Creative Commons and credit

The November 2008 issue of College and Research Libraries News contains a lucid explanation of, and a convincing argument for using, the Creative Commons licensing system.  The article, “The beauty of ‘Some Rights Reserved‘” by Molly Kleinman, is a concise and cogent explanation of the CC system of licensing materials to permit sharing of creative and scholar works, as well as that reuse of protected material that is so necessary to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts.”  Kleinman describe efforts at the University of Michigan Library to teach faculty about the benefits to authors, teachers and scholars of using Creative Commons licenses, and her ability to explain the licenses so clearly must be a great boon to that effort.

I want to give the link to the “Get Creative” video that Kleinman references as an important part of their teaching of the CC licenses, since the link in the online article’s footnotes did not work for me —  This too is worth a look for anyone who wants to understand how Creative Commons licenses work and wants to be entertained in the process.

But I also want to add a suggestion about one more point that might help convince faculty that a Creative Commons license on their works will serve them well.  In her section on the “benefits of Creative Commons in academic settings,” Kleinman emphases the large numbers of works available under CC licenses and the ease of reuse that those licenses make possible.  I want to add that CC licenses actually serve the fundamental values of academia better than does our copyright law in its current state.

Almost alone amongst the copyright laws of the world, our US law does not enforce any right of attribution.  Most countries recognize some “moral rights” that are often treated differently than the economic rights which are the sole subject of US law.  Attribution — the right of the creator to have his or her name associated with the work — is the most basic of these moral rights.  But that right is simply not protected in the United States except for a small group of visual artists who are entitled to attribution under a provision added to the copyright law in 1990.

Does this absence of an attribution right make any difference?  It certainly can.  There was a story in the higher education press about six months ago about a professor who found that his short book, published several years before and since out of print, had been incorporated whole into a larger work from the same publisher that carried the name of a different author.  Because the professor had transferred his copyright to the publisher, and the US has no moral right of attribution, he had no recourse to continue to get credit for his own scholarship.  For an academic author this is a dreadful fate, since scholarly publication is done more for reputation and standing in the discipline than it is for money (Samuel Johnson’s famous remark notwithstanding).

In an 2004 article on “The Right to Claim Authorship,” Professor Jane Ginsburg of Columbia describes the importance of an attribution right and discusses how other countries have structured that right for good or ill.  On the need to protect attribution she quotes an unnamed federal judge to this effect:

To deprive a person of credit to which he was justly entitled is to do him a
great wrong. Not only does he lose the general benefit of being associated
with a successful production; he loses the chance of using that work to sell
his abilities.

At the end of the article, Prof. Ginsburg proposes what the contours of a US attribution right might look like.  Her proposal makes a great deal of sense to me, but, and this is my point here, authors who use the Creative Commons licenses do not need a Congressionally recognized right of attribution because a CC license effectively leverages copyright ownership to ensure that the author gets proper credit.  In essence, a CC license, with its attribution condition on reuse, is a private law arrangement to effectuate what our public law has failed to do.

Because reputation is the foundation of the academic reward system, and giving proper credit to authors and creators is the most basic tenant of academic ethics, the protection of attribution is a fundamental value of scholarship.  And since the Creative Commons license protects attribution, and our copyright law by itself does not, the value of the former for those who live within the academic system and embrace its values is vastly increased.

4 thoughts on “Creative Commons and credit”

  1. Thanks for this post. I’m trying to bring CC more prominently to the Georgetown campus and this will be a great help.

  2. There is no question that the CC license approach confers a real benefit by incorporating attribution. But one of the primary CC licenses, which relies on the distinction between “commercial” and “noncommercial” use, is severely flawed because no one yet has been able to make that distinction unambiguously clear. And Larry Lessig himself, said toward the end of one of his books, that this distinction is not viable in the Internet age.

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