Copyright vs Creative Commons – what’s the difference and why does it matter?

These days everyone who spends time online is a producer of content. This content could be the blog posts you write, photographs you take, research articles you publish, videos you upload – the list goes! As the producer of the content, you get to decide how to license it. You can retain copyright (current standard and in most cases automatically assigned); you can decide to use a Creative Commons license and retain some rights; or you can release the content into the public domain, relinquishing all rights. 

The issue of copyright is an equally important consideration when developing and managing any online project, including an education project where you can decide whether to openly license your content or product as an Open Education Resource. Some organisations feel it is important to retain full rights to their content in order to commercially exploit them, however there is growing evidence that open business models (where some or all content rights are ‘opened’) can be successful in the ‘new economy’. I’ll write more on open business models in future posts. Deciding how to deal with copyright during the conceptual phase of a project is important and ensures that the project does not run into problems later, during the execution phases. With this in mind, I’ll attempt first to introduce the concept of copyright and then cover appropriate policies for digital education projects, including a discussion on Creative Commons.

Copyright vs Creative Commons
Copyright vs Creative Commons

Copyright is a legal concept that gives the creators of intellectual property (IP) the right to assert ownership over the things that they create and  receive compensation for their use. As defined by the World Intellectual  Property Organization (WIPO, n.d), the works covered include anything from “books, music, paintings, sculpture and films, to computer programs, databases, advertisements, maps and technical drawings.” Copyright basically applies to any “creative” work and prevents other people taking an individual’s IP and using it without  their permission (whether the intention is to make money from it or not).

It is important to understand, as WIPO further explains in  Understanding Copyright and Related Rights, that copyright is generally accepted  as “declaratory” – that is to say that a work is considered protected as soon as it comes into existence. Once in place, copyright is generally understood  as preventing the reproduction, distribution, copying and public performance works, and also includes the translation and adaptation without consent.

Copyright does not always require remuneration from the individual who wants to make use of the copyrighted material. WIPO explains that the concept of  “free use” (also sometimes called “fair use”) “allows use of works without  the authorization of the rights owner, taking into account factors such as the nature and purpose of the use.” Generally, it simply requires that the copyright holder is attributed and the user does not make commercial gain from the use. Permission is only required for extensive use, e.g. for complete films, extensive imagery and full texts, however, fair use does not  apply. 

What is Creative Commons?

Standard copyright is not the only way for content producers to license their work. One of the main “alternatives” is the licensing framework offered  by Creative Commons, a self-defined  “non-profit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools”. These freely available licences encourage sharing and dissemination, operating alongside traditional  copyright and allowing the creator to explicitly set the terms of use. To indicate that content is licensed in such a way, users can access and make use of licence “codes”   on the Creative Commons website that combine traditional legal wording,  user-friendly wording and digitally-recognisable code that helps search engines and other platforms identify the work as Creative Commons  licensed.

Digital education projects are encouraged to make use of Creative  Commons licensed content where possible. This framework’s ideology of sharing and open access to information aligns strongly with the broader aims of many education projects, and feeding into it further encourages sharing of information. Licensing  content produced using the framework also helps to get local or so-called  indigenous content (which may be collectively produced or owned) into the world through sharing and other forms of dissemination. Content made available under these licences is also generally guaranteed to be safe for use as long as correctly attributed, and as such offers a valuable resource for project teams.

What Creative Commons Licenses are available?

As outlined on the initiative’s website, Creative Commons licences (indicated by CC, rather than the traditional C) can take one of the following  forms:

  • Attribution (CC BY) – Giving others the right to distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon content, even commercially, as long as the original creator is credited.
  • Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA) – Others have the right to distribute, remix, tweak and build upon content, even commercially. They simply have to attribute the original creator and disseminate the work under the same  licence.
  • Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND) – Allowing for distribution (commercial or not) as long as the content is unchanged and credited to the  creator.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC) – Others can remix, tweak, and build upon content non-commercially. They must acknowledge the original creator and remain non-commercial but can license their derivative work however they  wish.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA) – Allowing for others to remix, tweak, and build upon content non-commercially, as long as they credit the creator and license their new creations under the identical  terms.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND) – Others can  download content and share it as long as they credit the creator, but it can’t be altered or used commercially.

What rights to be aware of when setting up online education projects?

Being aware of copyright (and related licensing) is important for digital education projects because much of the content collected, produced and disseminated in the course of the project could fall under copyright protection (see Creative Commons for Educators and Librarians). This is especially the case with content produced by individuals outside of the project team such as images and audio recordings. If this content is uploaded to a website or another digital platform without permission, the copyright holder is within their rights to request that it be taken down. For repeated or large-scale breaches of copyright, the creator can also resort to legal enforcement.

Fortunately, ensuring that you have the rights to reproduce copyrighted material is a simple process. While the concept of “fair use” (as explained above) can apply to some content, it is better to be overly cautious in this regard, and ensure that permission is sought and documented as follows for all  content.

Fair Use – steps to take

  1. Identify the Copyright Holder – First find out who holds the copyright of the content. For narratives and first hand accounts this would be the person who was interviewed. For audio, video  or images, copyright resides with the person who created the work.
  2. Obtain Written Permission – Gain permission from the copyright holder to reproduce the work (note that this is not a request for transfer of copyright ownership but simply the granting of permission to create a digital representation of the content so as to make it publicly accessible). Importantly, this needs to be obtained in writing so that there is a record of the interaction. During this interaction you can explain Creative Commons licensing to the rights-holder and, where appropriate, suggest they consider openly licensing their content.
  3. Attribute Content Accordingly – Ensure that content clearly references the copyright holder if required. This shows that the work is copyrighted (or licensed under Creative Commons) and gives the creator the recognition they are entitled  to.

If you are unsure of who the copyright holder is, or are unable to reach them, you do still need to make reasonable efforts to establish who they are and contact them before using the content. Document all of your attempts in writing (letters/ email) and keep them on file. You are then able to use the content with the understanding that should the copyright holder contact you and request the content taken down, you would do this.

Good copyright practice for digital education projects include making available  on the project website a Copyright Policy, a Conditions of Use and a Public Disclaimer Notice, as well as any pertinent Creative Commons  Licences. Placing a Copyright Policy on the website is important because it states your organisation’s position with regard to copyright. It helps to confirm the code of ethics of the organisation, while also protecting the rights of the creators of the digitised materials. Terms and Conditions of Use advise users what they can and can’t do with resources on the website. For example, use of the resources is permitted solely for educational, scholarly, research and non-commercial/fair use purposes and bulk downloading is prohibited. A Public Disclaimer notice on the website helps to indemnify the project team / website managers from legal liability, for example, stating that the historical accuracy of content cannot  be guaranteed and a particular community accepts no liability for any inaccuracies, errors and omissions.

Copyright is an important element to consider when planning and undertaking a digital education project. While copyright can seem complicated at times, with the proper procedures in place, content can be correctly attributed and complications avoided. Content licensed through Creative Commons has been shown to be both a valuable resource for digital projects, as well as an ideology worth aligning with.

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