Sunday, November 13, 2011

Creative Commons overview

A while ago I came across an interesting overview of the Creative Commons licence for digital content by Jude Umeh in the BCS "IT Now" newsletter ("Flexible Copyright", also available via the BCS website at as "Creative Commons: Addressing the perils of re-using digital content"), which I felt gave a very clear and concise introduction to the problem that Creative Commons (CC) is trying to solve, how it works in practice, and some of the limitations.

Essentially, anyone who creates online content - whether a piece of writing (such as this blog), an image (such as a photo in my Flickr stream), or any other kind of media - automatically has "all rights reserved" copyright on that content. This default position means that the only way someone else can (legally) re-use that content is by explicitly seeking and obtaining the copyright owner's permission (i.e. a licence) to do so. As you might imagine this can present a significant barrier to re-using online content.

The aim of the Creative Commons is to enable content creators to easily pre-emptively grant permissions for others to re-use their work, by providing a set of free licences which bridge the gap between the "all rights reserved" position (where the copyright owner retains all rights on their work) and "public domain" (where the copyright owner gives up those rights, and allows anyone to re-use their work in any way and for any purpose).

These licences are intended to be easily understood and provide a graduated scale of permissiveness. According to the article the six most common are:

  • BY ("By Attribution"): this is the most permissive, as it grants permission to reuse the original work for any purpose - including making "derived works" - with no restrictions other than that it must attributed to the original author.
  • BY-SA ("By Attribution-Share Alike"): the same as BY, with the additional restriction that any derived work must also be licensed as BY-SA.
  • BY-ND ("By Attribution-No Derivatives"): the original work can be freely used and shared with attribution, but derivative works are not allowed.
  • BY-NC ("By Attribution-Non-Commerical"): as with BY, the original work can be used, shared and used in derived works, provided attribution is made to the original author; however the original work cannot be used for commercial purposes.
  • BY-NC-SA ("By Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike"): similar to BY-SA, so any derived work must use the same BY-NC-SA licence, and like BY-NC, in that commercial use of the original work is not permitted.
  • BY-NC-ND ("By Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivatives"): the most restrictive licence (short of "all rights reserved"), as this only allows re-use of the original work for non-commercial purposes, and doesn't permit derivative works to be made. Umeh states that BY-NC-ND is "often regarded as a 'free advertising' licence".

As Umeh points out, "CC is not a silver bullet", and his article cites examples of some of its limitations and potential pitfalls. Elsewhere I've also come across some criticisms of using the non-commercial CC licences in certain contexts: for example, the scientist Peter Murray Rust has blogged about what he sees as the negative impact of CC-NC licensing in science and teaching (see "Suboptimal/missing Open Licences by Wiley and Royal Society" and "Why you and I should avoid NC licences"

However it's arguable that these are special cases, and that more generally CC-based licensing has a significant and positive impact on enabling the legal re-use of online material that would otherwise not be possible: indeed, even the posts cited above only criticise its NC aspects, and otherwise see the CC as greatly beneficial. Certainly it's worth investigating if you're interested in allowing others to reuse digital content that you've produced (there's even a page on the CC website to help choose the appropriate CC licence based on answers to plain English questions:

As I'm not an expert on CC (or indeed on copyright law or content licensing), I'd recommend Umeh's article as the next step for a more comprehensive and expert overview; and beyond that of course more information can be found at the Creative Commons website (with the UK-specific version due to become available at later this month).

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