Team Open

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Max Temkin

The #1 comedy game proved that fans will pay, even when they don’t have to.

As a founder of Cards Against Humanity, Max Temkin spends time delighting his fans, not suing them. The creators selected a Creative Commons license instead of All Rights Reserved copyright, choosing to focus their energy where it matters most for their business — writing jokes.

Under CC, the creators allow people to share their game without fear of retribution. As a result, Cards Against Humanity has become the #1 best-selling game on Amazon, with its free online version downloaded several millions of times. “Creative Commons is integral to our business model, because it helped make it spread.”

My friend Anne Marie once had her car broken into. She had a raft, expensive running shoes, gym equipment, and Cards Against Humanity. The only item taken was Cards Against Humanity.

If you haven’t heard of it, Cards Against Humanity is the ubiquitous game for you and your horrible friends. Each round, a player asks a question from a black card, such as “What’s there a ton of in heaven?”. The other players respond with their funniest white card — with lines like, “Ghandi,” “power,” or “sunshine and rainbows” (I kept it PG).

Max Temkin founded Cards Against Humanity together with high school friends Josh Dillon, Daniel Dranove, Eli Halpern, Ben Hantoot, David Munk, David Pinsof, and Eliot Weinstein. They started playing the game at New Year’s parties, and at the behest of their friends, the group shared the cards online for free in 2008. It became so popular, with downloads in the tens of thousands, that they decided to make a printed version by raising money via Kickstarter in 2010. They nearly quadrupled their goal of $4,000, and by June 2011, Cards Against Humanity launched its first printed version under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (BY-NC-SA) license, for sale on Amazon and still available for free online as a PDF. It sold out in a month.

“It clicked for us that CC was the right way to share our game, and allow people to take it, customize it, and feel ownership without fear of legal issues. The friendly CC license on the back of the box is a nice note saying you truly own this thing,” explains Max.

As a result, there have been thousands of fan remixes of the cards, proliferating into numerous subcultures that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. “We certainly can’t add to certain subcultures because we don’t know enough about them, so it’s great to see the fun directions the cards take.”

“Politically, we stand behind tools like Creative Commons,” continues Max. “For creative people on the internet, this is the world we need to do creative work. Creators have a political and moral obligation to make work available in the same way it was made available to you. The cards benefited enormously from availability and freedom of information. It always made sense to contribute and give back to what we benefited from.”

In support of this aim, the co-founders selected the CC BY-NC-SA license, allowing any remixes of the cards to be shared similarly (“SA”), and for those remixes to also be available for free (“NC”). With the attribution requirement on the license (“BY”), any remixes also credit the original creator, supporting the Cards Against Humanity business.

“CC is integral to our business model, because it helped make it spread,” says Max. They have never paid for advertising, and instead the game’s popularity grew virally, through word of mouth, and by people sharing the game with one another.

“I honestly don’t think people would gravitate to the game, talk about the cards, or feel ownership if we weren’t willing to share it with them. The game is about telling jokes and making people laugh. We want people to feel as if they’re a participant in putting that joke together — it’s in the spirit of comedy and of the game.”

More pragmatically, the creators of Cards Against Humanity have chosen to focus their time on what’s most important — writing jokes. “You have a choice to make, whether you want to spend your time suing people or turn them into evangelists for a brand or product. Nothing can deplete energy and goodwill faster than suing people and defending your copyright. You literally can’t move faster than people who want to rip your stuff off.”

If the creators had put the game under All Rights Reserved copyright, most of the group’s time and energy would have been spent defending it. “It’s like putting toothpaste back in the tube. You’re never going to stop them all. We couldn’t afford a lawyer anyway, and that wasn’t going to stop people. We would have spent all our time fighting and not writing new jokes and delighting fans. CC gives us the freedom to not care and focus on what’s important.”

Their strategy paid off. Cards Against Humanity is the #1 best-selling and reviewed game on Amazon — a record they’ve held for a couple years, beating out classic games like Uno and Jenga. Their first, second, third, and fourth expansion packs are next on the best-selling list. The free online version has been downloaded several millions of times. By now, all eight co-founders can afford not to work if they so choose.

To date, Max cites maintaining the company’s independence as one of his proudest accomplishments. When the eight co-founders started out, they didn’t know about publishing and distribution, so they figured out how to print the cards themselves. They sell direct to the customer instead of going through a traditional publisher, giving them the creative freedom to do what they want — like on Black Friday when they increased the card price by $5 instead of putting it on sale.

“It’s eight of us by consensus — we don’t like voting. All of our decisions are long, drawn out conversations on what the right the thing to do is. We talk a lot about values and what’s important to us. Knowing what we believed in led us to great decisions, like applying the CC license. We got the principles right in the beginning,” says Max.

Sustaining their company’s independence and equal partnership as eight co-founders, and consistently acting in the best interest of their fans, is an impressive testament to that. The group has turned down offers from investors, other retailers, and those wishing to license the cards to other manufacturers. They’ve also been generous with their earnings, including donating $70,000 to Wikimedia Foundation and $100,000 to schools.

Ultimately, the cards are helping bring people together. While the game can be seen as offensive or controversial, Cards Against Humanity is building a space for open-minded conversation and discussion, and hopefully one day — change.

“It’s fun to have this comedy thing, but it’s also a vehicle to talk about uncomfortable things like race, class, and privilege,” says Max. “The worst part about political correctness is its tendency to sweep social problems under the rug. It doesn’t make them go away. Cards Against Humanity is a reaction to that. Being able to laugh at terrible things robs them of their power, and we delight in that.”

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Creative Commons License

Max Temkin (Team Open) was written by Meryl Mohan for Creative Commons. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The illustration of Max Temkin was created by Luke Surl. To the extent possible under the law, Luke Surl has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights under the CC0 Public Domain Declaration.