Why do some people choose to give away their copyrighted material instead of trying to make money off of it?
When an artist creates a piece of art for public display, he or she generally has two goals: how can I get people to see my work, and how can I earn enough money to continue producing my work. Sometimes these questions go hand-in-hand; other times an artist is concerned with only one or the other.
More often than you would think though, an or company might give away their work for free but still restrict the person who receives it from copying, changing or distributing the work. Some creators will go even further by putting their work into the public domain, thereby giving up all their legal rights to their work and allowing people to copy, remix, and even remove their credit and attribution without restriction.
There are so many great discussions why people and companies give away artistic work for free with restrictions that it might just be easier to link you to some good discussions on the topic.
However, the reason why people would put their hard work directly into the public domain without any restriction and any attempt to make money off of it is definitely worth more discussion.
P.J. Onori, on his blog, says it well: “I am an ardent supporter of the open-source philosophy -- but who isn’t? It is a safe assumption to make that just about anyone working on the web in some capacity (developer, designer, information architect, marketer, etc.) is taking advantage of free/open-source work in one way or another. The internet would not be the internet that we know without free and open-source projects moving it forward. With that in mind, I consider it the obligation of those who make a living on the internet to carry their share of the weight and offer up something in return.”
Onori describes several reasons, both altruistic and self-interested, why releasing content straight into the public domain or via a relatively non-restrictive license like Creative Commons is appealing.
(1) Extra publicity
When artists release their work under a Creative Commons license [ https://creativecommons.org/about ] or into the public domain, more people will see the work simply because they don’t have to pay for it. If you compare two works of similar quality, it makes perfect sense why a work that is free with no DRM protection is likely to be more appealing than a work that costs money and limited by DRM.
Some people find that the exposure their work gets from being widely distributed is worth more to them than the amount of money they would get if they attempted to sell their work. To these people, other entities distributing a creator's work—especially to audiences the creator would not normally reach—can be considered a form of marketing, done for free and with little work on the creator's part. That "marketing" may help the creator financially by increasing traffic to the creator's website or by impressing prospective employers.
For example, a blogger might give away his expertise on his blog and in a free e-book. Once people read the blog and book and acknowledge that he or she is an expert, the blogger might be able to profit from speaking engagements and consulting gigs that utilize the blogger’s expertise. By contrast, if the blogger, an unknown in the field, tried to sell his or her information before establishing expertise or a reputation, it’s likely that few people would want to accept the information as true or useful.
(2) They don’t believe in copyright laws
Just because the law requires you to follow copyright rules doesn’t mean that you have to support them. In fact, there’s a vocal set of people who actively attempt to reform and repeal copyright laws because they believe that they hurt the progress of science and culture and stifle creativity.
For an easily relatable example of how copyright laws may stifle creative work is when a record label decides to “shelve” an already completed album from an artist rather than releasing it to the public. Major record labels traditionally take control of the copyright over their artists’ recordings; therefore, if the label decides it does not want to commit resources to promote the release, the music will go completely unheard through legal channels. This is because the musician may have little or no recourse to re-obtain rights to the music from the label after he or she had assigned those rights.
To use another music industry example, some argue that risk-averse record companies will only sell artists’ music based on potential profitability, rather than based on “artistic merit.” This keeps a large number of artists from being heard. Though not a direct criticism of “copyright laws,” this general aversion from mixing commerce and money with artistic expression encourages many people to forgo selling their work altogether.
As a result, some creative people automatically release their work into the public domain because they simply don’t want to support a system that they disagree with.
(3) They don’t want to waste time or money enforcing the rights that copyright law gives them
Creators may place their work in the public domain simply because they simply have no interest in limiting others’ use or no desire to spend time or financial resources to deal with violators.
(4) To contribute to the common good
Many argue that weakening copyright laws and expanding the public domain would advance cultural, economic, and scientific progress.
Natural altruism, or the feeling of contributing to the common good, is sometimes enough compensation to promote progress. For example, programmers will often share their code under the rationale that if someone has already done the work, others shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel to solve the same problem.
Altruism isn’t always a one-way street. Appreciative audiences are known to donate money and support creative projects that they believe in—even when they can theoretically get the benefits of the work for free. In fact, Nina Paley is famous for her business plan to fund the costs of her movie Sita Sings the Blues. After she was contractually obligated not to “sell” more than 4,999 DVDs, she released it into the public domain hoping that she would recoup her costs mostly through donations and personal appearances.
(5) Because the act of distributing works to a large public audience is a learning experience
Releasing projects commercially often pushes creators to their limits in making it fit for the public. To address this, creators can use a trial run of distribution techniques for the purpose of testing the product, preparing it for an eventual commercial distribution.
For software developers, this means distributing programs in open source. This allows programmers to hone their skills, discover bugs, and improving the product to match prosepective customers’ needs. .
There are various compelling reasons why creators release their hard work into the public domain. P.J. Onori, who releases his blog as Creative Commons himself, eloquently summarizes why he does so and encourages others to do the same:
“As web-based bread-winners, we work in one of the few, if only, professions where it is common place for our peers to give away their hard work. Not only do many release their work, but tremendous effort is put forth to make it easy for others to use. When I try to explain this to friends/family who are unfamiliar to this environment, they think we are crazy. Honestly though, could you imagine what it would be without this reality? I think most web developers and designers want to release some of their work, if not for altruistic means then for promotional. The problem is the time and the effort it takes to actually release it can be substantial. I could lie and say that the effort is always immediately worth it and that it will always be appreciated – but we know better. There will be times where no one even seems to notice or care. That said, the web landscape depends on the contribution of publicly released projects to keep innovation chugging.”
If you have questions about alternative business models for distributing your creative work or want general information about implementing Creative Commons and the Copy Left movement, feel free to contact New Media Rights at (619) 591-8870 or firstname.lastname@example.org for free, pro bono legal assistance.