Addendum: Did TV Tropes violate their own license?

In my previous post, I noted that TV Tropes used to be available under a BY-SA license, but then they changed to a BY-NC-SA license. I consider this a bad move, of course, but after I finished my post, another thought occurred to me: what if it’s illegal?

To understand why this would be illegal, you’ve got to know a few things about Creative Commons licenses and how they work. First off, they are supposed to be irrevocable. Consider the following excerpts from the BY-SA legal code:

Subject to the terms and conditions of this License, Licensor hereby grants You a worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive, perpetual (for the duration of the applicable copyright) license to exercise the rights in the Work…

The above rights may be exercised in all media and formats whether now known or hereafter devised. The above rights include the right to make such modifications as are technically necessary to exercise the rights in other media and formats….

Subject to the above terms and conditions, the license granted here is perpetual (for the duration of the applicable copyright in the Work). Notwithstanding the above, Licensor reserves the right to release the Work under different license terms or to stop distributing the Work at any time; provided, however that any such election will not serve to withdraw this License (or any other license that has been, or is required to be, granted under the terms of this License), and this License will continue in full force and effect unless terminated as stated above.

The code is long and boring to read, but the parts I just quoted seem pretty clear that the license lasts as long as the copyright. This doesn’t mean that TV Tropes can’t re-release stuff under the BY-NC-SA license, but it does mean that everything is still covered by the more liberal BY-SA license. This is why All The Tropes has the right to take all of TV Tropes’s old stuff and repost it under the BY-SA license. So, at the very least, it is misleading for TV Tropes to imply that none of their current content is covered by BY-SA.

But there’s a deeper problem than that. It comes down to a question of “ownership”. The Creative Commons legal code notes that the “Licensor” reserves the right to release the Work under different license terms. So the question is: who is the proper “Licensor” for TV Tropes’s content?

If TV Tropes, LLC, is the proper “owner” of the content in question, then they do have the right to relicense their stuff, although I question the ethics of doing so. But I don’t think they can call themselves the “owner” of most of their content! Their current administrative policy is to take “irrevocable ownership…with all rights surrendered” of everything they receive, but some of their older administrative pages say nothing about that at all! In other words, TV Tropes simply cannot claim to own the copyrights on anything submitted to them before they changed their policy, which happened in November 2013. If TV Tropes does not own that stuff, then the contributors (and there are a lot of contributors) still have the rights to it, according to the Berne Convention. They gave TV Tropes permission to use it under the BY-SA license, but that doesn’t include the right to relicense their contributions under the BY-NC-SA license! Did the legions of contributors ever explicitly give TV Tropes permission to relicense their work? If not, then TV Tropes is violating the BY-SA license, and by so doing, they lose their rights under that license, meaning that they lose the rights to use the work at all! Their relicensing the content to BY-NC-SA is a massive act of infringement, and they had better pay up – or else!

Of course, it’s been nearly a year since TV Tropes started claiming irrevocable ownership, and over two years since they started marking everything as BY-NC-SA. Why hasn’t anything bad happened to them yet? I believe it is because of the inherent weakness of Creative Commons licenses: they rely on copyright for their power, and copyright is not a tool for the masses. Copyright is now, as it has ever been, a tool for the few to oppress the many. Expecting it to come through in our favor is a foolish proposition, and everyone who does so (including Creative Commons) has made the fatal mistake of believing hype over substance.

But perhaps I am being too pessimistic. Time will tell. In the meantime, I intend to probe this issue further, and see if we can’t actually use these licenses to put some pressure on TV Tropes. Maybe I’m a fool, but I know that large organizations live and die by the words on paper, and there are cases on the books of the lowly bringing down the haughty using the law. Wish me luck.

P.S. For a good bit of reading on the trouble with copyright, check out this essay: ‘Balanced’ Copyright: Not A Magic Solving Word, by Alan Story (and some good follow-up on Techdirt). I’ll have to give that essay a more thorough reading later, but for now, let me just say that I fully agree with Alan Story’s suggestion to “burn Berne”.

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