Non Commercial

If you haven’t listened to Larry Lessig’s 23C3 talk, it’s worthwhile to listen to the argument he makes. As I was listening to it, I was struck by the term non-commercial, and, having given it some thought, think that we need a better word to describe the goals Creative Commons is pursuing.

The term non-commercial reminded me deeply of the invention of non-secret encryption by James Ellis, Clifford Cocks, and Malcolm Williamson at the British GCHQ. Despite having invented what the world now calls public key encryption, the idea languished under both classification and a failure to make the critical jump from ‘non-secret’ to ‘public.’ Even when something isn’t a secret, you might not want to shout it from the rooftops, unless you’re Whit Diffie. In which case you might think that it would be great to have a phone book full of keys. Whit probably wouldn’t have thought of that with ‘non-secret’ keys, but he certainly did think of a directory of public keys.

Defining your movement by what you are not isn’t the best way to rally people to the cause. No one claims to be on either the anti-life or anti-choice side of the abortion debate. Beyond that, I’m going to say that non-commercial as a descriptor may be essential in the legal licenses associated with the Creative Commons licenses. Non-commercial may even be almost the right word but, as Mark Twain pointed out, the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

So in seeking the right word, it may help to think about what we mean by non-commercial? We mean almost every word we say to our families, children, or lovers. We mean pillow talk, explaining to kids why the sky is blue, and that I would prefer not to live as a vegitable. We mean our scientific papers, our poems and our fair use of the song Happy Birthday. We mean blogging (others may see their blogs as commercial), asking a stranger directions, talking to our elected representatives, water cooler chatter, graffiti, and even all the unneeded words we say to a cashier in a checkout line.

It’s honest speech. It’s human speech. Let’s not demean it by asserting that commercial speech is the norm.

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