When Life And Work Blend, Everything Is Commercial Use

from the welcome-to-the-way-we-live dept

I was recently having a talk with a friend who was trying to determine what to do next with his life. He's not happy with his job and wants a "goal" for the future -- but isn't really sure what he wants to do. I suggested focusing on a hobby in the short term and devoting plenty of time to it. He felt that was the wrong approach, because a hobby is separate from a job, and the two would never connect. While that could happen, the internet today has made it increasingly easy to turn a hobby into a job in some way or another. It's not that you need to turn a hobby into a job. Sometimes it's good for a hobby to just be a hobby. But, if you focus on what you're passionate about, I think eventually different job opportunities start to come to you.

But it's this blurring of "personal" and "work" lives that again has me pondering if there really is a meaningful distinction between "commercial use" and "non-commercial use." Some of this debate first came about years ago, when some web publishers claimed that their RSS feeds were "for non-commercial use only," but what does that mean? If I read your site as part of my job, have I violated that rule? If I learn information from your feed that allows me to make money, have I violated that rule? More recently, there have been proposals to separate copyright violations, such that "non-commercial use" is allowed. But, again, you quickly run into very questionable scenarios. If my personal blog has Google AdSense on it, is it commercial use? If I end up getting a job because of my "personal use" of your content, does it suddenly morph into "commercial use"? The questions get more and more confusing, and the mess would make less and less sense.

These days, it seems that the distinction between personal, professional, commercial and non-commercial are becoming increasingly meaningless -- and that's not a bad thing.

With that said, I have to agree with Gordon Haff over at News.com that Creative Commons is making a mistake in trying to better define the meaning of "commercial use" for its "non-commercial" licenses. I'm already struggling with its current definition. I'm working on a presentation for a conference I'm attending next month, and found some images that are under a CC license that allows non-commercial use. I'm not getting paid for the talk itself, but I am doing it as a representative of Techdirt, which is a commercial entity. Is that commercial use? The presentation isn't about our business, though, but about what I usually write about here. Is that non-commercial use? I'm assuming it's non-commercial use, but these days, I have a hard time understanding what the difference is at all, and Haff is right that it's likely to lead to more confusion. The real answer is to simplify CC licenses, not make them even more complex.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    Stephen Downes (profile), Dec 8th, 2008 @ 2:59pm


    > it seems that the distinction between personal, professional, commercial and non-commercial are becoming increasingly meaningless -- and that's not a bad thing.

    Yes it is. It is, because it means that everything is becoming commercial. And that's a bad thing.

    We need to have some space in our lives - and some space on the internet - that is not dedicated to dog-eat-dog scratching for a living.

    We need space and time in our ives to do things simply because we love them, not so they can be monetized.

    The conversion of everything on the web - or anywhere - into a commercial good is a sympton of a society that has collapsed in on itself, not one that is healthy and vigorous.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Jessie, Dec 8th, 2008 @ 3:17pm

    Another way to look at it

    That is certainly one way to look at it, but if we go back in history there was a time when there was no distinction between commercial and non-commercial and things were simpler not more complex.

    I think these sorts of definitions are sort of like drawing lines in the sand. Sometimes they are helpful in organizing and prioritizing our lives, and sometimes all it accomplishes is putting people in boxes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    The Truth Beacon, Dec 8th, 2008 @ 4:02pm

    Missing the point...

    I am rather sure that the point behind the difference between commercial and non-commercial is being missed by many people.

    The difference is things for non-commercial use are intended to mean that you can't use that item specifically to make money... It shouldn't apply to knowledge, as knowledge isn't a preventable phenomena... It's meant to limit industry-specific tools from being used to generate revenue without being properly licensed.

    An example would be a piece of software that is integral to an industry's success, being offered freely to students with the expectation that those student's won't take advantage of the comparative generosity.

    While the example may be flawed or highlight the issues behind copyright in general, it still shows the basic meaning of the "not-for-commercial-use" clause. Basically they prefer not, but don't care if you pirate it; as long as you don't pirate it to make money.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Dec 8th, 2008 @ 4:27pm

    Re: Missing the point...

    The Truth Beacon signalled:

    The difference is things for non-commercial use are intended to mean that you can't use that item specifically to make money...

    So, is Mike’s proposed use of that Creative-Commons-licensed content “commercial use" under your definition, or not?

    It shouldn't apply to knowledge, as knowledge isn't a preventable phenomena...

    Does that mean you’re in favour of getting rid of the “commercial use” use distinction in CC licensing, or not?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Matt, Dec 8th, 2008 @ 6:15pm


    nothing but greed. They want to do "non-commercial" because commercial operations pay more than the individual does.

    It's a stupid idea that's been around and I celebrate when the stupid idea leaves.

    I call all things personal use that I use, because I use them, makes it simple for me.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 8th, 2008 @ 7:16pm

    Re: Non-Commercial

    So when some of us find a way to turn our personal leisurely pursuits into something that can financially support the time it's devoted, that's a sign of a society that's NOT healthy and vigorous?

    When we've reached the point where our commercial enterprises are done for the love of it and not just a daily grind of misery 1/3 of every day, then we've truly achieved something great. We allow society to flourish without turning all its workers into factory drones.

    If you can look at the concept and see it as a bad thing, I worry.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    gee, Dec 8th, 2008 @ 7:28pm

    Re: Re: Non-Commercial

    Think you guys have two different conceptions of commerce. I would think that AC's definition leaves room for commerce that is not by definition "dog-eat-dog." That is that one can engage in trade, exchange, what have you without compromising their devotion to whatever it is they love.

    For example, could a farmer love the land and still sell the vegetables he grows? Can a poet make a living from his poetry? I hope so...

    Commerce is not in and of itself bad. Although I do agree with SD's sentiment that when we reduce everything in our lives to "dog-eat-dog scratching for a living" we are in trouble both as individuals and as a society.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Ray Trygstad, Dec 8th, 2008 @ 7:44pm

    What about us educators?

    I'm with a university. Anything I do that directly relates to educating my students I view as "Academic". Gee, is that "Commercial" or is that "Non-Commercial"? (Personally I always err on the side of whatever benefits my students learning opportunities the most...)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    James Hofmann, Dec 8th, 2008 @ 10:47pm

    There is little room for non-commercial anymore

    The path of digital technology has made all our media more like quotes from an interview - something in the air, that can be profited from but only fleetingly, that anyone can copy or abuse, and to which attribution is all the more important.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Lisa Creech Bledsoe, Dec 9th, 2008 @ 7:15am

    Not just educators

    I would not hire anyone without Googling them and looking at their "non-work-related" social networks, etc. I have friends who work increasingly hard to say that an employer shouldn't take someone's Twitterstream or FaceBook or blogs into account when making hiring/promotion/etc decisions, and my friends even try to employ different usernames and privacy settings to ensure that "work" and "personal" stay separate. That seems like a losing battle.

    I use my personal blogs, online networks, etc. to support my work all the time. As "non-commercial" becomes more and more interconnected with "commercial", lines in the sand are going to be more and more arbitrary.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Tim, Dec 9th, 2008 @ 9:57am


    While it seems reasonable to expect that spending time with a hobby should turn into a future, is there a deeper principle that supports the claim? I would like to hear people's opinion as to what that is. If you have something to share, you can tweet me at www.twitter.com/timj4real

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Tri-PleX, Dec 9th, 2008 @ 10:22am

    How about...

    I think the simple explanation would be "Are you using my work to make money for yourself? Because if you are benefiting from my work, then I should also get some sort of benefit as well."
    If it makes you money, it should make me something as well.

    Don't sell something you got for free, and "trickle down" your wealth to the people that allowed you to make it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 9th, 2008 @ 12:20pm

    My hobby is looking at pictures in /s/ at 4chan. How can I make money doing this? Can I get people to pay me to put a name to their favorite porn pictures?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    M. Griffie, Dec 9th, 2008 @ 2:39pm

    Re: How about...

    I agree with Tri-PleX. It seems such an incredibly simple and basic concept I'm not sure why people are (apparently) having so much trouble grasping it. If you are not making money off of it then it is non-commercial use.

    Mike, your use of an image in a presentation is non-commercial. In no way can anyone make the claim that you using an image will make you a profit. Done. How hard is that?

    Yes, there are edge cases that can get a bit murky. And yes, if you over-analyze it to death you will perpetually go around in circles. I prefer the common sense approach.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    Yeebok (profile), Jun 4th, 2009 @ 1:08am

    The problem is lawyers.

    Basically if Mike winds up in court, a lawyer will argue that in some way the presentation will not have been as good, had the 'stolen' image been left out. The next question is "and you were paid to deliver that presentation weren't you?". Case pretty much lost if the answer is yes.
    Really much of the problem beyond that is simply that everyone assumes everything is worth money. It's not - the value of anything is relative. To me (whatever) may be a hobby that I'd do for free, someone else may expect payment. Another person may expect big payments. Same with the recipient, they may want to pay lots, some or nothing for the item. Society as a whole expects everything to have a $ value - commercial entities are even worse.

    The fact remains that most things people regard as 'basic services' should be free - and again, opinions differ. This could be news, public transport, flatulence, whatever.
    The way things are going it'll be if you shop at 'ShopX' you'll live in a ShopX complex with ShopX food, clothes and so forth. That's what the commercial companies want - it's brand loyalty after all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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