How and How NOT to Re-License your Work for Free Culture

The last week has been terrific for "Lunatics". We've cleared the licenses on almost all of the music -- and certainly the most important pieces. However, for a moment, I want to focus on the little problem with the one minute of music we probably won't get to use, and the right and wrong way to relicense your art if you are ever in that situation.

Without going into a lot of (rather boring) details, I recently sent an email attempting to clear the license on a one-minute track of music. It had originally been released under the "License Art Libre" (LAL), which is a free license, but is incompatible with the "Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike" (CC By-SA) that we are using. Its author had also re-published the work under the non-free "Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike" (CC By-NC-SA) which was a troubling signal that he had perhaps had second thoughts about free-licensing his work.

Doing it wrong...

This is the entire reply I got back (minus the names):

Credit me, in license cc it can be .

And of course if the video is about 

dirty or immoral things i will not accept

Can i see the video ?

Oh dear:

  • Of course "license cc", aside from not being any correct license name, could mean any of at least six different licenses, half of which won't work for us. Without the next line, though, we could probably assume he meant the one I asked for (which is By-SA)

  • What's "dirty or immoral"? No two human beings can agree on that anyway. I suppose he's thinking of pornography, which is certainly not what we're doing. I don't think I'm doing anything immoral, and I doubt he would think so either. But without knowing him better, I can't really tell (some people do think that promoting the development of space is immoral. I think they're crazy, but they do exist)

  • More importantly, though, I can only speak for myself. Using a free license means giving up this kind of control for other people who receive the work from me. If he thinks he still has that control, then in good conscience, I can't accept his relicensing, because he seems to not understand the implications

  • Since I had already given him a brief premise for "Lunatics", it also suggests he didn't really read what I wrote -- and that undermines the assumption in the first step

  • Likewise, I had indicated we were stil in production, so it wasn't possible to show final work, though I did link to an animatic (and pointed out that the whole work would be under a free license)

It's possible that all of this has to do with a language barrier. I sent the query in English, because the artist had posted some material in English, but it may be that he doesn't really speak much of it. I attempted to remedy this by responding in a combination of English and his native langauge (which I know just well enough to proof-read in the Google Translate output).

So, despite a positive-sounding response, that was kind of a failure. I'm going to send one last message to be sure about that, but I'll probably just have to substitute. Fortunately, it is a non-critical 45 seconds of music.

Doing it right...

On the other hand, here's a response by an artist from a different license query which shows a much better approach:

I, XXX, hereby grant you, Terry Hancock, 

the non-exclusive right to use and distribute

the track YYY under the terms of the 

Creative-Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license,

version 3.0/unported

(Admittedly I did give him some boilerplate for that in my e-mail).

Another made a broader grant which keeps it simpler (this is translated, actually):

You can use any of our tracks without any restrictions.

Buy CD here [URL omitted]

(I had also asked where to get lossless copies such as FLAC or CD).

Last thoughts

If you aren't comfortable with a free license, then learn to say "no" to queries like mine. If you are okay with it, then make your "yes" clear.

Someone who is planning to build on your work is going to put effort into it. Ambiguity creates doubt and therefore risk (if you pull your license -- or suddenly decide to reinterpret what "moral" means), then you're taking away my right to use my work (or at least disrupting it). That's not fair to me.

So do the right thing -- make a choice and state it clearly.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

With thanks to Fremantle Counselling to keep FSM editors sane.