Creative Commons Licensing: Why and When?

Creative Commons: New License Chooser

I was just asked about whether or not to use Creative Commons licensing for slide decks put in Slideshare. Part of the conversation included the phrase “I want to block embeds”, which was pretty shocking to me. This type of conversation has tended to crop up for me most often with small business owners. Now, I’m working in academia. It’s a little different. So I can provide my thoughts on Creative Commons licensing pros and cons, but truly, it might be different for you. I have to respect the opinions of my friends who refuse to use CC licensing because of fear of loss of income, even when the very idea seem utterly baffling and contrary to me.

From my point of view, the number one benefit to Creative Commons licensing is that it protects your ideas, your brand, your creation. I used to have copyrighted websites. What I found happened was that the copyright seemed almost like a red flag to a bull, a taunt, as if I was saying, “This is mine, not yours, nyah, nyah, nyah.” People not only stole the content, but went through a fair amount of work to do so, and edited out anything that implied I ever had any authorship. Pretty hurtful. When I shared it more openly and freely, people used it, but kept my name with it. They asked me for permission. I got free stuff that folks made with mine. I even get comments on Twitter along the lines of, “Hey, we’re watching one of your presentations for my class in Canada!” I don’t know about who it is or how they are using it, but folk know it is my ideas. This has given me a reputation that I could never have built without other people sharing my ideas for me.

Red Magma: Something for Nothing:

Here’s an interesting example as a case study.

CASE STUDY: Beth Kanter

Beth Kanter is the author of Beth’s Blog: Nonprofits and Social Media, and a consultant who both applies social media to nonprofits and advises and consults with nonprofits. Beth has written and published books, is a frequent invited speaker and keynote, and has quite a prominent presence with concommitant prestige (About Beth). Now, even though small businesses are for profit, from my perspective small businesses and academia both have a great deal in common with nonprofit motives, sensibilities, strategies, and processes.

Beth has a licensing statement that applies to her entire blog: “This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.” Would Beth have the recognition that she does if she had chosen to NOT make her content Creative Commons? I don’t think so, not at all. Making your content available encourages people to re-use and cite your work. Face it, for each person who likes what you’ve done and re-uses it, this is free advertising. And it pays off, it really does.

Here is a great post Beth wrote back in 2009 about “setting your content free.”

Kanter, Beth. What happens when you set your content free with creative commons licensing?

Now, before you read any further, go to her blog and read the comments on that post. An active conversation ensued including tools, ROI (return on investment), expressions of gratitude, with many comments from her fans in notable places from Public Library of Science to

OK, now what happened next? Someone seemed to have copied the entire post and put a copy in their blog.

Spreading Science. The benefits of Creative Commons licenses.

I know what you’re thinking. Something along the lines of, “Whoa! I bet she was upset about THAT!” or “Hey! That’s not fair!” Also worth noting is that when I did my Google search that brought me these two links, Google ranked the Spreading Science post higher than Beth’s original. Now, how do you feel about that?

Now, go read the comments on THIS post. Beth and Richard go back and forth discussing how he adapted her original post, and both of them are pretty happy about it. They discuss the difference between attribution, copying, mash-ups, and more. It ends with Beth giving Richard free permission to do the same in the future with other of her posts. Beth has a win/win here. A new friend and potential collaborator, increased prominence and respect, attention directed back to her blog, and an expanded conversation around issues she cares about. If anyone does read the copy before her original, it cites her name and links back to the original post, and they can see from her comments that she is quite a pleasant person who actually does what she tells others to do.

There are LOTS of examples like this. I could not begin to collect them all. Many thousands. I am less aware of significant examples showing bad things happening from CC licensing, but that may be a selection bias on my part.

So, now, what if you are still REALLY uncomfortable with sharing content, or worried that you will lose income because of it? Here are some tips for the transition.

1. Be selective.

You don’t have to share everything for free. Share samples or examples or portions. Free samples have always been a great way to boost sales, IF the sample is something people actually want.

2. Design content to both engage but also leave significant space for what’s off-screen.

There are very sound pedagogical reasons for designing slides with few words (cognitive load theory). There are also very sound economic reasons. You can show off your visual skills while still reserving your skills as a speaker and presenter.

3. Consider the type of content.

You might want to share a graphic that distills the gist of your thought, but reserve the book or presentations that unpack that graphic, that explain what it means and how to use it effectively. This could be phenomenally attractive to those that have already attended one of your sessions, because they GET it, but can still attract those who want to attend a session and haven’t yet.

4. Consider the source of the content.

If you are heavily using open content from other folk, there is often a requirement or expectation that you will “share alike.” This means that if you are using someone else’s CC-licensed content, it is at best courteous to place your content also under a CC-license, and at worst illegal if you don’t.

Also, a word to the wise? If you are using public content, for example, a collection of tweets from the public stream, and then you try to lock down what you’ve created with other people’s content, it makes you look greedy and selfish. This will not make you look good. Yes, there are ways to curate or repurpose public content in ways where the law will allow you to copyright the new collection, but it is still often seen as rude. Stop and think about just how much new value you’ve contributed, and if a closed license is going to pay off for you more than the bad will you risk creating. It’s probably not worth it.

5. Consider the filetype.

Slideshare makes a great example for this. Let’s say you want to share a slidedeck. If you allow downloads, and then load the PPT or PPTX file, other folk can not only download the file, but can edit it later. That means they could keep the entire slidedeck the same, take out your name, and insert theirs.

There is a Canadian med school faculty member who did that with one of mine. Yes, I’m offended, BUT, the important part is that mine is still listed first in search results, has more views, more blogs, etcetera. So I am ignoring him, so that his content doesn’t get the panache of negative spin from my feeding him attention through being upset.

Instead, I learned my lesson, and if I feel strongly that I don’t want this to happen, instead of loading the original editable file, I load a PDF. There are other reasons to load a PDF, also. The PDF tends to do a better job of preserving the original formatting and fonts. I like to use creative fonts, so in general loading a PDF instead of a source file is better for me. Similar strategies can apply to other types of documents as well.

6. Watermark your content in some fashion (think steganography).

You can edit your image to have your name and date on it. You can use special tools to include encrypted data in your image or video. These mark the image as originating with you even if someone else steals it. However, this is an extra step, more work, and for me it is a real hassle. It slows you down for getting content out. This strategy seems to be primarily of value to photographers and other visual artists.



5 Lesser-Known Benefits to Creative Commons
– Search Engine Benefit
– Greater Copyright Clarity
– More Likely to be Quoted
– Less Time Dealing with Infringement
– An Actual License

5: Want to work together? (or) Don’t Compete, Collaborate!

Abrahams, David W. How Creative Commons licensing benefits industry.

JISC: Creative Commons Licenses, Briefing Paper (PDF).
– Simple legally
– Easy sharing & reuse
– Flexibility
– Improved access
– Administrative simplicity

Merritt, Tom. Does Creative Commons free your content? C|NET October 13, 2005.
“But it’s a gamble, and it’s not for everyone. Some people are making good use of that gamble. Some are even making money. Some just get marginally famous. Some just want to contribute to the world. That’s the corny part that a lot of people don’t trust or believe. And they don’t have to. But it doesn’t make Creative Commons dangerous or useless.”

Caveats, Debates, & Warnings

The Future of Creative Commons: Examining defenses of the NC and ND clauses

Moxley, Joe. Contrary to arguments by hardcore open education advocates, Creative Commons NC ND is a valid license for academic authors.

No, you are not allowed to use ANY Flickr images:

Creative Commons

Creative Commons.

Creative Commons License Chooser.


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