Releasing and reusing Creative Commons material

In this post I’m going to briefly cover some of the basics of Creative Commons (CC) licensing and some of the pitfalls to avoid when doing it. I work in Oxford University Computing Services, in a number of little projects that deal with open licensing, so I tread this ground a lot, and have stared at the sky from the bottom of some of these pitfalls. I hope these tips help you avoid them…

What is it?

Creative Commons was a project set up in 2001 to provide general purpose licences for copyright works.  It was inspired by the success of free and open source software licensing, a system that allows collaborative development and reuse of computer code.

How does it work?

Copyright is a right that creators have over the works they create. It allows the creators to have a say over who can distribute and adapt their works. The rights the creators gain are not over the ideas behind the works, but over the concrete, recorded version of those ideas – for example the text of a novel or the likeness of a painting. If anyone else wants to distribute or adapt those works, they need the permission of the creator. This permission is often granted in the form of an agreement called a licence.

Creative Commons licences are a form of general licensing; instead of specifying exactly who can exercise the rights that they grant, they make a general offer of rights to anyone who will keep to their conditions. General licences have the advantage that people who want to adapt or distribute work that they cover (‘licensees’) do not need to contact the person granting the licence (‘licensor’). This saves time, and means that gradually a body of work that can be easily adapted and reused becomes available. This in turn avoids duplication of effort and provides a convenient basis for new creative works to be made. In education particularly, the availability of good learning materials that can be translated and duplicated easily is a huge benefit to all.

I mentioned conditions above. With standard Creative Commons licences the licensor will always be given credit, or ‘attribution’, for their work, and this non-optional condition is known by the abbreviation ‘BY’. The licensor can also, optionally, specify that the work cannot be used commercially, cannot be adapted without the entire adaptation being released under the same licence, or cannot be adapted at all. These optional conditions have the following abbrevations: Non-commercial (NC), Sharealike (SA) and No-derivs (ND). Combining these conditions results in six possible licences, listed here on the Creative Commons site.

So what’s the problem?

Creative Commons licensing was designed to be simple to understand, so that people would actually make use of the materials it covered. It has been extremely successful, and search engines that identify CC material (such as now allow quick and convenient access to very large amounts of material. There are some problems, however, and I’ll take a quick tour through them here…

Licence compatibility

The aim here is use and reuse, so obviously we can combine this material any way we like, right? Unfortunately not; the optional conditions mean that some CC material cannot be mixed with other CC material to produce a new work that can be released. Contradictory conditions mean unreleasable remixes, so think carefully about the conditions you need to abide by when you bring material in.

Who owns this stuff?

Up there I said that the creator owns their own copyright. That’s usually true, but sometimes it’s a little more complex. If you are an employee or a student, it may be that the agreement you signed up to in order to become employed or enrolled is also an agreement that certain parts of your work will belong to your institution. In fact by default, if you are employed to create copyright works, your employer will own them. If you have contracted someone to create some material for you, by default they will own it unless the contract said otherwise. In practice academic institutions often have fairly complicated agreements that make the academic or student owner of some kinds of copyright but not others. Dig out anything you signed and have a read. If your institution owns the work in question, they will need to release it, if it is to be released at all.

Beyond the institutional question, there is the issue of including work by others. Obviously if it is under a compatible CC licence you are in luck, but what about other materials? Be cautious about what you include. Images and text from the web is almost certainly owned by someone, and the fact that you found it on the web does not mean that you can do with it as you will. Similarly with quotations from authors; there are exceptions to copyright in England and Wales that make some quotations for the purpose of criticism and review allowable. These exceptions will not extend to some reuse situations permitted by some CC licences, so you need to be extra cautious when considering CC licences.

Is this stuff really CC?

Creative Commons licensing simplifies the release of materials, but in simplifying it opens the door to some misuse. As mentioned above, material can find its way into CC works that the ‘licensor’ had no right to license that way in the first place. Often this will be undetectable to the users who get hold of the material, but it pays to be attentive. If you find a copy of The Godfather online with a CC licence seemingly applied, common sense should give you some pause.

What about the public domain?

There is a lot of misunderstanding around the phrase ‘public domain’. There is a common mistaken opinion that by something being on the web, it is somehow part of the ‘public domain’ just by being public and therefore fair game for reuse without permission. In fact ‘public domain’ really refers to the body of material that is not protected by copyright or any other right. In the US a creator can waive their ownership of copyright in a work, and thereby make it ‘public domain’. Here in the UK we cannot. Here, ‘public domain’ really refers to works whose protection has lapsed through the passage of time.  For example literary works will generally be protected and in copyright for 70 years after the death of the author.

There is also some confusion around what can and cannot be protected by copyright. This varies between countries, with the result that a work can be protected in one country and not in another. For example, in the US, a work must meet a higher standard of ‘originality’ to be protected than here in the UK. One result of this is that, here in the UK, a good photographic reproduction of an out-of-copyright visual work can gain its own copyright protection. Museums and galleries in the UK rely on this fact to make money from the exclusive sale of merchandise and picture rights. In the US, a good photographic reproduction of an out-of-copyright work is not original enough in itself to gain a separate copyright, so a US-based company would have no reason to pay a UK gallery for rights to use images of its paintings (assuming the copyright in the paintings themselves had lapsed). The duration on copyright in various types of material in the UK can be seen here.

Is copyright all I have to worry about?

While making sure that you are in a position to license the copyright is a key step in making a CC release, there are some other issues to consider. In fact these apply to any release of material, CC or otherwise:

  • Does the material breach any confidentiality agreements I (or my institution) have signed?
  • Does the material disclose any process that I (or my institution) may want to patent?
  • Could the material be seen as inciting racial or religious hatred?
  • Does the material contain personally identifiable information about individuals that my institution is obliged to control?

This concludes my scary post about CC basics and pitfalls. If you have any specific questions, please feel free to post them in the comments and I’ll try to think of an answer. Good luck! 

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