Why is The Bizarre Cathedral licence "non-free"?

For the past 26 weeks I've been producing the Bizarre Cathedral strips for Free Software Magazine. Every one of them is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-commerical-Share Alike (BY-NC-SA) licence. Recently I've received a few pieces of mail saying this is a "non-free" licence and questioning my use of it here. Some of them are quite polite, others have demanded I change the licence immediately (presumably "or else"). I'm not going to change the license, and here's why.

The four freedoms apply to software not art

The four freedoms cannot apply to creative works -- particularly something like a strip cartoon. There is no source code for users to study and modify. Copyleft can apply to artwork though and the Creative Commons licences are the most common form of copyleft licence for artwork. The FSF (whom most of my correspondents seem to refer to in their arguments) states that Creative Commons licences are incompatible with the GNU GPL or GNU FDL.

Every single person who has written to me about my choice of licence takes issue with the non-commercial (NC) part. Apparently it is "non-free" of me to tell user they may not sell my works. What I don't get is how the share-alike and attribution clauses are somehow more free. When, in 2004, the -- at the time ubiquitous -- Xfree86 X-Window (GUI) server project added a new clause to their licence stating that an attribution comment in the code could not be removed, the free software community went into action. Outrage was a popular term I seem to recall. The (free) Xorg project forked the code and became the server of choice. So why is an attribution clause free in artwork but not in software?

While we're at it, isn't the share-alike clause restricting freedom too? Shouldn't people be given the freedom to distribute the Bizarre Cathedral under any licence they want? There are those who claim that the GNU GPL is non-free because the copyleft aspect restricts users' freedom to distribute the software. The same can be applied to the CC licences.

In the end the pursuit of absolute freedom in a licence will lead to one conclusion: no licence or public domain. "Do whatever you want with it" is the message of works in the public domain.

Why I use this "non-free" licence

Having said that, there's a good case that you have to restrict some freedom in order to protect greater freedom for everyone. This is why we imprison murderers - their freedom is restricted in order to give more people the freedom to live and not be murdered (that's the theory anyway). Copyleft takes the same angle -- by restricting some freedom in distribution, it protects greater freedoms for the end-users. This is why I chose CC-BY-NC-SA for the Bizarre Cathedral.

  • BY because I want people who receive one cartoon to be able to enjoy the rest here at FSM.
  • SA because I want everyone to enjoy the same access to the strips
  • NC because I want people to enjoy these at no cost. I am paid for creating them, so I want them to be enjoyed at no cost.

To clarify the NC point further, I actually have no real problem with people charging for my work, but in the past I have discovered that others were taking my work and grossly over-charging for them. This reduced the size of the audience and the impact of the work. Never again.

The CC licences permit any of the restrictions I place on my work to be waived in writing by me. So if you want to sell the works or a derivative, you can contact me and we'll discuss it. As I said I don't object to people charging form my work, I simply ask that they get my express permission first.

Some of my correspondents have been a little confused by the bandying around of this "non-free" term in relation t the NC clause. So in summary here is what you can do with the Bizarre Cathedral strips:

  • re-distribute and share them
  • translate them into other languages
  • use them within other works
  • study and enjoy them

You can do all of that as long as you

  • say where you found the originals
  • don't charge people you give them to

I value freedom a great deal: I write free software, I write for Free Software Magazine and I promote freedom in non-software walks of life. I disagree that the NC clause alone makes this licence "non-free". I'll settle for "less free" but I hold that of itself it isn't really any less free than the BY or SA clauses nor of copyleft. Is the GPL "non-free" because it can't be linked to a non-copyleft library or is it just less free than the LGPL?

Finally, just so we are clear I shall continue to licence the Bizarre Cathedral as CC-BY-NC-SA for the foreseeable future.


Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.