“Noncommercial” is fuzzy

It is common for software, photos, and other creative works to be free for noncommercial use. I appreciate the generosity of those who want to give away their creations, and I appreciate the business savvy of those who see giving some things away as a way to make more money elsewhere. But “noncommercial” is a fuzzy term.

What exactly is noncommercial use? If I include a photo in software that I give away, is that noncommercial use? What if someone includes the same photo in iTunes? That’s software that is freely given away, although it’s clearly a distribution channel for Apple music sales. What about Internet Explorer? Microsoft gives away IE, and it’s not an obvious distribution channel for Microsoft, but many people would call IE commercial software. Is it the nature of the organization rather than the nature of the product that determines whether something is non-commercial?

Sometimes “noncommercial” is used as an opposite of “professional.” But what about employees of charitable organizations such as the American Red Cross? Is a Red Cross relief worker in Haiti doing noncommercial work? What about a lawyer working at Red Cross headquarters? Would it change anything if the lawyer were a volunteer?

Sometimes “educational” is used as a synonym for noncommercial. But if your profession is education, is your work professional or educational? Does it matter whether a school is public or private? Most people would agree that a student doing a homework assignment is engaged in noncommercial activity. What if the student is a teaching assistant receiving a small salary? In that case is it noncommercial use when the student is doing his own homework but commercial use when he’s preparing to teach a class? Isn’t education almost always a commercial activity? After all, why are students in school? They’re preparing to make a living at something. They may have blatantly commercial motives for doing their homework.

Not only can you argue that educational use is commercial, you can argue that commercial use is educational. If an accountant looks up a tax regulation, they’re trying to learn something. Isn’t that educational? Is it educational use when a student looks up a tax regulation but commercial use when an accountant looks up the same regulation?

Individuals and organizations are free to define “commercial” or “noncommercial” use however they please. Personally, I’d rather either sell something or give it away without regard for how it’s going to be used.

6 thoughts on ““Noncommercial” is fuzzy

  1. It can be very fuzzy. Of course, while there’s a large, fuzzy border, most use-cases are pretty clear cut. The kind of borderline cases you list are just that.

    And we have similarly ambiguous delineations in other fields without them stopping us from using them. It’s not hard to find or make up examples where the line between quoting and copying become fuzzy, for instance. The line for authorship is also disturbingly vague in a surprising number of cases. Yet, we manage to fruitfully use those concepts.

    Me, I publish my images as “Non-Commercial”. If someone wants to use an image and isn’t sure if the use is non-commercial or not, all they have to do is ask if I agree to the use. And people do, surprisingly often. Of course, I also use “Share-Alike”, so commercial use or not, the user would have to be ready to publish their own work under similar conditions.

  2. And what about those that are listed as free for non-governmental use? I always assume the author has some issue with some actions of their government, but doesn’t that also preclude use by the many government functions they find worthwhile?

  3. The nasty side of this coin is the mistaken belief that corporations are stupid and are happy to pay a higher price for the same thing. (Rich people got rich by being stupid and spendy, right?) Even worse is when software developers add pointless features to justify the higher price tag for the “Corporate” version.

    To end on a positive note: HootSuite does something smart: leaving features that take up screen real estate on the free version, so (a) you know what you’re missing, and (b) a little annoyance is caused to the free-loaders.

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