Words on a Page Writings about writing

Choosing a license for your writing

A driver's license

Have you ever had your writing stolen? I have. When something like that happens, it’s frustrating and infuriating. To say the least.

When that happened to me in the early 2000s, my reaction was Here’s an untalented hack who’s too lazy to do the work himself stealing my writing and putting his name on it. Well, my reaction was a bit stronger than that but I’m trying to keep this post as clean as I can.

Sadly, there are too many people who still think that if something’s on the internet, it’s free. That they’re free to take whatever they want, use it in whatever way they want, and not bother asking permission to use it, giving credit to the person who created it, or paying a licensing fee.

That’s not quite how things work.

I often advise people to add a license to their writing. Why? Mainly, it’s an explicit statement of ownership and rights. It might not stop someone from stealing it, but it might make people think twice about appropriating your work. On top of that, choosing the right license for you can also help your writing spread wider.

Let’s look at two types of licenses: one type that gives you all the rights to your work, and another type that’s a bit more flexible.

Before we begin

Understand I’m not a legal expert. I don’t know all the nuances of licensing and copyright. What I look at in this post comes from my experience. If you need more information, you should consult someone who’s an expert with copyright and licensing.

With that out of the way, let’s get going.

All Rights Reserved

This is arguably the default license applied to all writing (and other creative work), whether on the web or not. And whether it’s stated explicitly or not.

When you say All Rights Reserved, you’re pretty much saying that Hands off! It’s all mine! You have complete control over what you’ve created. If people want to use or reprint your writing, they need to ask for your permission. And, depending on how you feel, you can ask them to pay you to use it.

If you decide to go this route, you should state All Rights Reserved somewhere on your blog. That somewhere could be on your blog’s About page, on a page that explains the rights, or at the bottom of posts. I usually advise people to use a combination of the above.

What happens if you suspect or learn that someone is using your work without permission? If you know what post has been lifted, you can use services like Copyscape and Plagiarisma to confirm your suspicions. Both services scan a URL that you enter, and then compare it to the results of a web search.

From there, you can do any or all of the following:

There’s no guarantee that any of that will work, though.

Open Content Licenses

Open Content licenses let you specify how people can use your work, and whether or not they have to credit you. The implication with open content licenses is that people can freely use, redistribute, or modify your work. The rest, is up to you.

There are a number of open content licenses for you to choose from. You can find out more at http://freedomdefined.org/licenses.

I want to look at two such licenses: Creative Commons and Uncopyright.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is arguably the most widely-used open content license. It allows you to share your work in just about any way you want to. How? You can reserve all rights, or use any combination of:

  • Redistribute with or without your permission or crediting you
  • Use (or not) your content as part of a work that will be sold
  • Use your content as part of a mash up or derivative work

You can learn more about Creative Commons licenses here.

You can mix and match elements to create a license. By doing that, Creative Commons licenses can get a bit convoluted. I used to joke that one day all my work will be under a Creative Commons 3.5 Some Rights Reserved Share Alike Juggling Panda license.

In case you’re wondering, I license my blogs under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Applying a Creative Commons license to your blog or to individual posts can be easy. That ease will depend on the blogging platform that you use. If, for example, you use WordPress you can install plugins like Easy CC License, License, or Creative Commons Configurator. Each of them lets you apply a license to the entire site, or to individual posts. The latter is useful when you have guest posts and the writer wants to keep all rights.


This license is also sometimes referred to as a Free Art License or a Copyleft license. I got to know this type of open content license partly through the work of blogger Leo Babauta and through work I do in the free software/open source communities.

Uncopyright is pretty much what it says on the tin — there is no copyright on the work. You, and anyone else, can use that writing anyway you want. You don’t have to credit the original author, either.

Leo Babauta explained that sharing never hurt anyone, and the more people who see his work the better. And while there are a lot of people who stress and obsess over search engine rankings (which penalize content that’s duplicated across sites), he claims that his work popping up elsewhere didn’t hurt his site’s PageRank. Anyway, as Babauta says, you can’t steal what’s freely given.

Is there any real benefit to Open Content Licenses?

One of the key benefits of using an Open Content License is that your work gets in front of more eyes. Sometimes, eyes that normally wouldn’t cross your blog. Over the years, writing of mine that’s been under a Creative Commons license has driven quite a bit of traffic to my blogs. It’s also helped secure more than a few paying gigs.

Without that additional exposure, I might not have gotten those gigs. I might not have gotten those additional readers. I might not have garnered a reputation for being someone with a slightly different view of … well, various topics. All of that is worth giving up a bit of control.

Final Thoughts

You don’t need to add a license to your blog posts (or other writing). You can stick with the default All Rights Reserved, even if you don’t state it explicitly.

That said, adding a license to your writing might not stop people from stealing your content. It could, however, make them think twice about lifting it without permission or payment. And the right license could help spread your words and ideas to wider audience.

Thoughts? Let's start a conversation on Twitter.

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