What happens to the CC licenses if something happens to CC?

A thought prompt from a post to the Wikimedia mailing list: how likely is it that Creative Commons fails, and if so, what happens to Wikimedia? The Wikimedia projects use the Creative Commons licenses (most use BY-SA; a few use BY and the CC0 tool). So do many other projects in the free and open culture space, many of which use these licenses for easy compatibility with each other. They depend on these licenses to provide part of their legal infrastructure. So what needs to be true about Creative Commons to avoid endangering this?

CC has a wider mission than simply the maintenance of the licenses, of course, but much of it could be suspended in a dire situation; nothing would move forward, but the core of its mission would not fall apart. But stewarding the licenses is the core of its job—so what has to remain true for that to happen (in this case, for the license-using community to go on unaffected)? It’s perhaps a thought exercise anyone involved with an organization should take on, even if that worst case never happens—what needs to stick around even if nothing else does, and what does that worst case look like? Here are the thoughts I proposed to the list, edited and slightly expanded on here.

Only the barest sliver of the organization needs to exist for the licenses to exist: someone willing to carry on the name and core mission, even if the organization became unable to pay anyone’s salary to work on it full time. While much of the other work is more resource-intensive, the continued maintenance and stewarding of the canonical version of the licenses does not strictly need to be.

The vast majority of the time, this task is simply keeping the servers running so that they remain accessible: the URL that people use to refer to the text should always give the license text. This itself takes some limited amount of time and funds, someone willing to makes sure the site stays up and the hosting bill is paid. 1 On rare and what I hope are increasingly infrequent occasions, it means revision of the license suite. 2 The main resource this takes is the time of people with the necessary knowledge and commitment to do it, and not even necessarily their full-time efforts. This comes with tradeoffs: it is a long, drawn-out endeavor under the best of circumstances, and our scenario is far from it. (For that matter, deciding when it needs to be done is a drawn-out endeavor in itself.) But I don’t see an inability to find capable lawyers interested in working on such a project, even if in spare time. I was thrilled to be brought on to the team, but it was after I had sent several messages already picking apart the licenses 3, while others particularly from the affiliate network and fellow-traveler organizations contributed detailed comments from their time. The hardest part would be finding someone to lead and coordinate without an existing full-time General Counsel (though even where no staff existed before, it is possible someone could be hired for the task). It benefits from an organization that can support paying for full-time work on it, but does not strictly require it, and should be a process that won’t need to happen again for quite some time. 4

Do the licenses require the organization at all? Yes—but not necessarily the organization in its current form. Someone who has the trust of the license-using community needs to be the license steward, and that someone should also be the rightful user of the CC name. The license text itself is under CC0—anyone can take it and republish it or modify it. But the name is not: it’s a trademark held by the organization, licensed for limited purposes. There are many years of work behind the name and its recognition; attempting to rebrand would be difficult and confusing and harm adoption. Far better to have the holder of the mark and the license steward with community trust be one and the same. (It is of course possible even now to have competing forks of the licenses, and this is a bad idea for the same reason forks of many types of standards with network effects are a bad idea. 5) There doesn’t need to be much to the organization to hold the authority to use the name; anything that counts as a legal nonprofit entity is enough. 6

It’s hard to say what would be considered enough trust and goodwill to be a suitable license steward, but a few thoughts. One is that it should remain a neutral organization, not beholden to particular interests that would sway license interpretation and future versions toward its ends. The 4.0 and earlier texts are fixed, of course, but there is room to influence the 3.0 and 4.0 license communities through the compatibility mechanisms, and future versions could be altered to the benefit of a particular community of adopters at the expense of others; an organization controlled by someone with interests that aren’t in line with the interests of other adopters is more likely to introduce these changes. (I even think that CC should remain independent of other license-using organizations that share common goals—for example, it’s better for Wikimedia to be a user of the licenses than to take CC under its wing, simply because it would influence the license development toward its use cases more than already happens, where it would be better for a steward to not be tightly tied to one type of user.)

Another is that it should keep development in the open, and take input from its community. The licenses’ usefulness depends largely on their adoption by the community; that community is best placed to see both where revision is needed and where change cannot be tolerated. An organization putting out a new version would be foolish to simply toss a new version over the fence, without engaging with suggestions and criticisms and making an effort to reach out to a broad swath of license users to figure out where changes could violate expectations; abandoning the communities would be a fine reason for the communities to abandon the licenses.

Finally, while it’s difficult to get financial support for many kinds of work that don’t involve discrete, easily-quantified, shiny new projects (not the sort CC specializes in), the licenses are easier to make the case for, both with foundations and the public—even in the worst case, I don’t think it would be difficult to get support for the bare bones described here.

So I’m not worried about the projects that depend on CC licenses. But the worst case is a case worth considering.


  1. I’m excluding the tools surrounding the licenses, such as the license chooser, which is surprisingly complex. Even the deeds are built on a complex structure, though they could be adapted to be simpler (and easier to maintain) with some feature loss.
  2. I have joked that I will be happy to consult on the 5.0 revision from my retirement home, shaking my cane at the kids. This is about half a joke: I hope that by the time I am frail enough to need mobility aids there is something better available, like a robotic exoskeleton.
  3. Another joke: that it was easier for them to just hire me than to keep answering my email.
  4. The CC0 legal tool is another matter—that may come up again soon.
  5. Search for “license proliferation” for more argument here.
  6. A nonprofit’s assets, such as its trademarks, can generally be transferred only to another nonprofit.

We are the media, and so are you

It’s been a while since I’ve used this thing. But I’ve written in a few other places.

Here is my editorial with Jimmy Wales in the Washington Post after the SOPA blackouts, “We are the media, and so are you”.

This was written after the anti-SOPA blackouts to combat two terrible memes. One, that the “content industry” means only the members of the MPAA and RIAA. And two, that Wikimedia is just another tech company, aligned with the “tech industry” interests, making top-down decisions in isolated boardrooms.

It has almost completely failed at fighting those memes. But its other purpose was to give Wikimedia something positive to say that didn’t sink to simply countering the shots fired at us from the bills’ supporters. And at that I hope it was a success.

Women and Wikipedia

This is probably the most popular thing I’ve written all year. Prompted by the question a NYT reporter asked, “do you agree that Wikipedia’s culture is unfriendly to women?” The article is here and quotes one sentence, but I had several thoughts about this topic that the article did not reflect (and in fact most writing on the topic does not reflect) that I believe the discussion is incomplete without.


I don’t agree that Wikipedia has a culture that is unfriendly to women–if I did I wouldn’t have stuck around for long. So why aren’t more women on Wikipedia?

It’s a little odd, asking this question of the women who are currently participating; in some sense we are exactly the wrong people to ask. I remember joining in 2004 and feeling at home, that these were people a lot like me, and why hadn’t I known of it before? When I’m online I don’t think about my gender very much. I think of myself as a geek, a freedom of information advocate, a researcher, but I only think of “woman” as part of my identity when something reminds me of it; say, someone addresses me with the wrong pronoun. And then I remember: “oh yeah, I’m one of those too.”

Most of the women I know personally on the projects are a little bit unusual–at least a little bit geeky (maybe a lot), probably somewhat introverted, would rather participate in a mostly goal-directed activity than a mostly social one. (This is also true of most of the men.)

I’m not a sociologist, so I’m hesitant to make a lot of generalizations. But I’d say there is definitely a culture on Wikipedia that has its own quirks, and not everyone finds it welcoming or appealing. It’s very skeptical, and criticism and correction is
often valued more than pure social interaction. (I have to remind myself not to fall into the same patterns–that I should make an effort to let people know when I see good things happening, rather than only when I notice something going wrong.) Many people are very young and this is the first place they’ve ever had any kind of power or authority, where people have taken them seriously. Some still don’t think that interacting on Wikipedia is very serious, that it has any real effect on people. I suspect that some of the least welcoming interactions come from people who are still very new to Wikipedia themselves, who are learning the culture by trying to copy what they see others do (and especially others who seem to have a lot of experience or social capital) without knowing the reasons behind it or when it doesn’t apply. It’s a little bit argumentative–or at least, you won’t go very long without encountering something that is going to spark dispute, and it’s expected that sometimes this will happen; you have to either be able to handle conflict without taking it personally, or be able to let it go and find something else to work on. It requires a little bit of self-confidence, to be able to handle criticism well, or to contradict a total stranger when you don’t agree.

It also requires at least a bit of boldness, to think that you might have something to contribute to the encyclopedia! Maybe even more so now than years ago–before, there was still enough low-hanging fruit that a casual visitor would easily stumble across something which was obviously poorly-written or incomplete and think “I could do better than that”. It’s a lot harder now to find areas to contribute where it’s obvious your work will be useful. (Though any experienced Wikipedian can rattle off long lists.)

It seems almost disingenuous to say that the culture is not biased against women, but rather biased toward certain traits and against others–and that generally men are more likely to be in the group whose characteristics are more accepted. But it makes me genuinely angry when I read “women don’t like X because they’re Y”–am I less real because I am a woman who does like X and isn’t Y? It’s making the same mistake in reverse, just choosing a different group to dismiss. I don’t think it’s about gender in particular, and I hate to focus on gender specifically; it discounts the experience of the women involved and it makes things uncomfortable for the men involved. I think the disproportionate lack of women in the community isn’t about gender so much as it is about a culture that rewards certain traits and discourages others. And we’re not getting people who don’t have those other traits, male or female; more of the people who do fit the current culture are male. But the focus should be on becoming more open and diverse in general–becoming more inclusive to everyone, which will naturally bring in more women.

(I don’t think of the “Wikipedia community” as a monolith–it’s more like hundreds of different communities some of which overlap with each other just enough. I cringe whenever I hear “Wikipedia doesn’t think this is notable” or “Wikipedia decided to change” for a decision that was probably made by four or five people which no one else even knew about; unless it’s really one of the rare occasions where some big decision is made and there is a huge effort to inform everyone, most everything is only seen by a very small group of people.)

I think there need to be many different ways to be a part of Wikipedia–if you’re the kind of person who reads the manual first and wants minimal interaction, there should be a place for you; if you want someone to talk you through your first interactions and spend time getting to know people personally before you contribute, there should be a place for you too.

One problem with Wikipedia’s culture, like a lot of subcultures, is that it is self-reinforcing. For some groups that’s less of a problem–a purely social group can split into a lot of subgroups. For something like Wikipedia, where the goal is to reflect all of the world’s knowledge, that is a problem. Occasionally you have the experience of reading something where it’s clear that the writer doesn’t know what they don’t know; for example, they have never experienced poverty, never left the USA, never genuinely tried to consider why others hold a different political position, it’s written from a perspective that is too limited for the subject it’s trying to cover. The more insular and homogeneous Wikipedia’s community is, the more danger we have of being that limited as well, the less useful we are to everyone. The world’s knowledge isn’t only the knowledge of a single demographic group; some subject areas and some important perspectives are going to be undercovered if we rely only on what a single group is most knowledgeable about. There’s enough media in the world that represents only a very limited perspective on the world, what is and is not important–our mission is to do more than that. Being more inclusive means having access to the knowledge and skills of people whose input is not already widely available, and to share it with people who weren’t aware of it before. And we, unlike many sources using a more traditional model, do have the capability to do that; we’re not fulfilling our mission if we don’t.

The big problem is that the current Wikipedia community is what came about by letting things develop naturally–trying to influence it in another direction is no longer the easiest path, and requires conscious effort to change. How do you become more inclusive without breaking the qualities that make the project happen to begin with? (Any easy, obvious answer to this question is probably wrong.) That Wikipedia works at all is an improbable thing; that it works, for the most part, well, nearly miraculous. Wikipedia’s culture doesn’t have to be hostile or unfriendly to a group for it to be underrepresented–it merely has to be not one of the most attractive options.