Book Review: Creative Commons for Educators and Librarians

Book cover for Creative Commons for Educators and LibrariansCreative Commons. Creative Commons for Educators and Librarians (Chicago: ALA Editions, 2020).

The recently issued Creative Commons for Educators and Librarians serves as the companion for the Creative Commons Certificate course (which I have not taken). At five chapters and 130 pages, it seems slight, but is always thorough and dense with references to additional resources (which are themselves annotated with Hypothes.is on the certificate website). Whether one is pursuing the certificate or not, this book is an excellent guide to understanding and using Creative Commons licenses.

Creative Commons (CC) is a set of copyright licenses, a nonprofit organization, and a movement (CC Global Network). CC got its start in 2001 as a response to the 20-year copyright extension passed by the U.S. Congress in 1998 (changing copyright to last the life of the author plus 70 years). Today CC licenses are international and used on 1.6 billion works on 9 million websites.

So what are Creative Commons licenses?

CC licenses are legal tools that function as an alternative for creators who choose to share their works with the public under more permissive terms than the default “all rights reserved” approach under copyright. (p. 7)

Creative Commons licenses give everyone from individual creators to large companies and institutions a clear, standardized way to grant permission to others to use their creative work. From the reuser’s perspective, the presence of a Creative Commons license answers the question, “What can I do with this?” and provides the freedom to reuse the work of others, subject to clearly defined conditions. All CC licenses ensure that creators retain their copyright and get credit for their work, while still permitting others to copy and distribute it. (p. 39)

To be clear, CC licenses are not an alternative to copyright (in the either/or sense), but are used with copyright, and are actually dependent upon it. Creative Commons licenses are intended for copyrightable works (text, image, sound, even 3D models), but are not appropriate for software, which has its own set of tailored licenses, and are generally not recommended for data (instead, CC0 or the Open Database License can be used).

The basics of using the licenses are covered well in the book, such as how to apply a CC license to your own work, and how to attribute the CC-licensed work of others. For your own work, you can use the license chooser, which determines a license based on how you respond to a couple of brief questions. Once you have decided on a license, you can mark your work with it, preferably by linking, or writing it out if the work is offline. Issues such as what to do if you change your mind, or find your work used in an objectionable way, are also covered. Everyone who uses CC-licensed works should familiarize themselves with the best practices for attribution and use automated tools whenever possible.

A long-time issue with CC licenses is the meaning of “noncommercial,” which the book clarifies:

It is important to note that CC’s definition of NC depends on the use, not the user. If you are a nonprofit or charitable organization, your use of an NC-licensed work could still run afoul of the NC restriction, and if you are a for-profit entity, your use of an NC-licensed work does not necessarily mean you have violated the license terms. (p. 51)

Creative Commons has a NC interpretation page for those who would like to explore all of the details. The NonCommercial stipulation has been the subject of the few court cases about CC licenses, including a recent case that was decided after the book was published. The good news is that the courts have always accepted and enforced CC licenses. A related question that comes up is whether CC-licensed works can be sold. The book itself is a good example; while freely available in PDF, the print version is for sale. This model is increasingly being used to publish scholarly books, such as those in the TOME project (of which Virginia Tech is a participant).

The public domain mark and the public domain dedication (CC0) are not licenses but describe the legal status of a work. The book helpfully lists the four ways that works enter the public domain (p. 27): the copyright expires; the work is not eligible for copyright; the creator dedicated the work to the public domain through the CC0 tool; or the copyright holder did not comply with registration formalities at the time (today copyright is automatic). Though not required, CC recommends attribution for these works as a community norm in their Public Domain guidelines. Finding public domain content is facilitated by the CC Search tool, which was also made available in a browser extension shortly after the book was released.

The book’s final chapter, which covers open access (OA) and open educational resources (OER), is a mixed bag.  The section on OA sometimes lacks clarity and includes a few puzzling statements.  For example, we learn that only “some” articles that pass peer review are published by the journal (p. 94), and that under funder open access policies, “researchers must retain their copyrights” (p. 96), which is not how the policies of U.S. funding agencies work. Nor do all open access journals use “liberal” licenses such as CC BY (though some funders may require it). In general, the OA section is a bit confusing in places, and would have been more effective if OA publishing and OA archiving had been introduced early on and clearly differentiated.

Fortunately, the section on open education and OER is stronger. The advantages of OER over proprietary, temporary online access to learning resources are described well, as are the compatible licenses (CC BY is recommended; the ND licenses are not OER since they prevent editing) and the “5R permissions” they make possible (retain, reuse, revise, remix, redistribute). Tips on finding and evaluating OER are outlined, as is the importance of sharing an editable, accessible version of the work.

Although I have been familiar with CC licenses for several years, both creating and using works with the licenses, I learned more than I expected from this book. Moral rights (for example, the rights to be identified as the author of the work and to protect the work’s integrity) exist in many countries, and continue indefinitely even after a work is in the public domain. Because CC licenses only address the copyright of a work, they have no effect on moral rights and other related rights. While U.S. fair use is evaluated according to a 4-factor test, I learned that the Berne Convention, which standardizes copyright law internationally, also accommodates fair use under a 3-step test. And it was surprising to learn that not all countries allow creators to waive copyright by making a CC0 (“No rights reserved”) public domain dedication.

Creative Commons for Educators and Librarians is filled with so many links to additional resources that most readers will benefit from using the PDF version over the print version.  Even so, there are several links that don’t resolve properly because they are either partially linked or they span two lines. While this problem is relatively easily remedied by the reader, another issue runs deeper. The abundance of links in this book likely means that some will be “404” in a year or three from now. I always wonder about YouTube links as well, since Google can choose to do anything it likes with those videos, including deleting them. Preservation, including web archiving, is often overlooked yet is essential to openness.

Creative Commons licenses are a brilliant idea and an excellent fit for academia, where sharing knowledge and receiving credit are far more important than making a profit from one’s work. Hopefully guides like this one will encourage more teachers and researchers to use CC licenses on their works and enable truly efficient knowledge sharing.

Creative Commons for Educators and Librarians is licensed CC BY 4.0 and can be downloaded in PDF, or checked out from Newman Library, or purchased in print at the ALA store. Neither the book nor this blog post constitute legal advice.

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About Philip Young

Philip Young is the repository manager of VTechWorks, which provides global access to Virginia Tech scholarship. He also provides outreach to the university on open access, ORCiD, and Perma.cc.
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