commons licenses shouldn’t be able to earn a living. However, more than a few of those photographers have other sources of income.

But part of the problem is that there’s no clear incentive for me to release copyright: if I write well, I’m going to get those inbound links (the currency of of the web). It’s relatively rare that anyone wants to republish an article that’s already freely available on the web on some other website. The search engines don’t reward such behavior, after all. I do occasionally get requests to reprint my work offline, in actual print. I routinely allow non-profits to reprint my work without charging them a fee. I’m even open to allowing someone who stands to turn a bit of a profit use my work without recompense. But there are plenty of companies that I’d rather not license my work to without compensation (such as textbook publishers, who have occasionally approached me in the past).

The Existing Incentives for Open Source

The Creative Commons and open source communities have a huge amount of overlap. But open source is more effective: more people using open source software seem to make a habit of putting work back into the eco-system. The open source approach to software is very well established: if you’re currently reading this, you’ve touched multiple pieces of open source software even if you didn’t realize it. Many content management systems, servers and other online technologies run entirely on open source software.

WordPress, for instance, is made available under the GNU General Public License, an open source license. Anyone who wants to download WordPress’s files and use them to set up a website can. There’s a clear benefit to that kind of availability: WordPress has been downloaded over six million times, which doesn’t even take into account the number of WordPress.com accounts there are or the number of developers who have set up multiple WordPress websites from a single download. There is no way for a software product to grow that dramatically in a closed system — and that kind of growth can be a major incentive for someone to contribute to open source software. While WordPress’s contributors haven’t exactly become household names, they do enjoy a certain amount of celebrity among people in the know.

There isn’t a lot of money that goes with that relative fame. There are a few particularly profitable WordPress-based businesses, as well as other companies based on building open source software. The licenses, however, aren’t built with developing strong business models in mind, purposefully. There are some options, like Creative Commons’ Non-Commercial license which allows for free use of creative work, provided that it isn’t for a commercial process, while still allowing the creator to financially benefit from her work, but these licenses aren’t always the easiest to earn a living from. That’s not necessarily a problem, provided that the creatives making their work available under some sort of open source license feel adequately rewarded.

Some people just want an excuse to work on cool projects and to make sure that other people have access to those cool projects. But altruism and fun aren’t the strongest of incentives. If something else comes up, it’s easy enough for an open source contributor to walk away from a beloved project: maybe someone else will take over maintaining it, maybe not. It’s a question of whether someone else has as much passion for a given project as that project’s founder.

There are certain side benefits that have evolved that lead people to contribute to open source for less noble reasons. For software developers, writing code under open source licenses can be one way to build up a visible portfolio. That in turn can make finding paying employment much easier: recruiters routinely go through popular open source projects to find prospects, as well as browse through profiles on GitHub.

Are Those Incentives Enough?

Even with the incentives present in building open source software and releasing other work under extremely permissive licenses, there are plenty of projects that just wither away. The underlying files may be available online somewhere but they aren’t updated to work with newer software versions or kept current otherwise. These are often projects that individuals and organizations depend on and have a vested interest in improving.

In my mind, these situations are proof that there’s room for further incentives for open source communities. I’ve seen more than one situation where a company wound up hiring a developer just to bring an open source project back up to the point where the software was usable again — and then choose not to release that code for some reason or another. There needs to be a cultural incentive for companies (as well as writers like myself and other creatives out in the world) to pass material back into the open source and Creative Commons ecosystems.

At a minimum, that means creating mechanisms for streamlining that process and educating users about ways to support open source. Returning to the WordPress community for a moment, it’s worth noting that many users who set up blogs on WordPress.com or even on their own sites don’t understand what open source software is. They just know that they can use WordPress for free. Even a little education goes a long way with such users.

Where does all this leave the open source ecosystem?

Perhaps it’s not in the easiest place in the world, but the situation is actually pretty good. We’re incredibly lucky at this point that enough people are willing to give their time to creating amazing projects that the rest of us get to use and enjoy. The ecosystem is healthy enough, at this point, to keep going for the foreseeable future.

But just because things are humming along now doesn’t mean that there isn’t opportunity for improvement. It’s a good time to discuss how we want to grow open source communities in the future and what we want the norms of these communities to be. We are starting to reach a point where some of the original proponents of open source may be thinking about retirement (Richard Stallman, the author of the GPL, turned 60 this year, for instance). That means that those of us who are newer to the worlds of open source and Creative Commons are going to need to step up.

So, what do you want the licensing of your creative works to look like in the future? How do you want to benefit from them and what are you willing to give back to the community?

Image by Flickr user Dennis Skley

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