Encouraging Student Creativity with Creative Commons
I’m often amazed by the lack of discussion in education technology circles about copyright. Sure, people talk about it occasionally, but given the increasing number of young people (read: millions of them) uploading their own content to the Internet, it surprises me how many educators don’t make a point at teaching copyright basics to students. That’s why I thought it would be worth spending a little time talking about the issue and an amazing online initiative that every Internet-using educator should know about: Creative Commons.
The idea behind copyright is simple: if you create an original work, such as book, a song or a film, you should be able to profit from it without being exploited by others. This has always been very important to individual artists who make a living off their work - if others could rip off your content without compensating you, you might not be able to make a living as an artist.
In today’s world, copyright has become a lot more complicated. Ever since the advent of digital recording and the ability to upload large files to the Internet, everyone with Internet access could theoretically become distributors of other people’s content, even without their permission. Think about those news stories last year when the music recording industry started suing teenagers for distributing commercial MP3 files online. The reason why stuff like this didn’t happen previously was because the average kid growing up in the 70s or 80s didn’t have the tools to make high-quality reproductions of commercial music and share them with millions of people. I certainly made my share of mix tapes back in the day, but even if the recording industry knew about them, they wouldn’t have wasted their time. The reproduction quality was poor and my audience was rarely ever larger than one or two people at a time. Simply put, digital recording tools and the Internet changed everything.
But the copyright wars aren’t just limited to combating teens that swap mp3 files online. With more and more kids remixing other people’s audio and video into their own original content, these young people are exposing themselves to certain legal risks. For example, last week I blogged about a really amazing student-produced video about social injustices around the world. It was a great example of youth media, except for one thing - they used a song by the band Coldplay as their soundtrack. If this were just a school project seen only within the confines of the classroom walls, it really wouldn’t be an issue. But the Internet allowed these students to share their work with a worldwide audience. Gone are the days when teachers, students and parents are the only viewers of a classroom media project. With the creation of YouTube.com and video blogging, that same project can be seen by hundreds of thousands of viewers.
And that bothers many commercial content publishers, because many of them generate a significant part of their income by licensing clips of their work to people who need it. Take the song “Happy Birthday to You” - yes, the song everyone sings at birthday parties. Arguably the best known song in the English language, it’s also a registered copyright work until the year 2030. That means every time the song appears in a movie or other commercial work, the owners of the song expect to get paid for it. Next time you see a movie that includes the song, watch the credits and you’ll find an acknowledgment to the song’s publisher.
It’s tempting to think that student media projects like the social injustice video would simply fall under “fair use,” but many commercial copyright holders don’t see it that way. That’s why even nonprofit documentary makers struggle to get their works finished when they incorporate other people’s creative work, intentionally or not. The award winning PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize was out of circulation for years because they couldn’t afford to pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars in licensing fees for songs relevant to the civil rights era that were featured in the film.
So what’s an educator to do? Young people need to learn that incorporating other people’s original work is fine for personal use, but the moment they put content online, it’s a whole new ballgame. And since I’m not aware of any school having a line item in their budget for students to license commercial music and video clips, they need to find other sources of content that won’t cost them any money. That’s where Creative Commons enters the pictures.
Creative Commons (CC) is an online copyright initiative led by Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig. Lessig and his colleagues realized that the Internet could be an amazing tool for sharing original content, but content producers only had two options for sharing their work. One option was to declare their work “public domain,” allowing anyone in the world to use it - and profit off of it. The other option was to declare it “All Rights Reserved” - which is a simple way of saying, “If anyone wants to use this content for any reason whatsoever, you need to negotiate with me first.” Neither of these options was ideal for millions of people who simply wanted to have their original content used by others without getting exploited in the process.So the Creative Commons team created a collection of simple, straightforward licenses that could be applied to any type of content, spelling out exactly how you would want the content to be used. For example, check out my personal blog and you’ll see a little Creative Commons button near the bottom of the right column. This button links to what’s called a Noncommercial-Attribution-ShareAlike license. The license declares that anyone can feel free to use the content posted on my blog, including editing it, disseminating it and incorporating it into their own creative works, as long as they follow three basic tenets:
- Their use is noncommercial in nature;
- They attribute me as the source;
- They pass along the exact same copyright license to the next generation of users.
Because of this license, people from all over the world are able to utilize my content for whatever purposes they want, as long as it follows these basic rules. For example, a museum in Georgia recently used one of my videos for an exhibit they were curating on West African textiles. They were nice enough to contact me about it, but they didn’t have to - the CC license laid out my expectations, and they could use the video immediately as long as those expectations were followed. Almost every week I get an email from an educator asking to use some piece of media I’ve published, and I always tell them, “No need to ask,” pointing them to my CC license. You can almost see the lightbulbs going off in their heads when they figure out how the license works.
Granted, I’m just one guy who’s nice enough to share his original work with the public, and one guy can’t make a difference, right? Thankfully, this isn’t the case, because millions of people have started to use Creative Commons to publish their own content. Take a look at the website Flickr.com, perhaps the most popular photo sharing tool on the Internet. They’ve incorporated CC licenses into the website, so anyone who sets up a photo album there can choose a license that best suits their needs. You’re not required to use a CC license, but the option is there - and people are embracing the idea. The number of photos published under a CC license there is staggering. For example, there are more than five million photos that have been published under the Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike license. Another 1.8 million photos simply require attribution by the user, while nearly 2.5 million more photos are available with an Attribution-Noncommercial license - in other words, they don’t require the person using them to apply the same license when they re-use the photos. That’s nearly 10 million photos that you and your students can start using right now, no questions asked. Just follow the tenets of whichever Creative Commons license they used, and you’re good to go.
Looking for music rather than photos? Go no further than Magnatune Records. They have an enormous catalog of music from around the world, all licensed using Creative Commons. Your students can incorporate their music into their videos, podcasts or any other project that requires music. As long as you follow their CC license, you can even post the results of their work online. Individual musicians are getting into the act as well - bands like Pearl Jam and the Beastie Boys have released select tracks using Creative Commons licenses. David Byrne and Brian Eno even set up a website where people could download the original source files of one of their songs so people could remix it to their heart’s content.
All sorts of content can now be found with Creative Commons licenses. And because the licenses get embedded into the websites that host this content, it’s easy to find using tools like the Creative Commons search engine. Just tell the search engine what you’re looking for and how you plan to use the content, and it’ll generate a list of content sources relevant to your needs. Yahoo also has a Creative Commons Search page for conducting similar media scavenger hunts for student projects.
From my perspective, the Internet wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for Creative Commons. Millions of Internet users were given the confidence to publish their own original work while encouraging others to build upon it. This has contributed directly to the flourishing of Web 2.0 culture, as more people than ever are sharing their videos, photos and other content online. Thanks to Creative Commons, educators have an amazing collection of media that can be incorporated into their students’ projects. Who knew? -andy
Bonus material: For those of you who want to teach your students about copyright as part of a lesson plan, be sure to download a copy of Bound By Law?, an extraordinary comic book created to explain the intricacies of copyright and articulate the rights of content producers who wish to incorporate other peoples’ work. It’s an amazing comic book, written by experts at Duke law school - and it’s available on a Creative Commons license. :-)