I was once the kind free content zealot that lessig warned about. Then I met people who made a living off of creating content and selling it. One of them asked me a question that has stuck with me through the years. After I said that it’s pointless to sell music and enforce copyright, he asked me “but then how do I eat?” As I learned to program, I eventually started to empathize with him. But at the same time, I know that it’s possible to release what software you write for free, and instead make money by selling support, customization, and training. Many multibillion companies such as Red Hat exist on this principle.
But how do we apply an idea like this to our culture? Our stories? Our fiction? Although the RIAA and others would say that we can’t possibly have music or art without the kind of copyright they lobby for, we have the mythologies, folk tales, music, and art of cultures around the world to argue otherwise. In the past, we’d have wealthy individuals pay for works of art. But that doesn’t exactly apply anymore. If we’re to take creative commons seriously as a license for professional content creators to release content under, we need to have clear answers to the question of “how do the artists eat?”
Last semester, I had a discussion about this topic with a staff member of the SCP wiki, a collaborative horror and adventure fiction project that consists of the stories of secret organizations and descriptions of paranormal objects that they seek to capture. Although I don’t have an answer to how creators of every medium can support themselves by making Creative Commons content, I do for at least one.
The question that started the discussion was roughly “how can someone ethically and legally make a game based on the SCP wiki’s lore while making a profit?” The answer I got applies to game adaptations of Creative Commons fiction in general: a development team can build a simple but good game that is very open to modification. They can also work on a creative commons mod alongside the base game with the help of the community. As long as they sell the game for a low price and make the mod content free and license-compliant with the original fiction, they can legally profit from the efforts of the community. This approach is foolproof because game creators do not have to release the source code of the original game, and can even create content based on no commercial usage content. Because they depend on the fan community for revenue, they have to at the bare minimum treat the fan base well, and more likely also contribute back to the creator community in one way or another (hosting feeds for websites are one example). If they fail to do both, the fan base can simply port the content to recreate the mod using another game system.
This isn’t a perfect solution, and it’s very unique to video games, but it does show that Creative Commons can be taken seriously for creators in yet another medium.