August 18, 2004

Creative licensing can help non-profits protect and share content

Author: Scott Merrill

Managers of volunteers are often unrecognized authors. They develop policy manuals, job descriptions, newsletters, and training session handouts. Many never think about the ownership of the material they create. When asked, most managers willingly share existing materials with others, which is nice, but not always the most professional practice. Despite clear copyright notices, content is frequently misappropriated. Once something is published, it's hard to keep it under control.

The U.S. Copyright System aims to protect authors' original works, granting under law a "copyright by default" approach. This system places a burden on the audience -- the users -- of a copyrighted work to seek permission for republication or modification. Conference attendees, for example, unless specifically told otherwise, are technically forbidden from copying and distributing presentation handouts. Copying and distributing online articles is also prohibited without permission. Some Web sites even go so far as to block links from other sites if the content owner feels too much of the original work is being shared.

How can a workshop or conference presenter, or a Web site developer, specifically grant redistribution permission in a convenient way while also protecting his organization's legal rights?

The Creative Commons is a nonprofit corporation that aims to offer creators a best-of-both-worlds way to protect their works while encouraging certain uses of them -- to declare "some rights reserved." Creative Commons provides a set of copyright licenses specifically designed to support sharing and modification, while preserving ownership.

Creative Commons licenses all provide common baseline rights in addition to specific additional rights or restrictions:

  • Attribution: You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work -- and derivative works based upon it -- but only if they give you credit.
  • Noncommercial: You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your work -- and derivative works based upon it -- but for noncommercial purposes only.
  • Derivative Works: You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of your work, not derivative works based upon it.
  • Share Alike: You allow others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs your work.

In all, there are 11 combinations of Creative Commons rights (the No Derivative Works and Share Alike options are mutually exclusive: Share Alike applies specifically to derived works).

An organization might choose to post an article on its Web site under the Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial license, specifically allowing visitors to copy and redistribute the article without modification, provided that the organization was listed as the original source. If a publisher wanted to include the article in a printed collection to be sold, the publisher would have to get permission from the organization.

A training organization might choose to share its presentation materials -- handouts, workshop questions, slides -- under the Attribution-NonCommercial license. This would allow attendees to share the materials with their colleagues as long as the original author is referenced. Anyone could modify the training materials and re-use them for non-commercial purposes. Commercial republication would require additional explicit approval from the author.

The trainer may instead choose to share its presentation materials under the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license, which would require everyone making a derivative work to release their works under the same license. This specifically benefits the original authors because they would be able to use the improvements everyone might make to their training materials.

The Creative Commons maintains a growing collection of Creative Commons licensed content: photographs, audio (including years of Supreme Court proceedings), film, and text.

Consider choosing a Creative Commons license for your next publication!

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