I’m quickly drafting a unit for the Creative Commons Certification on “Legal vs Technical Openness”. This is to address the difference between something that is shared according to license language but is not quite re-usable because of the file formats things are shared under. e.g. proprietary software ones, ones that may not have a long shelf life, or just ones that do not make it easy to use except as viewing as a whole.

Cough. PDF.

In writing the quest for this unit I need an example, so I reach into my past work with the New Media Consortium 2006-2011. That part of my past is long in the rear view mirror and I don’t say much about it. But it fits well.

So all those Horizon Reports. They are shared under Creative Commons licenses, current ones I see are CC BY. From what I can see, and what has been all along, the format it is shared in is PDF (oh and there is some kind of iOS app).

What can you do with a PDF? You can read it! It’s pretty just like the print versions. You can send it to someone else.

Can you remix it? Under a CC BY license you can, but how? Copy/pasting (and I know because I did tons of copy/pasting from PDFs) is a major PITA of weird line breaks and spurious print characters.

When I was working there I advocated and experimented with making web versions of not only the Horizon Reports but also other NMC publications. You see, HTML is an open file format that has a long shelf life (my oldest web pages still work ago back to the early 1990s).

So I did set up a WordPress multiuser site for NMC publications formerly at http://wp.nmc.org — they are no longer there, but the Wayback Machine is My True Friend. Fifteen different publications, freed from the PDF lockbox, now left in the bin.

For example, from NMC today you can get the full PDF for the 2010 Horizon Report. Look! Mobile Computing is just one year off:

From the 2010 NMC Horizon Report, fully formatted like a book

It’s one solid blob of info. Pretty, yes.

In the web / HTML version I made, you get each section as a referenced URL (unless your former employee nukes it)

Below the fold of that screenshot you get what’s not in the PDF. Hyperlinks. And, on the side? I had added the old CommentPress that allowed people to attach comments to paragraphs (old school web annotation).

It was a moderate amount of work to convert the PDF (said tedious copy/paste) to WordPress, add links, etc, but I thought it made the report that much more useful. You can easly reference parts of it (which a PDF does not allow) but also quickly copy a section of text if you decided yo re-use it (you will attribute, correct? you will?).

This has always been one of my passions in organizations, even going back to my days at the Maricopa Community Colleges, to put publications in web form as an addition to print.

So yes, the Horizon Report is shared by a Creative Commons license as a pretty PDF. This is legally open:

But what can you really do with a PDF besides read it? Technically, not so open.

Public domain photo from Good Free Photos

There is nothing wrong with PDF as a format to share full publications for reading. It works great. But if you are publishing open, I think you should consider additional more open, flexible formats. It’s not either/or. Especially of you have some zealot around who like turning print formats into HTML.

Featured Image: Open as in Not Open flickr photo by cogdogblog shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

If this kind of stuff has value, please support me by tossing a one time PayPal kibble or monthly on Patreon
Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
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.


  1. PDFs are easy to pick on, but I’ve thought a lot about this too with respect to video. This becomes sort of my argument for why I believe Creative Commons licenses tend to be biased towards text based files (I guess you could also say photos because they tend to be non-layered, flat files). When you start to get into layered files like PDFs or videos or songs its hard to understand how a license is incredibly helpful. If I don’t have the source material for a video what does it matter if a video is CC? I can’t do a heck of a lot with it other than share it in its final form. It’s like almost by default these more complex file formats are CC-BY-ND which isn’t anybody’s fault but does seem to destroy a lot of the value of open licenses.

    1. Good point Adam. Video is thorny because everybody and Google knows there are ways to download YouTube videos, and YouTube seems to look the other way, but does not provide a download button. SoundCloud at least provides a download options, but how much use is a flattened audio file w/o the tracks?

      I’m not sure the license is the answer, though I did like Mike Caulfield’s ideas on a “comprehensive attribution” statement for works made of many other sources https://hapgood.us/2014/05/05/why-the-comprehensive-attribution-statement-makes-sense/

      The place where final works are produced are just going to at best give you that flattened file; I may be nostalgic, but the blog post or at least detailed source notes in the description could provide links to all source material. But that takes effort and work.

  2. Yes! And this goes for a lot of “Open Content” that is jn formats not easily adapted– where copying and pasting is actually not possible or requires a huge amount of tim to reformat and make usable or when the user doesn’t have strong HTML skills (like me.)

    1. Not sure how PDFs discourage plagiarism; it’s easy to copy content. Never think of a technology as protecting content. If you want it protected, don’t put it online.

      Plagiarism is a violation of CC licenses, so no fit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *