Thing #12: Creative Commons

Oh the beloved Creative Commons, buzzword of the century in library circles, it is up there with cloud computing and Web 2.0 as the most talked about trends for the 21st century. Of course, this hype is for good reason. Creative Commons licensing is one of the best tools for academics to share information. I also see this license all the time attributed to fonts, programs, and web templates. Given this importance, I decided to delve into the topic and learn what I could about how it really functions.

Creative Commons
I began with the suggested Educause article on seven things to learn about the topic. The beauty of this article is that it provided a simple explanation, seven key points, and a real-world scenario of how CC licensing can be put into place in an educational setting. The basis of the concept is that copyright is either fully enforced or expired, with very little room for anything else. Creative Commons allows people to tailor restrictions so that works are more accessible while still protected. It is really an ingenious idea and one that can definitely loosen the stranglehold some publishers have over information. Materials can be licensed in a number of ways, ranging from free to be used, displayed, and altered as long as the creator is acknowledged, to free only for use in educational settings. This, of course, takes away the uncertainty of fair use and the burden of acquiring permission for every single use. Obviously, this is a good way to boost academic exchange. Creative Commons licensing also helps ensure the the functionality of the web can be fully realized, since linking to content and displaying images alongside text is a necessity at this point.

An article in Library Trends by Cushla Kapitzke notes that traditional copyright law is not well-suited to digital environments where sharing and building on earlier works are the norm; the questions of authorship and ownership can get extremely fuzzy. In such settings we see traditional publishers clinging to stringent usage restrictions, while those restrictions may be inhibiting the flow of ideas. Creative Commons actually gives control back to the information producer, who may well benefit from having their ideas exchanged, programs built upon, or images shared.

As the Creative Commons (non-profit licensing organization) states:

“Our vision is nothing less than realizing the full potential of the Internet — universal access to research and education, full participation in culture, and driving a new era of development, growth, and productivity.”

There is really no better way to describe the possibilities for innovation that exist when copyright is tempered by reasonable expectations.

Flickr Commons
Another resource provided on the 23 Things website related to the Flickr Commons program that was undertaken by Flickr and the Library of Congress. The idea is that images are placed on the website and opened up for users to tag and share related information about the images. Cultural organizations are encouraged to participate in the spirit of sharing and promoting access to essential resources that have cultural, historical, and research value. The images are then improved by users that offer information that can help describe, clarify, or otherwise make the images more accessible. The project is one I had heard of before, but I was unaware of both the depth and popularity of the program. The content generated by users has enriched the imagery available in ways that individual catalogers could never have accomplished. The concept is based on trusting people (with a little oversight in the verification of facts) and letting the masses share their surprising expertise.

From a a library, archive, and museum standpoint, Creative Commons licensing represents a needed tool to facilitate information exchange; it is also one that needs to be actively supported in order to help balance the traditional copyright rules that stifle discourse. Flickr Commons is also a tool that can be beneficial for a number of reasons. Noting the tags that users apply to objects can be instructive for institutions that may be out of touch with the ways that users are searching for information. Tagging is assigned using a different set of logic than controlled vocabulary, and it is worth becoming aware of this thinking and using common terms as adjunct descriptors. Also, perusing the collections and information listings of other institutions can shed light on an institution’s own holdings. For example, an institution could find that images depicting a particular building (subsequently identified by a user) might correspond to photographs in their own collection that had gone unlabeled. This information could be verified and then added to these images. Periodic searches could reveal all kinds of useful data that would align with the collections, without ever having to upload them to Flickr. This seems to me to be a formidable tool.

Information Literacy Applications
One of the most essential IL standards involves evaluating information sources and properly using and attributing information. This is a skill that can be confused by opaque copyright laws. Teaching students the meaning of CC licensing can help with this issue by encouraging them to locate and utilize information that has been appropriately authorized. I believe this to be especially true for fields such as science, art and design, and computer science. People frequently get inspiration from the work of others and build their own creations off the efforts of others. This building process is what allows progress to happen, commentary to occur, and ideas to transform society. In seeking out works that are freely available for use and/or alteration, students can be confident that they are legally benefiting from and contributing to the scholarly exchange of ideas.