Posted by: paulacunniffe | 10/28/2010

Commons licenses can be a good thing, but in what context?

Have you ever looked for music or books online only to find you can’t get at them because of copyright? This is something ‘creative commons’ aims to counteract.

“Propublica has licensed its content under creative commons, so that anyone who wants to publish their articles can do so, as long as they credit (and link to) ProPublica and include all links in the original story. Instead of putting their journalism under glass, they’re effectively saying to their text: go forth and multiply (Johnson 2010). ”

The idea behind creative commons is to create a network of material through  a collaborative effort, by allowing others use your material. For example, it can be useful for someone making a radio documentary (as I did earlier this year) in finding sound effects or music online.  Material under commons licenses can be used without having to pay for their use. Neilsen illustrated how this works in the MathWorks competition:

“Once you submit your program anyone else can come along and simply download the code you’ve just submitted, tweak a single line, and resubmit it as their own. The result is a spectacular free-for-all. Contestants are constantly “stealing” one another’s code, making small tweaks (Nielsen 2010).“

Creative commons has interesting consequences for copyright, as well as potential problems. The issue mentioned above, of ‘stealing’ from another person, is one particularly contested issue.

One such instance occurred in 2007 when a teenage girl from Austin, TX found that a photograph of her had been used in an advertising campaign by Virgin Mobile in Australia. The photo had been posted by her camp counselor on Flickr under a creative commons license. However, the photographer was not contacted before the photo was used, or attributed on the poster.

“Who neglected their responsibilities though, and should they be held liable? Did the photographer have the right to license his work without getting permission from Chang? Did Virgin have an obligation to verify with the subject of the photograph that she had given her permission? (Wolf 2007).”

The question is whether or not commons licenses are an improvement in licensing laws or whether they will end up being abused by others for profit? Opinions vary (as you can see below).

“A Commons license promises freedom, but requires the creator to abandon several; including the freedom to assign one’s rights as one wishes, according to principle or whim. (Orlowski 2007)”

“Many of those involved with CC have continued to fight that good fight, rather than just assuming that CC is “the answer.” So, in the end, I agree that we should be clear to recognize that Creative Commons and efforts to really rethink copyright are two separate things, but that doesn’t mean that Creative Commons is necessarily bad for copyright policy issues (Masnick 2009).

I think the most important thing to think about before you put something online under a commons license is how you would like your works to be used. Would you be happy if your photo turned up on a billboard?



  1. I am glad that you mentioned creative commons. I saw the logo “CC” somewhere but did not know exactly what the organization was for. I searched creative commons on Google and found it was really helpful, especially for our topic this week, remix and link. If the creator has the CC license, it would be clearer for other creators to know what rights he or she keeps and waives. To some extent, it decreases the chance of violating copyrights.

  2. I think this is a really interesting issue. It reminds me of our class discussion regarding what you put on sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn and how this information can be used for or against you later. While I am perfectly willing to help anyone with an idea or project they are working on by supplying my opinion or past works as a way for them to form a “commonplace book,” I think attribution for the idea or collaborative effort should be a primary goal.

  3. When has copyright become such an sensitive issue? I believe it has at least something to do with the development of materialism and capitalism in Western societies. I have said before in my blog that a lot of Buddhism masters encourage people to make copies of their books, with no copyrights reserved. Personally I would feel happy too if someone’s willing to “steal” my work. What makes the difference? Interest, profit.


  5. Reply to Shine’s comments: I think copyright has always been a big issue in United States. You made a point about maybe people will feel happy about letting others use their works freely. However, my question is, if people can freely use other people’s intellectual property without paying money or having permission of the author, are there any possible that less and less artist (or writers) will want to make new works? Maybe an artist spends 3 years to complete a work (he is poor and didn’t earn money in these years), if his work cannot afford his living, he might not want to make new works again. Therefore, I think sometimes protecting intellectual property is necessary.

  6. You insightfully raise another issue related to what we have been talking about, which is privacy. I had not heard of the Virgin Mobile ad incident before, but I would guess the issue there is not as much the copyright of the photo but the girl’s individual rights. Virgin used her likeness for commercial gain, which would probably allow her to sue for invasion of privacy. The re-mix culture lends itself to lots of these scenarios. What if a clip is taken out of context and the person looks bad (i.e., the USDA’s Shirley Sharrod, who was fired after a clip from a speech was posted online and taken out of CONTEXT) or even if they look great are associated with something they might not want to be or helping people make money with no compensation.

  7. Wow, great discussion thread here! I’m going to second Christina’s opinion by guessing that the legal issue at hand is privacy, not copyright, but outside the courtroom I think the issue is much the same. Shine, I’m very intrigued by your idea that it’s primarily a Western issue, although I may have to disagree with you and Carol both. Copyright laws have changed dramatically in the US in the last century, and they have around the world, as well. Part of that is because of technology–beginning with the printing press it became much easier to “steal” someone else’s work. But one thing I wish we’d discussed a bit in class is the notion of “fair use,” which I believe is an acceptable–if somewhat ill-defined–compromise. In my mind it accomplishes the goals of sharing without subverting profit, and is something that is crucial for those in academia to understand in our remix culture!

  8. Christina: you said something about favorable or unfavorable use of her image. The billboard poster’s caption was ‘Dump your pen friend” with a picture of the girl making a peace sign with her right hand:

    So I’m guessing she didn’t find it favorable. But yes, I think the main issue with this story is the fact that it invaded her privacy. I can imagine how upset I’d be if my photo appeared the other side of the world on a poster and I had no idea how it happened!

  9. The case of the camper in the photo is particularly interesting because journalists do not ask permission from the people they photograph — and photojournalists do not expect their images to be used for advertising or promotional purposes. However, the average person has not had any training in how to properly handle images of real people (as opposed to photo models).

  10. Creative Commons allows you to specify that no commercial (NC) use of your material is allowed. If an NC license was used on Flickr, then it would seem that Virgin Mobile was at fault. If the NC license wasn’t used, then it would seem to be a mistake by the camp counsellor who posted the pics without making clear to the people in them how the photos would be used.

  11. PS: I like the final paragraph, especially the final sentence!

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