Creative Commons Asks How You Define "Non-Commercial"

by Ostatic Staff - Dec. 04, 2008

Joi Ito and the Creative Commons need help getting the word out -- and defined. Creative Commons licenses allow (to varying degrees) the content they apply to to be freely used, distributed, and altered, with varying levels of attribution or certain restrictions on commercial use. One of the gray areas Creative Commons has been grappling with is how exactly one defines "non-commercial."

The Creative Commons team asks any one willing to take some time and fill out their questionnaire prior to December 7th. The survey is completely anonymous, and the study is open to the general public.

Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier makes the interesting observation on his "Community, Incorporated" blog that one of the reasons the Open Source Definition doesn't allow clauses restricting commercial use is that "commercial" is a slippery term to define, particularly on the web.

I've run into this dilemma more than once. If I need an image for a piece of writing, I either use the Firefox search function for Creative Commons licensed content, or I go directly to a site that I know features this sort of content. While many of the license terms are quite clear (share alike, attribution), others are vague. The definition of a derivative work can be tough, but it's not one I come up against so much. The "non-commercial" is almost always the sticking point. Including the image in a piece of writing I was being paid for, in a publication supported by advertising and subscription fees, seems to fit the "commercial" definition quite clearly. What if this image is posted on a website (with attribution, and compliance with all other license terms) that has a sponsor (or two)? The sponsors get revenue from the site, they don't necessarily own (or in some cases, influence in any way) the content included on the site. It's commercial -- the site generates revenue for the operator, and sponsors. The Creative Commons licensed content might enhance the experience for the site visitor, and it might encourage visitors to patronize the sponsors. And, as Brockmeier states, how does "sponsor" boil down in these cases? Banner ads displayed from certain companies for a fee? Click through advertising with Adsense type arrangements?

I find erring on the side of caution works (my Flickr searches always end up including an "approved for commercial use" criteria), but it can be limiting. When it comes down to it, vague definitions often lead to (sometimes questionable) work-arounds and loopholes in licenses and laws. Creative Commons is looking at this aspect of licensing over the long term to avoid hassles, and encourage the use of these licenses. Take a few minutes, and let them know what you think.