Let us know what we can do -- Creative Commons licenses

There is a lot of material on the web. Unfortunately, frequently its use is somehow restricted. Sometimes there is the unpleasant note “© all rights reserved”, but often there is no copyright information at all, which is not so different: you are not authorized to use the work.

For instance, if you go on the website of an university professor, you often find lecture notes and other educational work. You can assume that you can read and print them and use them for studying, but what else? Can you give them to a friend? What about adapting them for use in another course?

You can easily find images with search engines like Google Images, and they could be great tools if you have, say, to write an article, a leaflet, or the slides for a talk. Usually people pick images they like and use them without even thinking about copyright; but copyright exists, and it’s not always true that they can do it.

Most of the times the author will be glad to let you use his work, albeit not always. Maybe he would like to be cited in one way or another; maybe he would allow only certain kinds of use; maybe it’s OK to use it, but not to modify it. The point is that you cannot know, unless the author makes it clear. You can always write an email to him (if you know his email address), but you probably won’t. This is the reason why clearly stated licenses are so useful: they let you know exactly what you can do and what you can’t.

This is the greatest achievement of Creative Commons: Creative Commons are a set of modular, standardized, easily understandable licenses. Every Creative Commons license says: “at least to some extent, you can use my work, and you can give it to a friend, forever; but if you do give it to a friend, say him that I am the author”. There are six different licenses, depending on how the author answers to two questions:

  • do you want to allow people to use you work also for commercial purposes?
  • do you want to allow people to modify your work?
There are two possible answers (yes or no) to the first question, and three to the second one (yes, no, or "ShareAlike", which means: yes, but you have to release your modifications under the same license): 3 × 2 = 6 different licenses.

This is also one of the most important differences between Wikimedia Commons, the media archive of Wikimedia (used by Wikipedia and other projects), and many other archives (or the web in general): for each file are clearly stated the license and (usually) the author and the source.

If you do not know anything about these licenses, Creative Commons people have written real “human readable” (not “lawyer readable”!) of the licenses, like this one for Creative Commons by-sa.

They have also written a machine-readable version of their licenses: RDF codes that, embedded for instance in a web page, can make clear to a search engine or a browser under which license the work is released. This is implemented for instance in Google Image, where you can restrict to images under certain licenses.

I have not talked at all about why you should share you work; I hope it is clear to us all. My point is that you should make it explicit; you should ask yourself: “do I want to allow people to use my work? and how?”. And, in any case, you should clearly state how, and a Creative Commons license is the most effective way. And you should do it each time you put your work on the web.

(By the way, do you know that everything you write on Edgeryders is released under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported, isn’t it?)

Concrete examples of how CC has helped from other p.o.v?

Hi Laurentius,

Thanks for posting this. You know I see the value of of creative commons licenses as a consumer and remixer of content. After reading your post I was thinking a bit about what happens if and when people don´t respect the licenses…e.g. when your song or photo is used in a commercial context even though you chose a license that communicates that this is not ok. Or even the other way around, personal experiences of how creative commons has actually enabled individuals or organisations who produce some kind of content to do something they couldn´t do before…or has solved some sort of problem for them…I checked out the wikipeda page but there wasn´t much information there: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_commons#Criticism

Any ideas of how to find out?

CC infringements & uses

If a Creative Commons license (or any license) is not respected, it is a copyright infringement, like in the “all rights reserved”-style content. Lawsuits regarding free licenses are very rare; there is a list of controversies regarding Creative Commons licenses on their website, but it is very small. I don’t know if it is comprehensive, but I think it covers most of the cases gone to the court.

Moving to free software, there is a whole site dedicated to GPL violations. However, although GPL has a much longer story (starting from '80) than Creative Commons, and a wide diffusion, there are few infringement cases. I think that the first case gone to the court was in the early 2000s. Some people have seen this as a weakness; some others as an evidence that nobody dares to challenge the GPL.

If your point is “what can I do if I realize someone is violating the license of a work of mine?”, well, as for any infringement, you have two options:

  1. persuade the infringer to abide by the license;
  2. sue him.
Of course, you probably don't want to choose the second way. If the first one doesn't work... well, it depends on how much energy do you want to spend in it.

The Creative Commons organization makes clear that they don’t provide legal assistance. However, there are some groups that give free advice about free licenses (like SeLiLi in Italy), albeit not legal assistance in court.

As for the situations where free licenses have enabled people to do things (almost) impossible otherwise, an example are large collaborative projects. What I have in mind is Wikipedia: it is based on the work of a huge number (hundreds of thousands?) of people, who work also on the same page and in an unplanned way, therefore it is essential that each one of them has the possibility to edit what the other ones wrote. Since 2009, Wikipedia uses Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike, but also before a similar license (Free Documentation License) was used. Without such a license, it would not be possible to build anything like Wikipedia.

On the Commons

Hi, I have just twit an article: ‘A Tour of Commons Activism Around the World’ by @JayWalljasper I guess it could be useful for you. It has some relevant links, I think.

In addition the magazine is a good reference to find more information.

Go CC go

Hey Laurentius, I am Alberto, Edgeryders project leader. I am a big fan of CC licenses for public sector projects, and use it in all my projects. I was the first one to license content of an Italian Ministry of economic development website, and now Edgeryders is the first Council of Europe website to do the same. I think it makes a lot of sense, especially for user generated content; no CC, no interoperability.

Well done!

Hi Alberto, well done! that’s the way!