How Creative Common licenses are linked to copyright

For the Creative Commons Certificate course I’m taking right now, one of the discussion topics for this week was:

In many ways, Creative Commons licenses feel like an alternative to copyright law. But the truth is that Creative Commons licenses only work because copyright law exists.

How would you explain the relationship between Creative Commons and copyright law to someone new to Creative Commons? What kinds of examples would you use?

Since my response will probably disappear into the ether after the course ends, and since it might actually be useful for me to think about and revise later, I decided to post it here (with a couple of additions made after I already posted to the discussion board).


If I were to explain the relationship between copyright law and Creative Commons to someone new to CC, say, if they were a faculty member at a post-secondary institution (like I am), I might start by using examples of creating research articles or book chapters.

When you write a research article or book chapter, you hold copyright in that work as soon as it is set into a tangible medium (such as a digital file on a computer). You can choose to copy that work how you wish, to post it on a website, to send it to colleagues via email, to make a poster with some of the same images/figures, to translate the work into another language, to try to sell it to someone else, and more. Others cannot do these things because they don’t have the same rights you do; they don’t hold the copyright, and if they want to do things like this they have to ask your permission.

But if you then work with a publisher of a journal or a manuscript, depending on the publisher and the context, you may have to give away some (or most) of the rights to be able to do these things. You may not be able to post your on a website, to make as many copies as you wish and give them all way, to create a translation, to use the charts/figures in another work, to try to sell it to someone else. It is now the publisher who owns the copyright in the work (or at least many of the aspects of your copyright rights). I once tried to post a pre-print of a book chapter I wrote in an institutional repository, and discovered that the contract I signed didn’t allow me to do that.

When you give your work a Creative Commons license it’s not like this; you retain copyright and the rights associated with it. If you apply a CC license to your work what this does is signal to others how they can use it even without asking your permission. But you still have the same copyright rights you would otherwise.

Often if you publish in an open access journal you retain your copyright and give your work a CC license that allows the journal to post the work on their site, allows readers to download the work to their computers, to print it out, and, depending on the CC license, to use the work for commercial purposes or to make derivatives like translations. CC licenses don’t replace or take away copyright, they work on top of it, making it easy for creators to signal to others what they may do with the work without asking permission.

Consider what this can mean in the context of teaching and learning. Say you want to assign a 2 or 3 of chapters of a book for a course. Students won’t be needing the whole thing, but if you want to go beyond what “fair dealing” might allow, and it’s not a book the library has (or there is only one physical copy), then you either have to ask students to purchase the whole book even though they’ll only use part of it, or look for some other resource for your course. Fair dealing in Canada is quite complicated, actually, and not always easy to figure out. In addition, sometimes electronic copies of resources are purchased through the library with licenses that override what fair dealing might otherwise allow, so things are even more complicated!

If that book were CC licensed (which some are!), you could post on a course website or physically copy just the chapters you need for your students, without asking permission from the author or the publisher. And the author still has the rights to do other things with the work, like post it in multiple websites or repositories, or translate it (or ask others to do so).

This brings up an important point, though: if you are able to use a work under fair dealing, any CC license does not alter your ability to do so. CC licenses work within the structure of copyright, so whatever you could do under copyright law, you can still do with a CC licensed work. Where using CC licensed works in courses can be useful is that you can go beyond what is allowed under fair dealing, and in some cases (depending on the license) you can also adapt the works to your own course & context, by taking out some parts, adding in images, and more.

 

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