Why Using Creative Commons Licensed Materials Is Not As Easy As It Looks
from the still-requires-thought dept
Creative Commons recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, with well-deserved praise for its work flooding in from around the world. There’s no doubt it has played an important role in raising people’s awareness of the problems with copyright, and in offering some alternative licenses that ameliorate some of its worst aspects. But there is a danger that people think that CC-licensed works are trivially easy to use, not least because they typically give users more rights than traditional copyright. In fact, there are a number of subtle issues that can crop up that make using such liberal licenses harder than it looks.
That’s underlined by an interesting blog post from Bobbi Newman about a problem she encountered when using CC-licensed photos in presentations:
Like many librarians I often turn to Creative Commons licensed photos on Flickr for use in my presentations and blog posts. Flickr makes it incredibly easy to search for photos with a Creative Commons license. Unfortunately it also makes it ridiculously easy for users to change the license on all their photos at any time with the click of a button. There is no way to prove the license at the time of use.
She then goes on to detail what happened, and how it was finally resolved, but here I want to focus on a couple of points raised by this episode. First, on the issue of changing licenses. Perhaps because CC licenses give creators a flexibility missing in copyright itself, there is a belief in some quarters that things can be changed after a work has been published under one of them. Although the licence attached to the work on Flickr, say, might indeed be altered “with the click of a button”, the Creative Commons FAQ says the old one cannot be taken away:
CC licenses are not revocable. Once a work is published under a CC license, licensees may continue using the work according to the license terms for the duration of copyright protection.
However, proving that something was originally available under a CC license when its owner claims that it is only available under restrictive conditions is more problematic. Interestingly, there are services that try to address this problem by keeping “dated, independently verified copies of license conditions associated with creative commons images,” which suggests that this is an issue faced by quite a few people.
Another aspect of the situation discussed in the blog post revolved around whether the use of an image was non-commercial or not. You might think this is “obvious”, but in fact, it’s proved a hugely problematic issue for Creative Commons licenses, with heated arguments about what are the key factors that make something commercial or otherwise. This lack of clarity is one reason why the use of the term “commercial scale” without further definition was so dangerous in ACTA.
Although using works released under a CC-license, with the additional flexibilities that it offers the user, is less onerous than handling those under traditional copyright, which lacks them, it is nowhere near the “use and forget” level of simplicity that many probably assume.