Not Even Attribution

Steve Foerster
Oct 5, 2020 · 6 min read


For many years I’ve been interested in how educators wrestle with one of the issues that I’ve seen educators consider since the dawn of the open education movement, that of which license to use to release their works openly.

“File:Logo-cc-heart-green.png” by Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Typically that means licenses from Creative Commons. I believe it’s not hyperbole to say that this organization is one of the most important pieces of infrastructure for building a free society. Their primary activity has been the development of a suite of open licenses that allow individual and organizational creators of content to conveniently release that content in a way that disclaims some or all of the entitlements that typically come with copyright. Or, as they put it, rather than “all rights reserved”, they provide the option to creators of instead choosing “some rights reserved” or even “no rights reserved”.

Why did I refer to them as entitlements when Creative Commons itself refers to them as rights? I’ll freely admit that my position is ideological. It was a great PR gimmick to package patents and copyright under the rubric of “intellectual property”, but since copying is not theft, I don’t see copyright as a legitimate form of property at all, it’s merely a government-granted entitlement of monopoly on a piece of information. And as a free market kind of guy, I reject it as I would any other government entitlements.

So that’s where I’m coming from, it’s not difficult to understand my personal objections to all of the various options when it comes to Creative Commons licenses. It’s worth noting that I’m not trying to tell other educators or content creators what to do, but simply outlining why I think the way I do, as part of the ongoing conversation. It also should go without saying that this is my personal site only, and that nothing here should be considered a policy of New World University, the institution I work for.

No Derivatives (ND)

“Stop Sign” by ladybeames is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Most educators don’t really consider this open at all. The “No Derivatives” option simply means that you’re allowing other people to copy your content, but not to share your modifications in any way. If there’s a complete work that you want to distribute that can be convenient, but such works aren’t part of the “commons” of materials that can be adapted and remixed to make new materials, so they don’t really contribute to the development of an alternative to what’s called permission culture. I’m not interested in that, and have never even considered releasing material under this license.

Non Commercial (NC)

“mao money (1)” by super.heavy is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I think it’s safe to say that educators tend to be ideologically left-leaning, and since I’m not when it comes to fiscal issues, this tends to be an area of fundamental disagreement. I’ve seen colleagues react quite strongly against the idea that some individual or company might make money by selling access to content that they authored. Now, I’m not unmindful that corporate publishers of textbooks and journals in wealthy countries often act in ways that many, including me, find exploitative and anti-social. Personally I believe that between the OER and OA movements, we in higher education no longer need them as intermediaries, and that the time will come when they wither and die, their passing unlamented by any but their shareholders.

But that doesn’t mean that a special option to stop all commercial use of one’s content is necessary or desirable. Any commercial publisher attempting to sell works with any Creative Commons license by definition is competing with repositories that release those same works for free. There’s a reason that they don’t attempt this: there are plenty such works out there they could use for this purpose, yet their strategy remains to develop their own materials and attempt to compete on their supposed advantages.

Moreover, in economically developing societies, small scale proprietary educational institutions often serve the poor more successfully than public institutions do. If the goal is truly to release materials in a way that ultimately benefits as many students as possible, then any clause that gets in the way of such institutions is an impediment to reaching that goal.

Share Alike (SA)

“share-computer-key-260” by Emilio Quintana Pareja is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Share Alike, also known as “copyleft”, is an option in a Creative Commons license that allows derivative works but only if it is released under the same license under which the original is released. At first glance this seems like a good idea, after all, if someone is adapting a work that they received from the commons, shouldn’t they return that adaptation in kind? The problem is that there are several different licenses that include the Share Alike clause, and by definition, materials released under those different licenses cannot be remixed together. The end result has been the development of silos of content, where materials released under BY-NC-SA cannot be combined with those under BY-SA. To some extent this can be overcome through the playlist model of course development, but not always, and it seems to me better to avoid the problem in the first place.

Attribution (BY)

“pointing-finger” by purpleslog is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Now, I actually don’t have a problem with attribution. If I use work someone else wrote I’ll happily acknowledge them. But copyright and plagiarism are not the same thing. One, as I said, is a government entitlement. The other is a form of fraud. But since I’ve already rejected ND, NC, and SA, BY is the only clause left, and I would prefer not to claim copyright at all rather than claim it only to turn around and disclaim every part of it other than the bit that shouldn’t require it in the first place. What I prefer to attribution as part of a license is a cultural norm of attribution, and within higher education I believe that cultural norm already exists, making a license that only consists of BY unnecessary.

Zero Is My Hero (CC0)

“Statue of Liberty” by Brian Auer is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

So why am I so enthusiastic about Creative Commons if I don’t use licenses that contain any of their legal clauses? For starters, because I cheerfully acknowledge that while I’m over on the radical end of the free culture movement, that doesn’t mean the bulk of that movement isn’t also doing great work moving society away from the notion that “all rights reserved” is the only approach to consider.

But also, when they were designing licenses, they didn’t leave people like me out. In addition to their suite of various licenses, they also designed the CC0 waiver, a way of disclaiming copyright to the maximum extent possible in as many jurisdictions as possible, thereby effectively placing it into the public domain, where I want my content to go. I am very grateful for their work to make that an option for me, and for those who are on the fence, I can report from here that I have never suffered any deleterious outcome from having chosen this path over any of the “some rights reserved” alternatives.

Creative Commons: We Like to Share

Conversations with and about the people driving the open movement

Creative Commons: We Like to Share

Conversations highlighting the amazing work the CC Network does around the globe. Find out more about the CC Network at Cover image ”Low Flying Chickens” by Kollage Kid is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Steve Foerster

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President of New World University:

Creative Commons: We Like to Share

Conversations highlighting the amazing work the CC Network does around the globe. Find out more about the CC Network at Cover image ”Low Flying Chickens” by Kollage Kid is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0