Why do I care if I’m attributed?

During one of the Twitter chats for the ETMOOC topic on “The Open Movement – Open Access, OERs & Future of Ed,” Pat Lockley Tweeted this:


We were talking about sharing our educational or other work, why some people find this difficult, the difference between “open access” and things being open in a wider sense, and more.

During the chat Pat’s Tweet kind of just went past me, but as I went back to the #etmchat Tweets for that day to add some to my Storify board on my ETMOOC experience, I came across it again and became curious as to what he meant. Thus started a fairly long conversation about copyright, licenses, public domain, and more. You can see it all here.

There’s a lot I’d like to think about further in this conversation, but what is really standing out for me at the moment is this:



Why am I using a CC-BY license on my work? Why do I care if I’m attributed when someone uses something from my blog, or some “open educational resource” I create? Pat brought up an important point:



Why not make one’s work public domain instead of using something like CC-BY? In the current legal climate, apparently it’s rather complicated: some places, like Canada and the U.S. (and probably other places too–I haven’t done enough research to list them), grant copyright simply through creating a work, and this may not actually be easy (or possible?) to give up (see, e.g., re: the U.S., Wikipedia on granting work into the public domain, and this post from the Public Domain Sherpa, and the last section of this page from Copyfree). One can, though, try to state as clearly as possible that one gives up all copyright and related rights to whatever extent allowed by law, and if not allowed, to give a license to anyone to use the work however they wish, without requirement of attribution. That’s what Creative Commons CC0 is meant to do. Copyfree has a list of various licenses that conform to their standard of “free use,” “free distribution,” free modification and derivation,” “free combination” and “universal application,” and CC0 is one of them (as is the Nietzsche public license, which is rather a personal favourite).

So, getting back to the original question and modifying it a bit: why not just use CC0 or something similar, thus releasing one’s work for any use by anyone, without attribution? Why care about attribution?

As Pat Lockley noted, it would be good to know that others find my work useful and that they reuse, repurpose and/or rework it. This would be helpful, if for no other reason than to validate for yourself what you’re doing. It could help you do more of it, perhaps. Knowing this would probably also be a way to improve one’s work through finding out what others have done with it. Not to mention it could be a way to potentially connect with others, which might even lead to collaborations.

In my own situation, on a pragmatic level, if I could discover and document how others have used my work, this could provide evidence that what I am doing has influence in the wider educational community, which might be one of several ways to support a claim of “educational leadership” or “distinction in the field of teaching and learning” for the new Professor of Teaching rank at UBC.

So yes, there are plenty of good reasons to be able to know what others are doing with your work.

But all of this requires what is NOT happening with CC-BY (and possibly not with other licenses…I haven’t done enough research to specify): notifying the attributed person that their work is being reused. If another blog links to your blog, you may get a pingback (maybe not; depends on the settings of your blog and the other blog, I think). And it’s a good practice to let other people know when you’ve used their work, if there’s an easy way to do it (such as leaving a comment on a photo posted on Flickr). I try to do that, but too often I forget (I’m working on this).

As noted towards the end of the Storified conversation with Pat, what’s missing, in order to get the benefits noted above, is some systematic way to notify people as to how you’ve used their work. I don’t even know how such a thing could work–the technological hurdles seem huge–but theoretically, it seems a good idea. Now, like any such things, one wouldn’t have to choose such a license (an attribution + notification license?), but for some it would provide a useful way to not just be attributed, but to know what uses their work is being put to. Perhaps it is too difficult/too much of a hassle to bother with. But it’s an intriguing idea.

“Attribution,” by fotogail (see below)

Of course, there are good arguments for making work as free as possible, without restrictions on what you have to do once you’ve accessed it–like attributing the author/creator, or telling him/her what you’re doing with it. So I’m undecided whether I, personally, would want to require more of the people using my work than just attribution. I might not even recommend this to others. But some might want to do it, and it could be useful.

But until and unless something like this happens, I’m back to my original question: Why do I care about attribution? If, for the most part, I won’t get the above benefits, what am I getting out of knowing that perhaps, somewhere out there, is a piece of work with my name attached?

One might think that it’s kind of like citation in academia; except again, citations are tracked whereas use of my CC-BY work (unless it’s a publication) is not. So really, it’s just a sense that other people know I created something. Why should I care about this?

Add to this the point that much of my work is not, perhaps, really “mine” in a deep sense because it is a culmination of so many other influences, work by so many other people that I have read or otherwise interacted with, and the question becomes even more pressing.

Okay, maybe it will come back to me at some point; maybe I’ll discover my work being used somewhere with my name, and then I can realize some of the good things noted previously. But maybe not (and perhaps most likely not). Or perhaps someone will find something with my name on it and decide to connect with me–thus leading to a connection through effort on someone else’s part rather than mine. These things might happen, but is that enough to require attribution for my work? I’m not yet sure.

I don’t have an answer, and you can’t answer for me of course, but maybe you have some ideas on why asking others to attribute one’s work might be a good idea, rather than just letting it go free into the wild. I’m thinking not so much for people who have to rely on their work to make a living, to make money off of it, but for people like me who are getting a salary from a university and could just share their blog writings, their photos, their OERs for free and without restrictions.

Help me out here?

Image credit: “Attribution,”  flickr photo (CC-BY) shared by fotogail


  1. Flying comment today,

    oh…and get some sleep over the next 3-4 days. And I hope the new position is a blast…

    A powerful driver for my own achievement, effort deployment, innovation and attention to detail is recognition, and praise. You could couch this in Learning theory terms. It’s a somewhat Behaviourist response on my part. I’m looking for a stimulus, so I present a response. It’s also social in some aspect, in terms of my learning doesn’t exist to me fully until I communicate it, and my sense of my self is enhanced by social interaction.

    I guess, basically, it’s a description of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and having my name on material I make open means the esteem part of the pyramid ( self esteem, confidence, the respect of others, achievement) as well as other parts (it’s also to do wih establishing a work reputation, and thu meetimng phyiscal and security needs, and to do with the love/belonging aspect – establishing friendships and relationships).

    The benefits to producing good work are huge, in terms of this hierarchy, if I am identified with the work. And I also consciously use these needs to push myself to produce good quality work, so, the attribution forces me to deploy more and greater effort.

    I fear public failure, and my response is to strive to achieve. I’m also, unfortunately, a smartass with a drive to know everything…not such a useful drive frankly.

    There’s also the feedback aspect – I’m likely to find it easier to gather feedback on artefacts I produce, ideas I have, if it is attributed, and forming connections based on the work produced is also much easier with attribution.

    Plus, I’m job-hunting. So, attribution helps.

    To look a little more deeply (and to ascribe it to more than just ego)

    I want to be seen as creative, generous, hard working, intelligent, rigorous, an effective and useful person, as a function of the work I produce. There can be a huge amount of esteem, personal worth, and self efficacy invested in artefacts we produce, and the socially attributed sharing of those objects can have a huge impact on those drives, ideas, feelings and experiences in us.

    Last thought…entirely unrelated to the above. I’m considering running a cmooc based in Ireland next year. We should talk ( both becasue you are considering something similar, and because we might be useful to each other.)

    1. Hi Keith:

      Finally gotten enough sleep that I think I can respond somewhat intelligently to comments (but not as well as I might if not jetlagged, unfortunately). Oh, and I don’t have a new position, actually–I’m just on holiday in Cape Town at the moment!

      I completely understand the point about motivating good quality work by having one’s name on it–I hadn’t thought about that, really. Even if I never find out that others are using my work in some way, just knowing that my name is on it can encourage me to try to make it better. That makes sense. And certainly, if I were job hunting (which I am fortunate to not have to be), I would want my name attached to good quality work in case that could get around to those who might have some control over my future career.

      I’m not sure I see how my sense of esteem or recognition by others could be increased by attribution alone, though, without some system of being told, or some way to find out, that others find what I have done useful enough to reuse or remix. Though, of course, attribution is a necessary condition for this (but not sufficient).

      I would be happy to talk further about developing cMOOCs and more. Wish I could come to Ireland–I’ve always wanted to visit. But instead, I guess virtual communication will have to do.

  2. Hi Christina,

    Very interesting post that I read just some colleagues and me are debating the licence to apply on a blog…
    I think of two reasons to attribute a work :
    – ego… Attribution is a way to get the recognition, it can be important especially if you work in an environment where you don’t get it. But as you explained, you’re not sure to get recognition that way…
    – the second reason is to validate a reference and place someone in a current of thought.

    1. The second reason here, about placing someone in a current of thought, is making me think. If one does not oneself care too much about whether others place him/her in that current, does this matter? Or is it that allowing others to validate a reference and trace a lineage of thought is important enough that one ought to ask for attribution for one’s work? If so, why might this be the case? I’m just curious, not necessarily that I don’t agree. Is there something socially important about being able to trace the development of ideas?

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  4. I use CC-BY on my writings for one reason only: I want to open myself up to serendipitous connections. If someone else uses something I wrote and attributes it to me, then a third person reading that might decide to go back to the “source” and engage with me. It’s a way of encouraging the expansion of my network.

    It hasn’t happened that way yet, but someday, I trust… :)

    1. Hi Fredrik: Good point. Attribution is necessary for this. It may be a good enough reason for me too, given how much I have truly valued the connections made through ETMOOC, and how much therefore I’d like to continue connecting. Perhaps I should have more faith that it will happen than I do!

  5. Hi,
    Interesting. I think people should attribute whatever the circumstances, simply so that someone who likes your work (or hates, or wants to explore etc.) should be able to do so. You tend to understand a piece of work better if you know the background to it, don’t you? Some people won’t need that, of course. But others may want to.
    Having said I love the idea of information and knowledge freely circulating. That when means to automatically credit, such as Pat Lockley’s Xpert are great. Would be wonderful if that could be do with text, audio files etc.
    I hope this is not too simplistic a view?

    1. Hi Pascale:

      I don’t think it’s too simplistic at all. I can completely see the point that being able to see the background or provenance of someone’s work could be helpful to understanding it. Though, it’s possible to argue that going to look at someone’s prior work might actually distort one’s understanding of a current work, if read through the lens of that prior work. What I mean is, maybe someone is trying to move in an entirely new direction, and reading what they’re trying to do through their older models can lead to misunderstanding. Sometimes one might want what they do to stand on its own, to be judged on its own (though ultimately that may not be possible). That’s something Michel Foucault once said about how people read his work, and it makes some sense to me. Still, personally, I do usually go back to the source to try to use what else they’ve said/done to understand something new from that person, so I’m not holding to that argument myself!

  6. I think that for many creators, the exposure that can come out of high-profile uses with attribution is extremely important – and more useful toward building a career than, for example, the commercial monopoly provided by an NC license. See Chris Zabriskie: http://creativecommons.org/weblog/entry/35531

    About the connections and relationships that can come from people reusing your content – that’s huge. And I think we’re getting to a time when little communities of practice develop all the time around reuse and iteration of a certain piece of content. That’s exciting to see, but it’s hard to control/predict/amplify/scaele.

    The idea of a license that requires some sort of notification is interesting, but of course it would be very difficult to standardize or enforce, and it would make some types of reuse basically impossible. I see Google Alerts as a way to opt in to notification.

    1. Hi Elliot:

      Good point about cc-by giving one exposure, more than CC-BY-NC; I can see that that way, if someone who views the re-use of a work sees the original creator, then they will have exposure to that creator as well as the first person who saw the original. This could, indeed, be useful for people artists and others who can benefit from people asking them to do more work. I’m wondering if that applies to me as a tenured academic, though. I suppose it could; if someone remixes my work (e.g.) and attributes me, then others who see the remixed work also see my name and may seek other things I’ve done. This could be useful for getting things like speaking opportunities, perhaps, conference keynotes, maybe even writing opportunities–though these don’t act as a source of income for most academics (perhaps a little, but not much), they could be helpful for a career. Still, personally, that’s not the sort of thing I’m terribly interested in myself. At least not at the moment. Mostly I’m interested in teaching and sharing with others (and learning from others) what works/doesn’t work and why. However, of course, it may be something I want to do later, to get more “exposure” in this sort of sense, so it’s helpful to think about this.

      I’m more interested in the connections and relationships that could come from people seeing my work and reuses of my work; at the moment, that seems (for me) the most important motivator for using CC-BY. And as Fredrik Graver noted in a comment, that may not happen at all, but it is less likely to happen if you don’t use CC-BY.

      I completely agree that it would be very difficult to standardize or enforce a system of notification, but it’s something to consider, at least. Especially if (some of) the good things that could come from CC-BY might be made even easier with notification. I haven’t heard of Google Alerts; I’ll look into that. Still, I don’t like to rely on for-profit companies for things that I think are really important. Doing so can too easily mean those things die off if the profits aren’t forthcoming.

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