Questions about a protest group using public domain for creative works
February 7, 2018 2:05 PM   Subscribe

A protest group that I'm a part of is considering putting our creative and design work in the public domain. We want to make sure we are not missing anything major, and that our understanding of this is accurate. Some questions inside.

Our protest group produces a variety of creative work (graphic design, written documents, merchandise, etc.). We would like to make this work available to the general public to use as they see fit (and we understand that will have no further control once we place something in the public domain).

This is the working definition we are using for public domain:
The term “public domain” refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.

1. Is there anything inaccurate, incomplete, or otherwise needing clarification regarding this statement? Or, does this seem full and complete for the purposes of a protest group that does design and creative work?

2. What is the best way to begin placing our work in the public domain? Can we begin placing a notice for our creative work that it is entering the public domain under Creative Commons 0 - "No Rights Reserved"? Is there some downsides to taking this approach?

3. Do you know of any activist groups that have taken this approach? What were the plusses and minuses?

4. Have you ever been a part of a group that did something like this? What were your experiences? Would knowing a group was doing something like this make you more or less inclined to get involved (as someone who does creative work or otherwise)?
posted by andoatnp to Law & Government (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
CC0 is what I would use. The downsides, as I understand them, are that anyone could bundle up all your assets, do nothing except slap a shiny "Copyright Scuzz Corp." logo on them, and sell them for (Dr. Evil voice) one million dollars. Since anyone else could also do this, the amount of money that changes hand for public domain goods is pretty small in practice. The example I can think of is the CDDB (Compact Disc Database), which was a managed as public database until they were bought out and became Gracenote.
posted by wnissen at 2:19 PM on February 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

The only disadvantage I see is that public domain works truly belong to anyone. That means a particularly odious opponent could take your work, subvert its meaning, and republish it with your logo intact. Copyright would potentially give you some recourse (possibly expensive and slow, but still) but public domain would give you none.

See the Carol Highsmith case for why public domain really means that anyone can do anything with the works … including charging for them, as Getty Images does.
posted by scruss at 2:27 PM on February 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

The downsides include "hate groups can use your works" - changing the words and using the same pictures, for example, or using your exact words in a different context - and "Disney can use your works" (or any other major corporation); sell t-shirts of them, use them in movies, take your posters and make them a backdrop for a movie scene, and so on - and, as the lawsuit above shows - charge other people to use them, even if they're in the public domain. (People sell copies of Shakespeare's work all the time; there's a long history of charging for repackaged public domain works.)

If you want to allow commercial use and avoid lockdown attempts like Getty's, you can release them as BY-SA, so that people using them have to put the same availability on what they're used on.

Or you can label them "Kopyleft - all rites reversed" which now tends to be folded in under creative commons as either CC0 public domain, or BY-SA, but predates CC by at least a couple of decades. Kopyleft has no specific legal meaning and hasn't been tackled in court; it's widely understood to mean "do what you want with this stuff" without fussing over exact legal definitions.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:42 PM on February 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Would knowing a group was doing something like this make you more or less inclined to get involved (as someone who does creative work or otherwise)?

I am generally supportive of this path. The big deal about putting something in the public domain (or CC) is that it's irreversible. So, legally, if you did this and then decided "You know that didn't really work for us, we'd like to put some copyright protections on some of this" it would be very difficult to enforce if you wanted to go after people using your work. That is, once something is in the public domain, you can't really put it back. I feel like often it's better to put a very loose license (CC or otherwise) on it and then let people do whatever with it but still retain some rights to the work. I'm a big fan of BY-SA. So if I were a creative looking to get involved, I would probably contribute some, but not all, of my works just in case I wanted to do something with some of them later.
posted by jessamyn at 3:24 PM on February 7, 2018

Here's the key question: public domain will work for you only if you're fine with ANY usage of your materials and fine with ANYONE selling them for profit; if not, you definitely wanna move at least a little farther up the list of CC licenses.
posted by kalapierson at 5:54 PM on February 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

At, where they have the Shepard Fairey posters for the 2017 Inauguration - they have written "THESE FREE DOWNLOADABLE POSTERS MAY NOT BE SOLD OR USED FOR PROFIT." They probably know that it would be a pain to enforce through courts but you could do a public shaming Twitter attack if someone did try to profit.

I think wording like that is better than trying to explain the concept of public domain. People just don't have the attention span.

I would love to get involved with a group like this who put the work out in public domain. I'm an artist/photographer.
posted by cda at 6:47 PM on February 7, 2018

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