Why CC-BY just isn’t good enough

I was contacted recently by 3C Media, who does the media work for the California Community Colleges at the Chancellor’s Office. They let me know that my presentation for the POT Certificate Class from last February, Control and Freedom in Online Classes, was being converted and uploaded to YouTube. They asked me to help them apply a description, attributions, etc. Two things struck me about this. The first was that I used their Collaborate system for the presentation, and although I have no problem with this presentation being posted in public, I have used their system before for meetings and office hours that I would not want public. I had no idea they even looked at our meetings.

But I find another aspect even more interesting. When I went to fill out their form to help out, the only option for Creative Commons was the BY (Attribution) restriction, with reuse allowed. Or I could use the YouTube Creative Commons license which is, guess what, only Attribution also, reuse allowed.

A little while back, the controversy over the design of Curtis Bonk’s class led to some interesting comments from those involved in Blackboard/Coursesite, including here on my blog. In response to that and to Audrey Watter’s commentary , Jarl Jonas wrote that:

“once the course concludes, we will publish the package as an OER as a Blackboard and Common Cartridge package with a CC-BY license”

The term OER (Open Educational Resource) is used to distinguish it from a course cartridge that you may use only if you force your students to buy a textbook, or one that only works in one LMS.

I am seeing this more and more: CC-BY as proof of openness, a passport to the world of the trendy edupunks and transparency in education. But it’s not that simple.

Basic Attribution (CC-BY) doesn’t do much for open learning, or even sharing. It’s the NC (non-commercial) and SA (share-alike) aspects of Creative Commons licensing that makes for openness. Attribution simply means anyone can use the work so long as they attribute it, as part a Cartridge package or inside a website, but with no obligation to openness at all. They can take the package, close it off in a system, and charge for access to that system.

This is likely a misunderstanding along the lines of  knowing the difference between openness as in Open API and openness as in Open Source. Some people think Open API and Open Source are the same when they aren’t.  For example, here Pearson OpenClass is referred to as open source, when it’s actually open API. Open API is like Playdoh. We can make things out of it, but we can’t have the secret formula.

So we are confusing my presentation as posted on YouTube, or a free LMS course cartridge of Bonk’s class, with free, open (attributed, non-commercial, shared back) use of our work.

So, CC-BY isn’t good enough. We can’t any longer suppose that our work will not be of financial gain to someone, someday, in a new publishing model. And we must recognize it’s no longer really about content (which many of us post freely on the web).

Much of the content of Yale’s and MIT’s open courses are Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike, and they are very specific that you can’t package and resell their stuff . But the companies that used to be creators of software for holding “content” are now hosts of learning platforms and providers of services (witness Blackboard’s aquisition of vendor Moodlerooms). They lose nothing by freely distributing the work of other people. Without a Non-Commercial clause, they can profit from it directly. Without a ShareAilke clause, they need not create and share anything of their own.

And they can use other people’s stuff to sell “community”. Information can be collected on hundreds or thousands of students coming to take a free course. These are future “customers”, and the information gathered may help future customers signing up for services. These companies will handle all that tough technology stuff — you just hand over your content, all CC-BY licensed so they can use it later.

Doesn’t sound like a good deal, or a very open one, to me.

So the presentation’s at Vimeo (where they let you choose CC BY-NC-SA). 

5 comments to Why CC-BY just isn’t good enough

  • I’ve gone around in circles on this so much that my head spins (http://cogdogblog.com/2010/09/15/cc-by/), and it still does not make sense. I would agree that not providing a more complete menu of CC options is wrong, and there is no technical reason why they cannot offer more options. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the cynics to ask why BY is the only option.

    I d have to quibble some (or maybe I dont follow the logic) of how BY is not the most open license there is. I do remain convinces that while on surface BY_NC has rational appeal, I agree with the finer points that in a short sighted way it limits possible future re-use (e.g. http://freedomdefined.org/Licenses/NC).

    We seem to be looking at openness at different points of contact- at the source of the content, the thing we are making open, I maintain nothing can be more open than BY. It enables re-use w.o question and at the least complicated requirements- give attribution (and how that is done is left non specific). Your concern, which I do not discount is what *others* do with the stuff I have set free,

    For me the things I have gained by the giving away of my stuff has far outweighed the times someone Big Greedy Corporate Entity has Made Millions of Bucks Off of My Dog Photos. In fact I cannot locate any instance where someone has made commercial gain from my stuff, and even if they do, I cannot even see a real loss except maybe a few bits of pride.

    And if there are Big Greedy Corporate Entities putting my stuff in their Overpriced Closed Gardens, then I’d like to think their acts will eventually bite them in the butt. Maybe I am an optimist.

    In some ways, BY-SA seems the best of all worlds; and I am having trouble figuring out why I skipped past that and went back to BY.

    To me, in terms of where the thing is shared, nothing could be more Open than BY; I agree and support the objection to it being abused and in a second iteration be made less open, but that doe snot negate the openness of the original.

    • So I’ll try to wrap my head around what you’re saying, and I see that just Attribution could be seen as the most open because it is the least restrictive, but if we want to go that direction, why have it CC licensed at all? If the current discussion about “nothing is original anyway” has taken hold, and when people take your stuff it isn’t a real loss, then maybe it should be totally open with no license.

      I do want to give things away, but I do want the credit for them because I don’t agree with giving that up because nothing is original. You can call it ego or pride, but it’s also my time, energy and thought, which I think has value (or I wouldn’t bother, right?). And it’s not just “greedy” corporations, it’s the new model of taking other people’s content and making a profit off of it – I object to that in principle whether it’s my stuff they’re using or someone else’s. I don’t like them making a profit off your dog photos even if you personally don’t mind it. I have had only one instance where someone tried to make money off my stuff, and that stuff was CC-licensed anyway and the publisher had to call them on it. It didn’t harm me, but they benefited from something they had no right to benefit from, charging people for something I was freely giving away.

      So yes, maybe BY is more open, and maybe I’m mistaking the current ed/tech/trendy use of the word “open”, but to me open also means free, and if someone else makes money off of it and/or traps it, that seems to me as less open because it is less free. Same thing with why we need Share Alike.

  • Fascinating. There is need for a finer-grained and more “dimensional” approach to resource licensing. But the NC restriction has many issues surrounding it, especially in those countries where state universities are increasingly commercial and commercial companies are key to delivering the value chain in state-funded/supported education. Even if in some other countries they cannot (or will not) see the issue.

    And non-profit does not help – CEO’s salary is the same either way.

  • Ale Abdo


    It’s kinda funny that you talk about open and free, but still can’t get over the conditioning that makes you think of knowledge as property.

    Your knowledge is not your property. You may work to encode it in an expression, but that doesn’t make it yours. It just came from you.

    Wanting to stop other people from making commercial use that is helpful to others or themselves is just your own greed speaking.

    What NC actually accomplishes is making sure only big corporations have the resources to build large scale knowledge projects, by negotiating individually with each copyright holder, which only them have the resources to. The little man who needs to use that knowledge to help himself or his neighbour, whenever being helpful requires any kind of economic transaction, remains hostage of these corporations, and nothing changes in the big picture.

    Artisans cannot ornate their products with that expression, teachers cannot sell brochures to their students, community centers cannot display it for events that charge admission to sustain them, blogs cannot work with it and use advertisement to pay their operational cost.

    The idea that simple people will spend half their days clearing copyright permissions from each NC material they need to use in a transactional situation is just dumb. And those are still cases where collaboration and remixing are very limited, and therefore these clearance and negotiation costs are also small.

    Trade is a living and fundamental part of our lives and our knowledge environment. Limiting its role in promoting, spreading and improving knowledge is like building a bike but wiping out all of the grease.

    It is no accident that both Wikipedia, the Open Knowledge Foundation, the Free Knowledge Institute – and many others – do not accept the NC restriction.

    About collaboration, think that if you combine NC contributions from ten people into a new work that you might eventually want or need to use commercially, you need to clear 10 permissions. If you combine 100 expressions, that’s 100 permissions. And if only one of them doesn’t want to allow you, or wants to charge you an abusive amount, or is not reachable by the time, you can do nothing about it. And the funny thing is, if you contributed to it yourself, and one day need to use it in a commercial setting, you also have to get those 99 permissions! That’s why I usually say that NC actually stands for Non-Collaborative.

    A big corporation will have no problem handling that. But in fact a big corporation would just take anyone else’s thing. The fact that it is CC licensed or whatever doesn’t even affect their reasoning. They already suppose they’ll need to pay for stuff, and the amount they pay authors is in most cases marginal. Their profits or modus operandi don’t change the slightest bit.

    If you want to protect yourself from big corporations, use the SA clause. That makes sure anyone committed to openness can still use it, from the little people to a big business, but corporations who do not contribute thei work and their improvements back, even for you to use those improvements commercially, won’t be able to. And they will always need to add value to it, and share that value with everyone, because the original is already available from you. And if a big business is really open and uses your work, you also get the credit and the economic benefits that come from reputation.

    NC makes it hard to collaborate, has a hight risk of abuse to regular people, promotes monopoly and big corporations – even if not as much as all rights reserved, – and promotes the idea that knowledge is property and not a common good of humanity.

    You may want ot use NC for whatever reasons you have, but please don’t promote NC as if it were something open.



    • This is phrased somewhat personally, but I’ll try to respond as best I can. I don’t think I’d phrase it as my knowledge being my property, but perhaps it is – I have worked harder for it than for the other things the law considers my property (my car, my money) and it is intrinsic to me regardless of whether the information or data came from elsewhere. That is what learning is – making ones knowledge ones own. Whether you agree with that or not, it is certainly my choice to share that knowledge with others. In fact, I am paid to do so, by a public institution operating for the public good. When I share something, I want it to remain as public as my sharing is.

      The CC license ensures nothing – it is based on an idea rather than a legal construct. Wikipedia is open but they don’t have NC so they can do things like sell books of Wikipedia articles, something I’ve recently been looking into. But MIT and Berkeley and Stanford do, so the question is what the difference is. Education is quickly becoming a business, which may not appropriate for a free society. I have chosen not to have my work contribute to that business.

      In my case, the “little person” has more access to any of my work than a corporation anyway, because I give permission to them to use but not corporations.

      I also think of collaboration as being a voluntary thing, meaning people voluntarily working together, rather than just using each others’ stuff and asking for license permissions.

      I think I’ve been pretty clear about the reasons for NC, and it’s clear we disagree. NC does keep my work more open because that way no one can close it.