Creative Commons: Please Share Your Money To Figure Out How Sharing Makes Money

Guest Post By Alan Graham  (Twitter @agraham999 )
A former music major, I’ve worked in technology for over 20 years. I’ve always been a proponent of technology and in the past have supported many of the principles of the EFF and Creative Commons, but as time has gone by I’ve found myself more and more on the side of the creative class. I’ve watched many friends of mine who work in the music industry start to experience what I’ve personally experienced as a writer in the past 15 years.
Years ago, during the bursting of the first tech bubble, I took a career detour as a paid writer, actually making a living by earning around $1 per word for my work. My last book earned me an advance of $8k, and the total cost to print it, get to market and on actual shelves was somewhere around $50k. I eventually stopped writing professionally, but I happened to see many of my friends later scraping by on the equivalent of $.01 a word, with bonuses of a couple hundred bucks if they could out perform their peers in traffic. I’ve watched the decimation of the creative class due to the “sharing economy” from the inside out, and with ad blocking, it looks like things might just get worse. Is that even possible? Yes it is.
Today I ran across a Kickstarter from the Creative Commons, trying to raise $50k to create an e-book about how you can use the Creative Commons to make a living, and I about lost my fucking mind.
Let’s just begin with a quote from their intro video for the project.
“How do you make money to sustain what you do when you are letting the world reuse your content? We think this is one of the most important questions of the digital age. And we don’t have answers. It’s still too early for simple formulas or plug and play business models built on sharing.”
Holy shit.
It is 2015 and the Creative Commons was founded in 2001. Why are you just now getting around to asking this question? I agree, it is one of the most important questions of the digital age and one I think might have been good to ask 14 FUCKING YEARS AGO.
The Creative Commons has had very close ties to the tech industry, accepting millions in grants from companies who benefit from the erosion of copyright under the guise of a public service. Last time I checked (correct me if I’m wrong about this), actual copyright has allowed you to make a living off creative works for quite some time. Now, 14 years after its founding, the CC is finally going to get around to explaining (after they discover the answer) through an e-book how to make money using the CC. Print is on its last legs, the music industry has been Kill Bill’d in half, and don’t even get me started on photos, all predicated on the simple fact of making sharing without permission, payment, or penalty, business as usual.
Let’s dig further into this project:
“Although it will involve the entire Creative Commons staff and community, this project will be spearheaded by Paul Stacey and Sarah Pearson.
Is this not super ironic the writers/creators of this project are already paid employees of CC and therefore don’t need to make money off a work of Creative Commons? No, they have no risk at all of whether they start or finish a project such as this one. At the end of the day, successful Kickstarter of not, they get paid. How about the fact that at least one of those in charge of assembling this project makes over $100k a year? What’s the average take home of a writer these days? What’s the average advance on a book? $50K? Not even close!
So if those assembling the book are already paid, where is this money really going?
Let’s keep going:

With the proceeds from this Kickstarter, CC will:

  • Create in-depth profiles of 24 successful CC business/revenue models based on your votes
  • Visually depict each business model and extract at least 3 high-level lessons for each one;
  • Distill common strategies and patterns in the various business models and publish 6 long-form articles on Medium;
  • Create a lightweight interactive online tool that helps people design open business models;
  • Publish an ebook (licensed CC BY-SA) that combines all of the profiles, analysis, and recommendations from this project.
Whoa whoa whoa. Since when do you let people pay money to buy votes to nominate which “successful” businesses appear in what is in essence a study on the power and validity of the Creative Commons? But that’s not all, if you pledge a minimum of $250, you get an opportunity to co-edit the book. Yes, instead of being paid for your work, you pay them. That’s how writing books works, right? Brilliant! They’ve cracked this whole thing wide open! I’m curious, if I put my credit card down right now and buy some votes AND co-edit the book, can I have my own chapter where I show a real business using regular copyright making money and can I just edit out all the other bullshit? That’s gonna be a short book.
If you pay enough, CC will also personally review your business plan or visit you to help consult on making your business more “open”. This is the same group that has no idea how to actually make money from “open,” but are more than happy to take your money to give advice on that which they don’t currently understand. Actually, that’s not a bad way to make some money, if they were an actual business, but they aren’t. They are a non-profit entity. And speaking of being a non-profit entity, 85% of the donations to the Creative Commons in part go towards Program Services which includes, Culture, Education, International/Affiliates, Legal, Litigation, Science, and Technology. Doesn’t this project fall under education? If you’re going to make the case for how great CC is, shouldn’t you use your existing grant money and donations to make that case?
Not to mention they are releasing some blog entries and a fucking e-book. It doesn’t even have print costs. So outside the costs that should likely be covered by their budget for outreach, why do they need to raise $50k?
Via the Kickstarter:

“Our goal is to begin to answer what we consider one of the most important questions of the digital age: how do creators make money to sustain what they do when they are letting the world reuse their work? 

Again, you don’t already fucking know? I mean it has been almost 15 years. Should you not have this answer already? I get that it has been problematic considering when you say “reuse” you mean give away for free. It is really hard to make money off of stuff when you teach people it has no value other than attribution, hugs, and hi-fives for how open we all are now. Although all that openness does often work in the favor of those who wrap ads around everything.

But in fact, doesn’t this Kickstarter offer proof that your sharing model doesn’t work? You are asking us to fund a study to find the answer to something that I can answer already. I can point you to thousands of businesses and citizens that use regular ol’ copyright and licenses and make money every single day, but I can’t think of a single CC sharing model in the past 15 years that has been a windfall for creators that doesn’t turn them into some exploitable product wrapped around some other sellable product. Boom…where’s my Kickstarter?

We are starting this work by trying out our own open business model here on Kickstarter. We want you to both support us, and help steer this project.”

Right, because what you want from a study is a bunch of backers who give money in order to have influence over the project. Yes, anyone with a credit card gets to put their $.02 in. That’s the American system alright. God I’m so tempted to back this right now…must resist!
Creative Commons is not a business, but a not-for-profit organization, so the idea that they are trying out their own “open business model”, seems contrary to their stated purpose. And since when is Kickstarter a business model? If you are using Kickstarter to make a point of a successful business model, you have already failed, as Kickstarter isn’t designed at all for making a living, but (and watch what I do here very carefully breaking it down) KICK-STARTING a project by which you will then be able to make money off of once it is released. Of course this e-book and project will be offered free and will make no money at all which again tells me your “open business model” is not a business at all. If you are holding this up as an example of how to run a business, then you have already failed.
…which then begs me once again to ask…
Why do you need $50k to assemble a free e-book project? I wrote an e-book a couple years ago in a few months (that’s still sitting on my hard drive) for free. All the tools for assembling it were also free. So what are we talking here, labor? Aren’t you already paid by the CC anyway? Why not simply ask for submissions? Aren’t you all about sharing free content? Won’t people freely share that feedback if you ask them? Creative Commons is entirely built on the premise of sharing, asking, and giving…for free. So, why not simply ask, share, and then just attribute?
“Note: Creative Commons is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Your contribution is tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. CC will issue tax receipts for all donations exceeding $250.” 
Kickstarter forbids any charitable giving or financial incentives, but they do allow tax deductions. I wanna say that giving money in exchange for a tax deduction qualifies as a financial incentive, but I don’t make Kickstarter’s rules. Sure, you get an e-book and a bunch of blog posts for pledging, BUT SO DOES EVERYONE ELSE…it’s going to be released for free! You aren’t paying for the next great coffee-making doohicky, you are donating money to a cause, which returns to you a tax-deduction, that then gives the final product away.
That isn’t business, that’s charity.  
This organization gets millions in donations and here they are asking us to crowdfund something that should fall under their charter to produce and release as a public service. If you believe so much in your mission, put your millions in grants where your mouth is. In fact, if you read the CC wiki under Affiliate Project Grants, you’ll find the following information on past grants:

Creative Commons is excited to announce the CC Affiliate Project Grants. These grants are part of funding from Google to help strengthen and support the work of CC’s Global Affiliate Network.

The Project Grants are designed to seed affiliate projects that support and forward CC’s mission in your country or region and promote a broad understanding and adoption of open policies and related practices around the world. Depending on the final number of selected projects, proposals submitted by CC affiliates and community members will be selected to receive up to $20,000 USD towards their project(s).

So if Google and CC are so keen to give out money to show how great open policies are, why not grant $50k to an outside objective team to put together these materials without having donations…er…backers buy votes to influence the outcome of the project?
I feel like this is one more fleecing of people who don’t understand what is at stake by supporting this shit. We should call them on their bullshit and this should be pulled down. Creative Commons, you should pay for this out of your own pocket…eat your dog food!
There was as time, many years ago, when I respected what these organizations were trying to accomplish by making the web work better, but I realized through my experiences and those of my peers and friends (who were creators), that these organizations were founded by people sympathetic to tech companies. Technology companies have used tools like Creative Commons to their advantage to fill their platforms full of the creations of others, all the while teaching them that their own creations have no value at all, other than the occasional attribution from those who often don’t bother to even give credit where it is due.
Almost 15 years with the promise that Creative Commons would make everything better. But it isn’t better. We’ve been given anecdotal evidence again and again how great the sharing economy is for the creative class, and to hear from Creative Commons now that through all these years…
“…we don’t have answers. It’s still too early for simple formulas or plug and play business models built on sharing.”
…is infuriating.
Still too early? How much time do you need? The creative class of artists is teetering on the bring of utter collapse, and they want us to fund a study based on something they should have researched years ago. It makes me angry.
And you should be angry too.
Alan Graham is the co-founder (along with legendary songwriter/artist/producer Rupert Hine) of the world’s first micro-licensing/micropayment engine for apps/platforms that builds bridges between rights owners, rights users, and the apps and platforms they love. It helps remove the complications of copyright (no takedowns), delivers always approved pre-cleared content, uses zero DRM, ensures every use of media has a payment associated with it, and every creator gets paid (regardless of what type of media). Called OCL, it is a hybridized solution of centralized and decentralized technologies, utilizing the untapped potential of blockchain/crypto to deliver solutions the world has never seen before.

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