My Open Licensing Journey

Today, I relicensed all of my photos on Flickr from CC BY-NC-SA to CC BY. In English, that means that you may reuse, redistribute, remix, and even resell any of my Flickr photos as long as you give me credit.

I’ve been meaning to do this for a long time, but hadn’t, mostly due to laziness. Flickr has a batch relicensing feature, but it failed on my 12,000 photos, so I had to do this mostly manually, which was a pain. I also plan on embedding the license in the pictures themselves from this point forward using Jeffrey Friedl’s Creative Commons Lightroom plugin. I had already done this for my Instagram photos using Philip Neustrom’s clever service,

Why now? It was some combination of me working on my photography workflow today, thinking about licensing for Faster Than 20, and thinking about Aaron Swartz, who died one year ago.

Why do this at all? In general, I’m trying to make the world a better place. I believe that sharing my knowledge artifacts can help with that, but others need to be able to reuse that knowledge. The fewer barriers I create, the easier it is for others to do that. I also believe that doing this is better for me financially, that I am likely to make more money over time by giving away my knowledge than I would by trying to restrict it.

I’ve always been a strong advocate for open licensing, and I’ve always favored less restrictive licenses in theory. But when I first had to choose a license for my photos, I hedged, and I placed a “non-commercial, share-alike” restriction.

In practice, this has worked swimmingly for me. The only problem I’ve had is that non-commercial licenses are incompatible with Wikimedia. When I’ve wanted to upload content to Wikimedia Commons, or when someone has requested that I do, I’ve simply relicensed those particular pictures. That’s worked fine, but it hasn’t been ideal, and I’ve been wanting to get more active on Commons recently, which is a large part of why I’ve been wanting to relicense my content.

My reasons for relicensing, however, run much deeper than these minor roadblocks. It represents my ongoing journey of getting comfortable with giving up control, which speaks to where I am with Faster Than 20’s licensing.

I have long enjoyed the merits of open licensed content, and I’ve always been comfortable licensing my content that way. I’m not naive about the downsides. About a year after I published my first book (in 1996, predating Creative Commons by five years), I found a pirated version on the Internet. I would have been fine with that — it hadn’t sold well, and I wanted people to have access to the content — except that this person had replaced my name with his.

Even after I started open licensing everything, I’ve seen plenty of my content repurposed in ways that violate the already liberal licensing terms. I never feel great about it, but I the benefits have far outweighed the downsides, and it’s not like others have made millions off of my content.

Still, it takes a bit of faith to trust that the upsides will far outweigh the downsides. Over time, I’ve gotten more comfortable with this, and I’m wanting to be more liberal with my licenses.

My current thinking is to license all written content published on Faster Than 20 as CC0 — essentially public domain. In other words, I would be giving up all copyright and all associated rights for content written on Faster Than 20. I would accompany the license with a statement of how I’d like people to engage with the content, but I won’t require it.

I’ve been particularly persuaded by what Mike Linksvayer has been writing about CC0 and the whole suite of new CC licenses. At minimum, I’d like attribution, but who am I kidding? People attribute because they think it’s the right thing to do, not because they’re worried about me coming after them. I can be more explicit and more effective about what I want by inviting people rather than by relying on a license.

Why not release my photos under a CC0 license also? I could blame it on Flickr not offering that option (Flickr’s support for CC-licensed content is seriously lagging), but the reality is that I don’t want to. With pictures, I not only have a responsibility to myself, but also to my subjects. I’m not ready to give up all copyright and renouncing all control.

My Top Blog Posts in 2013

Here are my top 10 blog posts from 2013 (unique visits in parentheses, bolded items explained below):

  1. Aaron Swartz (3,105)
  2. Tom Bihn Bags for Micro Four Thirds Cameras (1,732)
  3. Seeking Google Alerts Replacement (699)
  4. Balance, Impact, and Next Steps (333)
  5. Three Simple Hacks for Making Delightful Virtual Spaces (300)
  6. Survey on Changemaker Challenges (255)
  7. Five Tips for Facilitating Power Dynamics (235)
  8. WikiWednesday in San Francisco: State of the Wiki Ecosystem (199)
  9. Balance Bikes for Changemakers (199)
  10. Lessons on Mentors and Mentorship (158)

I found this breakdown curious, and it speaks to why I started my new website, Faster Than 20. The purpose of this blog is not to build an audience. It’s a place to record my thoughts. If others find my posts useful, great. If my posts catalyze interesting interactions and lead to new connections and learning, even better.

My site statistics reflect my lack of intentionality as well as the vagaries of attention on the Internet. The top post by far was a memory I shared about Aaron Swartz, someone I barely knew. Obviously, his suicide was big news, and rightfully so. But my tribute to Doug Engelbart — someone whom I knew well and who was more famous than Aaron — didn’t even crack my top 25 most visited posts. (It was 27.)

My second most visited post was about camera bags. I’ve written over 650 posts, and none of them have been even remotely similar to that piece. Why the popularity? Mostly because it was reshared by Tom Bihn, the manufacturer I mentioned in the post, but also because there’s not a lot of good information on the Internet about bags for micro-four-thirds cameras, which was why I wrote the post in the first place. From that perspective, I’m glad that it’s been a popular post.

On the other hand, I’m a little disappointed that the knowledge nuggets I shared about collaboration (by rough count, about 75 percent of my posts this past year) were not more prominently represented in the top 10. (The ones that were are bolded.) I think that several have been useful and important, but they have not been widely accessed. This could either mean that I’m overstating their importance in my head, or that I haven’t been intentional enough about building the audience.

Both are probably true, which is why I started Faster Than 20. I’m happy about keeping this space as is, but I want more people to read what I have to share about collaboration. It will be interesting to see how much of a difference intention makes next year.

Aaron Swartz

In July 2001, Doug Engelbart was invited to speak at the International Semantic Web Working Symposium at Stanford. Doug knew very little about the Semantic Web, so he asked me to come along and act as his translator.

When we arrived that day, the registration line was already out the door. As we stood and waited, we saw Ted Nelson, who came over to say hello. No one paid any attention to these computing legends, which wasn’t a surprise, because no one knew who they were. The field evolves at lightning speed, and we easily forget its pioneers. Even if people knew who they were, they wouldn’t have necessarily known what they looked like.

So when a short, pudgy kid walked by, stopped in his tracks, and started hyperventilating like a girl at a Bieber concert, I took notice. After a few moments, he approached and stuttered, “Are you Doug Engelbart?”

Doug smiled, not because he was recognized, but because he is one of the kindest, most gracious person you will ever meet. “Yes, I am,” he nodded.

The young man then turned to Ted. “Are you Ted Nelson?” he asked.

“Yes, I am,” said Ted. Ted is a showman whose public persona is that of an acerbic, yet charming agitator, but at his core, he too is 100% gentleman.

“Oh my god,” the boy breathed. “I can’t believe it! Oh my god.”

“Who are you?” asked Doug.

“My name is Aaron,” he responded.

They began to talk, this shy, 14-year old, who couldn’t believe what was happening, and these two, gentle computing legends, delighted and charmed by his youthful glee. I asked him what he was doing there. “I’m on the RDF Technical Committee,” he explained. I nodded. That wasn’t a surprise to me. The tech world is largely meritocratic and littered with brilliant teenagers making real contributions. It was far more surprising that he recognized and was in awe of Doug and Ted.

Aaron asked if he could take a picture of those two.

“No,” I interjected, before Doug or Ted could say a word. “You have to be in the picture.” Aaron handed me his camera, and I snapped this shot:

Ted Nelson, Aaron Swartz, and Doug Engelbart

I crossed paths with Aaron Swartz several times over the years, and like many, I tracked his work on the web. In person, he was painfully shy, even sullen, a sharp contrast to his incisive, aggressive online persona. The first few times I saw him, I went out of my way to say hello and ask how he was doing. I was always more interested in hearing about him than I was about his current projects. I think he found that weird and uncomfortable, probably rightfully so. After a while, whenever I ran across him, I simply nodded hello and went about my business.

In tech, everybody knows everybody, and we had lots of friends and interests in common — hacking, the Web, free culture, Wikipedia. And of course, we both idolized Doug and Ted. But we were not friends. I barely knew him, I didn’t follow him on Twitter, and I had stopped following his blog years ago.

So I can’t explain why I was so devastated by the news of his passing late last night. I can’t explain why I stayed up late last night, thinking about Aaron, thinking about the many people who cared about him, thinking about all of my own friends, wondering how much I actually knew anybody, whether I knew what people were going through, whether or not I was truly there for the people I cared about.

Maybe it was because I could never get that very first impression of Aaron out of my head, that shy teenager who derived such joy from meeting two legends whom no one else recognized. That Aaron was so different from the Aaron I saw from afar, both in person and online, in subsequent years.

Or maybe it was simply because, when any 26-year old — regardless of who he is or what he’s accomplished — takes his own life, you can’t help but feel heartbreak.

Rest in peace, Aaron.

The Google Gradient

Aaron Swartz wrote an interesting piece about the so-called Google bubble. He then proposed a way around the bubble, which he called the Google “gradient.” Having just wrapped up an event that Google sponsored, I can give some first-hand thoughts on Aaron’s piece. In short, the gradient already exists, and boy, is it a doozy.    (LG0)

Both Allen Gunn and I have worked with many, many generous companies on events like the FLOSS Usability Sprint, and we both agreed that Google was unquestionably the easiest, most accomodating company we’ve ever worked with. Here’s a snapshot of my experience:    (LG1)

  • Earlier this year at DCamp, I meet Rick Boardman, a user experience engineer at Google. We talk about the FLOSS Usability Sprints, and he says, “That’s pretty cool. If you ever want space for a sprint, we can do it at Google.”    (LG2)
  • Gunner and I decide it’s time to do another sprint. I email Rick. Rick says, “No problem. I’ll dig up food for you guys too.” I look down at my list of negotiation points when dealing with potential sponsors, reread Rick’s email, shrug my shoulders, and throw the list away.    (LG3)
  • I check out the space, and it’s outstanding. Wide open room that’s reconfigurable, lots of whiteboards, plenty of breakout space, open WiFi.    (LG4)
  • Rick introduces me to Leslie Hawthorn, who’s involved with Google’s Open Source programs and managed Summer of Code. Leslie is the epitome of a Yellow Thread. Here’s an example of a common exchange. Me: “Leslie, I know it’s last minute, but can you do [insert any number of requests here] for us?” Leslie: “Sure!”    (LG5)
  • I get to Google early on Friday. Leslie gives me a walkthrough. To my surprise, she has Google schwag bags for all of us. She also has special badges for us, so that participants don’t have to sign the usual visitor NDAs.    (LG6)
  • There are about six security guards surrounding our space throughout the whole event. This should have been unnerving, except they were all very friendly, they kept opening doors for the participants, and they made it safe for us to leave our computers lying around the entire weekend.    (LG7)
  • Leslie supplies us with snacks, beverages, and most importantly, coffee throughout the event. We eat lunch both days at Slices, one of the excellent cafeterias on campus. The food is local, organic, and delicious. (Gunner and I do our best to cancel out all this healthy food by bringing pizza and donuts and by taking the group out for adult beverages and more unhealthy food afterwards.)    (LG8)
  • Four Google employees participate, including Rick and Leslie. All of them kick butt. I didn’t know Leslie’s background beforehand, but as it turns out, she completely rocks out with the Drupal team, thus increasing my respect for her by another order of magnitude. More common exchanges with Leslie during the event. Me: “Leslie, can you help us with [insert many more requests here]?” Leslie: “Sure!”    (LG9)
  • Total number of pain-in-the-rear problems that the Google bureaucracy creates for us that are inevitable when working with large companies on open events like these: 0.    (LGA)

Perhaps this was an isolated experience. Perhaps the next time we work with Google, this so-called “bubble” will be in full effect, and we’ll curse and swear about how terrible the bureaucracy is there. All I can say is that I’ll be able to tell you all for sure soon, because I fully plan on there being a next time. Many thanks to Leslie and Rick for being such outstanding hosts!    (LGB)