“Only one thing is impossible for God: to find any sense in any copyright law on the planet. Whenever a copyright is to be made or altered, then the idiots assemble.” Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), circa 1906

“Good artists copy; great artists steal.” —Pablo Picasso

The benefit of an open approach to architectural design is that you can play off and improve the design of others, which in turn, one would hope, benefits the lives of all—as should be an architect’s ethical tenant. The standard ‘all rights reserved’ approach to licensing, however, limits this ability to create derivative works for the benefit of all. The creative commons, however, offers an alternative approach to IP rights that facilitates this idea of remixing the work of others—as described in the following quote from their website:

This process of generically giving permission in advance – use my content so long as you attribute me, or engage in non commercial use, or make no derivative works or share your improvements with the broader community – allows users upon seeing content labeled with the CC symbol to know exactly, at that instant, what right they have to reproduce, communicate, cut, paste, and remix.

The following describes each of the six main licenses offered when you choose to publish your work with a Creative Commons license. They are listed starting with the most accommodating type you can choose and ending with the most restrictive.


Attribution (by). Lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation.

Attribution Share Alike (by-sa). Lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial reasons, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use.

Attribution No Derivatives (by-nd). Allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.

Attribution Non-Commercial (by-nc). Lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike (by-nc-sa). Lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. Others can download and redistribute your work just like the by-nc-nd license, but they can also translate, make remixes, and produce new stories based on your work. All new work based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also be non-commercial in nature.

Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives (by-nc-nd). The most restrictive of the six main licenses, allowing redistribution. This license is often called the “free advertising” license because it allows others to download your works and share them with others as long as they mention you and link back to you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

From my understanding, the various licensing options boil down to the following two scenarios: Someone can make a derivative work, make money commercially, and not pay you a thing or the opposite, someone can make a derivative work and neither of you make money commercially. There is of course the scenario, where both parties are able to benefit by signing a commercial licensing agreement, but this is usually after the fact. With this arrangement, you run the risk, however, that the original licensor will not want to come to a fair and balanced assessment of each other’s contribution. With this potential risk loaming in the future, you would be less likely to even start a derivative work in the first place—there’s less initial incentive. If this is a public project, the public would, in turn, loose the opportunity of having a superior design (judged on many fronts, not just aesthetically), for less. Do we really need to reinvent the wheel with every project? So in pursuing this commercial licensing agreement are we not back to the same cumbersome legal wrangling we were trying to avoid in the first place by creating the CC? Can there be a CC license that finds a middle ground where people are open to use other’s work, but all parties benefit monetarily, without the intervention of a cumbersome legal process?

What if, however, there was a New Licensing option—somewhere between ‘Attribution Non-commercial’ and ‘Attribution No Derivatives’—that stated that you are free to pursue commercial gain without consent, but if you use the derivative work to make money, the payout percentages to all parties is assessed by the ‘community’ and not left up to the lawyers to determine? Under this license, I would have a little more confidence using someone else work initially, knowing that if my derivative work does indeed make money, that there’s a better likelihood that the community, on average, will make a fairer assessment of each other contribution, than if left up to the biases of lawyers and other interested stakeholders.

What is the community in this case? Perhaps, initially this community is composed of only those involved in the project—the originator and those that modify the design. If, however, through this 1st phase, a unanimous vote is not achieved, assessment would be opened up to another tier of paid editors and arbiters to make the final evaluation. Since this group of editors, would in turn get a small percentage of the project’s revenue, there’s more incentive for the original parties to come to an agreement. Perhaps in order to insure that this group of editors, on average, doles out a fair and balanced assessment, there could be a system in place where the editors in turn are ranked by those they are arbitrating for—i.e., you are able to rank the ranker so to speak. So, in the end, only the editors with the best rankings are allowed to participate in this process. Through this you are in essence placing more faith in the ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ to establish a quick and fair judgment, than you are in a traditional legal procedure.

I feel, if such a system of licensing were in place, people would be more apt at using someone else’s work from the very beginning, knowing that since the ‘community’ is establishing the percentage of authorship, they’d be more assured that everyone, in the end, would be granted a fair deal. I believe this method would not only allow good ideas to propagate themselves more prolifically in the world, through the continual process of refinement, they would also improve at a more exponential rate as well—a win-win scenario for all.