Have you had any success explaining what Creative Commons is to people completely outside of our field or for that matter outside the range of people who work online? My attempts veer into vague generalities about alternatives to copyright that allow creators to share— (insert eye glaze over).

This is not necessarily problematic but more an issue of how we approach it. It’s one of those things that defining in words is not nearly as effective as creating opportunities for people to come to their own understanding through action.

In teaching media classes, me preaching the virtues of sharing and allowing re-use was a plea to agree because I was the teacher. The eye glaze there was easily read. “why would I share my stuff? Someone will steal it.” I stopped introducing this at the outset, but designed activities where students got to leverage from what was available, what it meant for their projects when they found (sort of, it could be more) vast pools of images, music, video they could re-use with no worry of being flagged as a violator. When they benefitted personally from what was shared, it made more sense to re-consider their own sharing.

While I have used and advocated for Creative Commons from it’s inception, and I am currently a contractor on a project with the organization, I am by no means a definitive voice. What follows is my personal perspective (it only took me 4 paragraphs to get to a disclaimer).

When I say “the opposite” end I mean that when I see articles, blog posts, presentations, questions, I find that, to me, there is a focus on … well I tried not to use this word because it’s judgemental, but to me it’s the wrong end of CC.

  • People focus on the specific of the license terms rather than the broad goal of what the licenses ought to enable.
  • People think that a license offers them personally protection from mis-use (e.g. the No licenses), e.g. what the licenses do for ME versus what they enable for US
  • People focus on the stuff that is shared as a definer of openness rather than a practice.

I fully expect to be disagreed with, and my own thinking is always in a state of flux, so consider this more a brain dump than a platform position.

This whole post was triggered by a Profhacker post by Maha Bali on Openness, Permission, Courtesy and Nuances of Licenses.

I don’t know how common it is for folks to have to explain Creative Commons licenses for others, but it often feels like a “continuously negotiated” thing (to use Catherine Cronin’s term).

I love that expression – “continuously negotiated” — people look for concrete rules in a world of mushiness. But I will note that Maha says “explain Creative Commons licenses” (emphasis added). The focus on the license.

As a sidebar I often wish there was but a single CC license (that would by CC BY). I fully understand the reason for all the flavors, but it makes it so murky. But here we are.

Maha shared excerpt of her great questions to a colleague about CC licenses for an open textbook. Questions are such a good approach to helping people through the license maze.

But there is something missing. What is the reason in the first place, the why, that this professor wants her textbook to be open? This is a critical point, why the heck are we even sharing in the first place? Is it because it’s “thing to do now”? Is it just to have more distribution of your work as a whole (e.g. expand access to your work)? What are seeking to receive in exchange for sharing (your own motivation). Or are you really willing to share it so people can build, modify, remix it?

We should ask people to define their “why share.”

I’ll share mine (sorry Maha you’ve probably read this numerous times). I started in ed-tech in 1992 as a green horn geology grad school drop out with some programming experience, for some weird reason the Maricopa Community College’s Maricopa Center for Learning & Instruction took a chance on me.

Who Is that Kid?

Who Is that Kid? flickr photo by cogdogblog shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

I had some experience in internet- list servs, finding software on ftp servers. I was trying to teach myself multimedia development, the it was Hypercard / Toolbook. Somehow I found this ftp server, the Stanford Sumex-Aim archive. People uploaded all kinds of free/shareware, but also Hypercard stacks that were unlocked, you could download them and see the code.

And that’s how I learned to code, prying open, mimicking, mixing, from stuff people shared. That is how I learned everything I know about web development – from stuff people shared. Not from courses (well I did have a minor in CIS), not from Code Schools, not from books, but from the internet.

This it seemed obvious to me, since the internet gave me so much, that whatever I might make, produce I would freely share back. It’s that simple. I have always been paid for doing work that I live off of, and the “stuff” I make is not something I look to as a source of income. It’s exhaust.

So back to Maha’s conversation with the prof.

The prof wants people to reuse it as long as the attribute her. But wait, she does not want people use parts as derivatives. But wait, she’s okay with translations. And of course she does not want anyone to make money from it.

And thus the choice ends up CC-BY-NC-ND — based on the protections perceived that the extra letters add. The thing is, with every pair of extra letters added to a CC license, it becomes more conditional, restrictive, and hence complicated. You want more conditions? it comes with complexity. You might was well argue with gravity or magnetism.

I do not question the thinking here. But it is all about the creator’s desire to have protections for their work.

But here is the thing. A license is never going to stop someone from abusing your work. It more or less gives the means, if abuse happens, for you to spend money, time, and aggravation taking someone to court. And that is not something most people want to do.

Frankly, with of these negotiated conditions and exceptions and what ifs- I think the best answer is © All Rights Reserved.

Am I serious?

A full copyright does not preclude re-use, it does not mean it cannot be shared, it means it can be re-used with “express written permission”. This gives a creator the option to take all requests for reuse under consideration, and grant individually. That seems to me what this prof is seeking.

And it goes back to now knowing her intention. If she wants to make her textbook available for people to use as a whole, it can be done with a full © All Rights Reserved on it. People can still read and share it.

This also goes to the misconception about an Open Educator being about the “stuff” her open textbook. You can easily be be Open Educator and not open license your stuff. And it you really do not want it used in ways you do not like, do not put it on the internet. That is the only sure fire way to guarantee your work not being mis-used.

You can still blog about your ideas without giving away your work. Or do a freemium model; offer bits, and say you can share with people who request. You can still participate in open communities and give advice, engage in discussions, share resources with others.

It’s not about the stuff.

In most of these discussions it’s not long for people to come to some hypothetical that is truly something you cannot argue against. The cue words are “What if someone _____”.

I’m not saying abuse and mis-appropriation does not happen. I know Maha has her own stories of her work being mis-appropriated. And I wish that on no one. But do we have any idea of what proportion of the bad to the benign is? Do we want to limit the positive potential for the Many based on the negative acts of One?

And is a license really the thing to protect from mis-use? What if it was the network?

The typical “what if” is what of someone uses a part of my work in a different context that is not in alignment with my intent? Or what if some hate group uses my cat photo? What if scammers use your photos to create fake accounts as romance frauds? It happens.

A license will never ever guarantee you this won’t happen. But, if share openly, in your own context, and alongside all your other body of work, you establish prior publishing. You create a place on the internet, where your intent is based, under your own name. And rather than a license to protect you, maybe your network can. People who know your work can call it out.

It’s not a perfect safety net, but to me, the people who believe in a Commons, who are active in it, can be a more effective deterrent than counting on licenses. Yes, I am an idealist.

But — and this is a hard one to swallow– if you openly share your work online I think you have to let go of the idea who can control what people do with it. Humans are flawed species. You have to accept that someone might use your _____ in a way you do not agree with. You have to let it go. Or not put it out there.

ND will not protect you from exploitation.

And then there is the ball of goo of Non-Commercial. This is one that always comes up, “I don’t want someone making money off of my stuff.”

This needs some unpacking too.

There is the obvious thing you don’t want, piracy, where someone takes your stuff and sells it as their own. That is theft. That is not the kind of thing that Creative Commons is made for.

I try to counter this with a question of, “Do you have any idea how nearly impossible it is to ‘make money’ from digital content?” Very few photographers cannot make a living from the sale of digital photos. This is a lesson Jonathan Worth outlines so well:

Musicians are no longer making a living from the sale of their “stuff” – -it is touring, t-shirts, performing.

And so the image people are construing is some Giant Evil Corporation Using Their Stuff And Getting Filthy Rich From It. Ahem. That’s a bit of a stretch.

What if your local independent bookstore would like to use a chapter of your book on their site? Or the local coffee shop is interested in using a clip of your song in their new jingle? Or a non-profit organization, which must sell things or services to support their staff’s living costs, uses your photo in a calendar?

If you might then say, “oh that is different” than you are introducing exceptions. Complications.

Let’s take it farther. I share every photo, some 50,000,000, on flickr under an open license. I never have any intention that I will/can make money from them (okay, once I got $25 from a publisher).

But if you produce and share photos, writing, music, and never have an intention to sell it for money, how can it ever be a loss to you if someone else does? You were never aiming to monetize in the first place.

I say, if you can make money from my photos, please go ahead. Get filthy rich. It’s still my photo, and if anyone does a reverse image search they will find it. In my flickr stream. Under my name.

NC will not protect you from exploitation.

However, I do admit there is a difference in sharing of a comprehensive work like book from a single image or song. It’s a larger work. And the re-use of it begs more querying. What does it really mean to “re-use” something from a book? We have a long standing tradition of a quotation and citation. The way that a book might be remixed or done as derivative works (beyond useful things like translation) is something I do not have a clear picture of what that means or looks like.

One of my bailiwicks (what the heck is a bailiwick?) besides widely read authors who use images without sourcing (please someone ask Dave Pell to respond) is the most common explanation of Public Domain or CC0 as “you can use this withut attributing”.

That’s an understanding of Creative Commons at the license end of the scope. It’s minimal compliance. It’s a C grade. Yes, CC0 meas you are not required by law/license to attribute, so does that mean you shouldn’t? It’s also thinking more at the “self” end of the spectrum “look I do not have to take 5 minutes to add an attribution to say thank you” rather than thinking about the message your readers get when they read your lovely article adorned with un-attributed Unsplash images.

This is the message:

It’s okay to just grab any image from the internet and use it.

I never want to send that message. That’ why my rule is Always Attribute. I even attribute my own photos. It’s not only a means to say thanks, its modeling saying thanks to others. That’s a lesson from my Mom.

I’ve gone through several iterations of licenses on my flickt photos. I was CC BY then went a few years, before briefly CC BY-NC but flipped to CC BY-SA then back to CC BY and recently CC0.

I definitely like to get attribution. I get a fairly regular stream of gratitude thanks in tmy photo comments (I keep them in a set just for my own ego shine).

This is another story Maha can eye roll because of how many times I’ve said it. But I got for many years flickr messages asking permission to reuse a photo. I would always reply “yes” but adding my know it all “all my photos are licensed Creative COmmons which means you do not have to ask permission.” I was so pompous in my CC-ness.

One person replied (I wish I could find this), “I now bout that. I just thought you might like to know where your photo was used.”

They popped my pompous bubble. Now I just look at their links and say “thank you”. More than often I discover new sites, stories, groups, worlds just be going to their link. It’s a doorway of potential connectivity.

So yes, I prefer getting attribution for my photos. But I do not demand it. Not that I could. That’s why I went to CC0 -to make the least restrictive path of sharing, but also– to test out how often people will attribute or ask permission even when they do not have to by letter of the license.

It’s still messy and complicated Maha. And something better understood through experience and the kind of coaching you provided your colleague. But I do wish people would stop seeing licenses as what it might do (and cannot) for them (protect from unwanted reuse) and more about what it affords others. Doing that means letting go of the assuredness of what people will do with it. And I never would ask people to do that if it is adverse to them.

And there are so many ways to be an open and sharing educator beyond just focusing on “the stuff”

Neat Stuff

Neat Stuff flickr photo by cogdogblog shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

Featured image: Wrong end of the telescope flickr photo by chucknado shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so)


  1. I love your idealism, Alan. You’ve said so many things here that I’ve often thought!

  2. I’m gonna say this not because you don’t know it, Alan, but because it doesn’t come thru clearly enough or explicitly enough here
    A. It’s context-dependent. U said urself an image isn’t like am entire book
    B. There is loads of privilege in CC0/CC-BY. The mere dependence on ur network presumes HAVING such a network – ppl who know u, care AND can/will advocate for u

    The argument that ppl violate copyright online anyway doesn’t cut it. As u say, it happens and most ppl won’t go thru lawsuits. Only way to prevent it is not to share at all. Not just online.

    But to license ur work a certain way just because u can’t prevent other uses won’t cut it for many people. It’s totally ok for individuals to ne strongly CC-BY or to put those licenses on some things. But i am SICK of ppl advocating for it as if ppl who use other licenses are stupid or backward or clueless. And i am sorry but that’s how it comes through from many ppl. No one is truly putting themselves in the shoes of the ppl choosing these licenses. It’s already a risk and opening urself up to post stuff online. We shouldn’t begrudge ppl what little sense of protection on their own terms (even if not enforceable).
    After all, no one guarantees fidelity w marriage vows but ppl make em anyway

    1. This post, Maha, came from a burst of thoughts and was not meant to be any kind of authoritative answer, but my perspective. I hear there are people who blog their thoughts out loud 😉

      My main point is that the way we often describe CC, and most of the points you raise, are what the licensed can do for the person sharing the content. And what seems left behind is a more thoughtful analysis of why they are sharing and what their expectations are.

      I never suggest people who chose NC/ND are “stupid or backward or clueless” – but I think we do them a disservice if we ever suggest a license will prevent those things. And the way we ask them regarding NC is “do you want someone to make money off it” which is, to me, a bit more narrow a case than what the license allows (who would ever say, “yes!” but me?) And that each condition added makes things that much more complicated. Maybe if it is done in a way that a license is an assertion of a preference? But again, to me,it gets back to what people’s expectations are.

      And I am staying away from the marriage metaphor 😉 total minefield

  3. Love the post, lots to think about. With regard to NC; I often put this on work I create not because I don’t want others to make money from it (even if they could, which I doubt) but because I believe that knowledge should be freely accessible. The work that I share is usually an infographic or an educational publication that I would like everyone to have free access to; and so I put NC on it to prevent anyone else ever getting the idea of putting a financial boundary up between a learner and the information. So I agree with Maha; it’s always context dependent. I’d possibly feel differently if my work was not situated in the educational field.

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