The “Don’t Be An Arse” license

I’m the co-creator of a webcomic: go on, have a look – you might enjoy it. That’s it advertised over in the sidebar.

Our comics are generally released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (BY-NC-SA) license, like many other webcomics. But I’m not really happy with this license, because that NC part makes it incompatible with Free Culture works, as explained in excessive detail in this article. The trouble is that BY-SA feels a little too open to abuse, but BY-NC-SA is too restrictive. What we need is something that encompasses the idea that you should be allowed to use our comic commercially, but that if you make a load of money off it you should do the decent thing and send some back our way. Hence the “Don’t Be An Arse” license, or BY-SA-DBAA.

We want people to share our work, to pass it round, to post it on their blogs and to use it in their newsletters. Yes, even if those blogs have ads and the newsletters have a cover charge – the kind of “commercial” activities that BY-NC-SA unfortunately prohibits. What we don’t want is to be egregiously ripped off by someone who just repackages our work to make a profit without passing any of it back down the line.

Unfortunately the law doesn’t have much to say about what constitutes “being an arse”, so it’s tricky to define in legal terms just where the cut-off comes between a blogger with a few ads and someone making a huge profit just re-hosting our content and setting up some link farms. After literally minutes of consideration, I’ve distilled our DBAA clause down to a couple of rules:

  1. You can use up to X of our comics commercially…
  2. …so long as they make up no more than Y% of your product’s content

I’m specifically referring to “comics” here, but you could replace the word with “stories”, “novels”, “photos” or just “creations” as appropriate.

Let’s set some values for X and Y, say X=5 and Y=10. This would result in our BY-SA-DBAA license becoming a BY-SA-5/10 license and works like this:

You can use up to 5 of our comics, constituting up to 10% of your commercial product. If you’re planning to sell a 100 page anthology of webcomics, you can fill up to 10 pages with our work without needing a commercial license. But if your 10 pages contain more than 5 of our strips then you’re back in the realms of needing a different license.

In practice we would usually use values of X=10 and Y=10, leading to a license of BY-SA-10/10, or BY-SA-10 for short. This license means that you can do the following things without requiring an explicit commercial license (assuming <=10 comics representing <=10% of your content):

  • Distribute some comics on a Linux CD
  • Put some comics into an anthology
  • Re-post some of your favourite comics to your own blog
  • Publish them on a clip-art collection CD
  • Use them for any non-commercial purpose, as with a normal BY-NC-SA license
  • Use them in a review of our comics or an Inkscape tutorial, or similar

But you can’t do these things commercially without needing a different license:

  • Re-print a load of our comics as a book
  • Print T-shirts of our comics
  • Distribute a CD of nothing but our comics
  • Produce posters, mouse mats, mugs and other merchandise

The BY-SA-10 license isn’t perfect and doesn’t cover all possibilities. I’m sure that a bit more thought could refine it further. But the key point is that it allows a reasonable trade-off between the freedom to re-use of BY-SA and the protection from arses of BY-SA-NC.

Unfortunately BY-SA-10 (or BY-SA-20 or BY-SA-5/15 or whatever levels you want to set for allowable commercial exploitation) doesn’t really exist, other than in this blog entry. License proliferation is a real issue, so I don’t plan to actually use this license in my works unless it gets officially adopted by Creative Commons or some similar organisation. It probably needs serious work – not to mention some legalese behind it – in order to provide a reasonable compromise between the desire to share, and the desire to not get ripped off.

So until such a license exists in anything other than my ramblings, it’s likely that our comics will remain licensed as BY-NC-SA. In practice we won’t sue you if you re-post them on your personal blog or use them in any other reasonable way – just don’t be an arse and we’ll get on fine.