Recently, something happened that, for quite some time now, I’d secretly been hoping for: Nina Paley dedicated her animated film Sita Sings the Blues to the public domain using the Creative Commons Zero Waiver. I only wish the circumstances that inspired her decision weren’t so tragic and offensive.

For those who don’t know, Nina created quite a stir when the film was first released in 2008, as she chose to release it with a Creative Commons license. Specifically, she chose the “Creative Commons By Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported” license, which, for those not familiar with CC licenses, gave anyone the right to copy, share, screen, remix, sell, or otherwise distribute or reuse the film any way they chose as long as Nina Paley was given credit and as long as the license was maintained on copies and applied to any derivative works.

I’ve shared Nina’s internal debate over what Creative Commons license (or waiver, as the case may be) to use for quite some time. By Attribution is appealing as it essentially makes the work almost-public domain while guaranteeing that any copying/reuse is attributed to the original author, preventing plagiarism. By Attribution Share-Alike is appealing for the same reason, and also promotes Free Culture ideals by forcing derivative works to also carry the same open license. Creative Commons Zero, or CC0 for short, is appealing because it really cuts right to the heart of the whole issue of permission culture vs. Free Culture: it allows the work to truly run free within the public domain as much as legally possible.

So what are the downsides? The downside to By Attribution, as I see it, is that it isn’t always applicable in any reasonable way. For example, if I wrote a story that was turned into a film, sure, that’d be a reasonable place for attribution. After all, films have credits at the end. Likewise, books have plenty of space at the end for acknowledgements. But say someone were to take a 5-second clip of a line of dialogue from my story, as it was used in a film adaptation, and use it in a song, along with about a thousand other clips of similar length, all from different stories adapted into different films? Does the track have to include an addendum, in which the artist reads a list of all his sources? Many people don’t read the credits in movies, I imagine fewer still would listen to a 5 minute “Sources Cited” reading at the end of a song. It’d be even worse to have to cite attribution for works that, for example, used a remix of a line from a movie adapted from a novel which itself used lines from other stories, films and music. The attribution list could end up longer than the work itself, probably even longer than War and Peace.

The downside to By Attribution Share-Alike is that while it promotes Free Culture ideals, it does so by force. Like all CC licenses, brilliant as they are, it relies on current copyright law as a means of controlling another person’s access to and use of a copy of something. This, in a sense, goes against the very ideals so many Free Culture activists support, even as the aim remains in line with Free Culture ideals.

Lastly, there is CC0. The only downside to using CC0 that I’ve been able to think of is that without requirement of attribution, someone could plagiarize your work very easily. Yet this happens under the current copyright system anyway, and thanks to the wonders of the internet, there are many opportunities for us to get our work out there and identified with us as authors. I’ve seen quite a few stories of artists’ whose work was plagiarized, and fans called out the plagiarists and saw to it that there was no mistake as to who the original artist was.

In the end, I just came to the conclusion that if nothing else, copyright was not a morally legitimate concept. It infringes on the rights of others in the name of “protecting” a single artist’s work. As an author, I certainly want to get paid, but I don’t want to force people to pay. I’ve bought too many DVDs I didn’t enjoy watching, bought too many novels I didn’t enjoy reading to want others to go through the same thing. On the other hand, thanks to public libraries and being lent books and movies from friends, I’ve come to find many things for free that I became so fond of that I purchased for myself. I would rather someone pay me for my work because they genuinely enjoy it, rather than be forced to buy it up-front only to hate it.

Yet there is one other problem with CC0, and, in fact, likely with all or most Creative Commons licenses: it paradoxically seems to make a work untouchable for distributors. This, in fact, is why Nina Paley chose to change over the By Attribution Share-Alike license to the CC0 waiver: distributors didn’t want to broadcast (not to mention create derivative works of) something under the BY-SA license. By switching to CC0, Nina hopes to leave distributors “no excuse” for not showing the film.

Yet I doubt that will happen. The ironic thing is, every distributor is so locked-in to the world and mindset of copyright, apparently radical notions like Creative Commons licenses and public domain dedications seem scary, like liabilities, like hidden lawsuits waiting to happen. In other words, it’s the kiss of death for a work’s promotion in traditional distribution channels; it makes the work untouchable.

Despite that problem, I am delighted that, though she still believes in the Free Culture ideals reflected in the BY-SA license (as I do), Nina has chosen to release Sita Sings the Blues as a CC0 public domain film. Her commitment to “legal nonviolence,” of not threatening anyone legally for use of her art whether their use agrees with her ideals or not, sets a wonderful example and hopefully will lead others to follow in her footsteps.

That brings me to the real reason I’m writing this post. I’d like to ask for help, if anyone out there happens to read this.

I recently finished the final draft of my short story, Roadkill. I have not yet released it, but when I do, I intend to release it into the public domain via CC0, as I intend to do with all of my works. Yet I’ve discovered a problem: I’m not sure if any distributor will carry it.

I’m entirely new to the world of eBooks and eBook publishing and distribution; at least, I’m new to participating in it. I’ve researched formatting and all of that. Yet my commitment to CC0 is something I can’t find much precedent for.

In the terms of service on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, it is said that one may sell a “public domain work” if one makes an original edition of it that differs significantly from other editions they offer, but only a 30 percent royalty will be given. This is different than the 70 percent royalty given to authors of “original works.” The problem there is, naturally, that CC0, or likely Creative Commons licenses in general, were not on the minds of Amazon’s lawyers when writing their terms of service. My work is both an original work and, when released, a public domain one, by my own choice. It isn’t “Treasure Island” or some other work that lapsed into the public domain by virtue of age or some nuance of the old copyright laws.

I emailed customer service about this some time ago; the initial reply more or less restated the very terms of service I was asking for clarification about. I told them that they had misunderstood my question and asked again. After being told to wait for several days while they presumably consulted their legal team, I was told that they couldn’t tell me (!) and to consult a lawyer (!). It’s rather unsettling that they were unable to explain their own terms of service! It brings to mind Cory Doctorow’s comments when writing about one of the more infamous Kindle DRM cases,They are a sort of Kafkaesque dumbshow of bureaucratic non-answering, culminating in the customer service version of “Die in a fire,” which is more or less in line with the unhelpful responses I got regarding CC0.

Then I checked Smashwords, a popular, DRM-free (unlike Kindle) platform for independent authors, only to discover in their terms of service that public domain works weren’t allowed at all, and that only original works by authors with “exclusive digital publishing rights” were permitted. As much as I admire Smashwords for taking a stand against DRM, I’m disappointed that their TOS doesn’t accommodate authors with a Free Culture stance such as myself. Perhaps it is still too new, too  radical, too much of a fringe stance to take, even for the more open-minded and welcoming of distributors.

I’m not the first author to deal with this; Aelius Blythe, judging by her Twitter photos, has had similar problems trying to make her CC0 works available on Smashwords and Kindle Direct Publishing. She took a rather cavalier approach to it, and I admire that, but I’m hoping to go into this thing knowing exactly what I’ll have to deal with beforehand, without having to engage in any little battles with a distributor. Perhaps that’s asking too much, though.

So where does that leave me, or any other authors who wish to dedicate their work to the public domain?

I don’t know. I’ve considered several options, none too satisfactory.

I’ve looked for other, lesser-known distributors who are more Free Culture-friendly. That, of course, carries its own huge disadvantage: by being lesser-known, it is less likely that anyone will discover my work on such a service. I discovered one that looked promising, Anjuno, which distributed both eBooks AND music using the name-your-own-price model (which is something else I wanted). However, before I could figure out if they were okay with works willingly dedicated to the public domain, they shut down after apparently being mostly abandoned in 2010. It figures that they closed up shop just after I discovered them a few months ago.

Another option is to simply post the eBook online myself, including a download link from my blog and hoping that somehow people stumble onto it. The problem there is that, while I want my work to be released under a “name your own price” model anyway, there wouldn’t be a very easy method for anyone to pay me if they wanted to. I know of sites that use PayPal donate buttons, but I’ve heard one or two horror stories about that, and PayPal’s site specifically says that the donate button is for “fundraising,” so I’m not sure using it to support the author of free eBooks qualifies. There’s also Flattr, which seems like a cool service, so that at least could be a viable option, though I’m totally inexperienced with it so far.

So this is where you come in, gentle reader. Do you have any ideas?

I must say, the irony is not lost on me: I have to ask for help to make it easy for others to voluntarily pay me for written works offered freely, while it would be easy to force people to pay in order to access my work. Such is the world we live in, I suppose; hopefully it does not stay this way forever. If you know of an eBook distributor site that allows original, public domain and Creative Commons-licensed works, or if you know of any other way to make voluntary payments/donations from readers easy (or at least possible), please let me know. Heck, if some small, independent publisher might like to carry a CC0 title as some sort of experiment (in a situation in which profits are shared with me; any publisher could do it anyway after I release the thing), I’d be interested in talking to someone.

If I don’t hear any ideas within a couple of weeks, nor any fresh ideas from a couple of people I plan to contact about various options, I’ll likely just wind up posting the story here and trying to arrange a Flattr account. That seems the easiest thing to do if all else fails, and I’m more concerned than anything, really, with just getting my work out there.

If you have your own tales of trying to spread Free Culture works, feel free to comment or contact me; such things are generally always of interest to me.

Lastly: thank you to all the recent followers and those who supported my previous post. It was a much-needed self-esteem boost. I hope this blog continues to be to your liking.

All the best,

Leo

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