Creative Commons: Past to Present

Internet Archive

This short overview is to describe the key historical events that led up to the launch of Creative Commons and the state of Creative Commons today. I include the transcript below…

Video Transcript

Hello, today I would to provide a general background of what Creative Commons is and a bit about its history: Creative Commons: Past to Present.

The objective of this short overview is to describe the key historical events that led up to the launch of Creative Commons and the state of Creative Commons today.

The intended audience for this brief overview is anyone interested in general education and specifically those interested in learning an additional language, sometimes referred to as English as a foreign or second language.  More broadly, pre/in-service teachers as well as students might benefit from having some general knowledge about Creative Commons as well as content creators overall.

When I began teaching back in 2005, I had an educational philosophy of openness, but never really articulated as such.  I remember from the beginning that much of the course content was posted online, using websites like Wikieducator, Wikispaces, Google Sites, among others.  Since my learners were English language learners, I thought it necessary to make sure that they had equal access to information that supported what we were doing face to face.  Teacher-produced content as well as student-produced content was oftentimes made available for public consumption depending on the course itself, as well as the makeup of the learners.  Some, for instance, have varying degrees of comfort when it comes to open authorship and receiving feedback of their own work.  I often inform my students that I too am under the “magnifying glass” when it comes to sharing my feedback openly online.  But I continually confide in them in that there are benefits, many benefits in fact, in making one’s knowledge (or work) available to someone else.  The key of using educational technology for me is to focus more on these benefits, the benefits of sharing and open collaboration and collegiality, and not focus on the use of technology without any particular purpose.  The idea was to realize how educational technology provides the means to an end. So, from the beginning of my teaching career, this was my approach to teaching and learning that seems to always rub up against another important aspect of sharing… copyright.

Copyright is a legal right created by the law of a country that grants the creator of an original work exclusive rights for its use and distribution, usually only for a limited time. A major limitation of copyright is that copyright protects only the original expression of ideas, and not the underlying ideas themselves.  Following the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright would last for the life of the author plus 50 years or 75 years for a work of corporate authorship.  In 1998, the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) (aka the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, Sonny Bono Act, or the Mickey Mouse Protection Act) was one of many acts that extended copyright terms in the United States. The 1976 Act also increased the extension term for works copyrighted before 1978 that had not already entered the public domain from twenty-eight years to forty-seven years, giving a total term of seventy-five years. The 1998 Act extended these terms to life of the author plus 70 years and for works of corporate authorship to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever ends earlier.  One has to wonder whether we are due for yet another act to extend copyright terms even further… let’s hope not!  

Looking at the historical landscape that existed when Creative Commons emerged, we begin with the Sonny Bono Act of 1998 that set the scene for an even greater tension for those who wished to shared knowledge and experiences openly online while at the same time respect current copyright laws.  Sure, there were exceptions to copyright law, like fair use and the technology, education, and copyright harmonization (or TEACH) Act of 2002, but the ubiquity of technology and new ways of communicating, interacting, and the sharing of knowledge with others, quickly left these exceptions inadequate.  So, here comes Creative Commons in 2001 that set out to precisely address this tension.  Creative Commons was founded in 2001 by the Center for the Public Domain and lists its founder as Lawrence Lessig.  A shift was occurring that required a new name to distinguish it from the traditions of copyright.  That word?  Copyleft.  Copyleft refers to the practice of offering people the right to freely distribute copies and modified versions of a work with the stipulation that the same rights be preserved in derivative works down the line.  In 2002, Creative Commons created its first license, version 1.0, which began the breaking down of legal, technical, and social barriers that plagued the sharing of knowledge in public forums of the past.  Remember, this same year, the US government had just passed the TEACH Act which again, illustrated how tensions existed in how current technologies and more importantly, the willingness for many to share knowledge using these current technologies failed to align with the idea of a copyright.  Just one year later, in 2003, the Eldred v. Ashcroft case went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, stating that the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act was unconstitutional.  The lead plaintiff of the case, Eric Eldred, lost, however.  The Supreme Court had decided that the Sonny Bono Act was, in fact, constitutional.  However, as a co-founder of Creative Commons and a proprietor of the unincorporated Eldritch Press, Eldred continues to this day to promote openness.  The number of works issued under a Creative Commons license continues to grow over time:  approximately 1 million in 2003, 4.7 million in 2004, 20 million in 2005, 50 million in 2006, 90 million in 2007, 130 million in 2008, 350 million in 2009, and currently there are approximately 1.1 billion works that are licensed. This is due largely by a growing movement that is the Global Affiliate Network.  

The Global Affiliate Network has over 500 volunteers and community members who serve as Creative Commons representatives in over 85 countries. This network is broken down into community or network platforms in four general areas: 1) open education platform, 2) copyright reform platform, 3) community development platform, and 4) a repository platform called GLAM, which is an acronym that stands for galleries, libraries, archives, and museums. Indeed, what began as a technical exercise to assign an open license to a piece of work has turned into a global movement that is certain to continue to grow.

Let’s shift gears a bit and look now specifically at the different types of Creative Commons licenses that exist.

There are several types of Creative Commons licenses that are available, but all have one thing in common.  They all include an attribution clause. An attribution clause allows others to copy, distribute, display, perform, and remix a piece of work if they credit the source as requested by the original author. There are times when such a request does not exist, so typically, users will simply include a hyperlink so that others can find the original work.  An example of this might be an image found online that’s license under Creative Commons but lacks any specific request for attribution.  

Beyond the attribution clause, the content creator then must make three distinct decisions about how to license one’s work.  First, will the work include a no derivative works clause, which means that others can only copy, distribute, display, or perform verbatim copies of the work.  Authors of books, for instance, may choose a no derivative works clause so that the book never undergoes any changes as copies are being passed down to users.

The second decision one needs to make when deciding on the most appropriate Creative Commons license is whether or not to assign a share-alike clause.  A share alike clause allows others to distribute a piece of work under a license identical to the one chosen for the original work. The absence of a share alike designation means that users are allowed to change the type of license.  For example, let’s a teacher creates a lesson plan and assigns a CC-BY license (attribution, commercial license).  Someone using this lesson plan is free to not only make changes to the lesson plan (a no derivative works designation was not assigned) but also change the license to a non-commercial license.

So, by way of example, the third decision a content creator makes, is to decide whether or not to assign a commercial or non-commercial license to the work.  A non-commercial license is when others can copy, distribute, display, perform, or remix a piece of work but for non-commercial purposes only.

In summary, content creators, teachers, students, etc. have a lot of flexibility when it comes to determining the most appropriate Creative Commons license for a particular context.  All versions of Creative Commons licenses include an attribution clause that forgoes asking for permission but requires one to give credit to the original author of the work.  From there, one decides for or against the following three options: no derivative works, share alike, and non-commercial.

Today, I look back at the beginning of my teaching career and see how some things have changed while others have not.  I still feel that my original mindset of sharing and contributing to open, online spaces remains the same.  I still encourage my students to make their own knowledge public and try to reveal the benefits of continually cultivating an online “footprint” for professional pursuits.  But what has changed is what I have learned and continue to learn about Creative Commons and the kinds of technologies used to interact with others so that my own professional learning becomes more intertwined with the professional learning of others.

I thank you for watching and encourage you to learn what you can about Creative Commons so that you consistently make good, purposeful decisions that relate to your ongoing development as a teacher and life-long learner, both in terms of content creation and relationship building.

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