Tag Archives: copyright


I’ve written many times about the wonderfulness that is open source and free software. Going along with it is free culture and open sharing. It’s a beautiful thing when people give freely, expecting nothing in return but allowing others to use their work and build on it.

This past month I’ve been building some materials for our Middle School classes to use in Digital Citizenship lessons. I’ve published them within the school and I’m prepping them for proper publishing to the whole community. I could not have done this without other people sharing their work freely and generously.

A resource that I have used heavily in this is Pixabay, one of my favorite photo-sharing sites. It houses lots of gorgeous photographs as well as carefully-crafted clip art …and all of it is free, with no strings attached. All the images are licensed CC0 or public domain. That means anyone (me!) can download the images and use them to create new things without worrying about accreditation or needing to cite sources. (I always do for school work and often do on this blog.)

flowers-945450_640It is wonderful that people take beautiful photographs and then offer them completely free, with no strings attached. That act of sharing in and of itself is a beautiful thing.

I’m proud to say that I’ve contributed some of my own work to the site and that some of my few offerings have been downloaded, liked and (I presume) used. I’m happy if someone finds my photographs worthwhile or helpful …and I get a great feeling that I’m sharing and helping others.

If you haven’t used Pixabay, go check it out. If you like the free photographs that people share on it, give them some thanks. And then share something of your own!

Credits: the gorgeous image of the aurora borealis is from janeb13. The hands holding flowers are from the always terrific Unsplash. Freely licensed. Thanks!

Free for all: the public domain

Mona Lisa (La Giocanda) by Leonardo da Vinci – from Wikimedia Commons – used under public domain

There comes a point when copyright and free licensing aren’t right; when the original creator’s right to own his/her artistic work becomes less important than the right of every person to have access to and use that work. At this point, the work becomes public domain: something that is the property of anyone and everyone.

There are some things that belong to everyone: the air we breathe, sunlight, etc. Similarly, there are public spaces – village greens, town squares, etc. – that are for the use of everyone. Similarly, there is an area of intellectual creativity that is available to everyone: the public domain. These works are for everyone to use, share, re-use, remix, etc.

After an artist or creator dies and the copyright on his/her work expires, that work passes into the public domain. The plays of Shakespeare, the symphonies of Beethoven, the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, etc, are all in the public domain: nobody owns the rights to them, so that anyone and everyone can use them.

There is some difference and disagreement as to exactly when a work protected by copyright laws passes into the public domain. Most countries rule that either 50 or 70 years after the death of the creator, copyright protection expires. The United States has changed its laws several times, so the determination of when a work enters the public domain in the US is very complicated. See this explanation.

by Public Domain Pictures – from Pixabay – licensed CC0/Public Domain

Derivative works based on works in the public domain can be protected by copyright. So if I create an artwork based on the Mona Lisa but incorporating my own personal touches, I can copyright that work. Similarly, while the music of Beethoven or Mozart has entered the public domain, any performances of their works can be protected by copyright laws.

Anyone can voluntarily give up their rights to copyright and donate their work to the public domain. Creative Commons has created a CC0 license that creators can apply to their work which gives up all rights. This allows people to use their work in any way they wish …even without attribution.

There are many places to find works in the public domain which you can use, enjoy, share, and incorporate into your own creative works. Here are a few places to start:

  • Public Domain Review: a site celebrating and sharing a variety of works that are in the public domain. Read their Guide to Finding Interesting Public Domain Works Online.
  • Europeana: a collection celebrating and promoting the cultural works of Europe. (Note: not everything on the site is necessarily public domain, but the site is committed to public access to culture, and much of the site is available under open licenses.
  • NASA: all the amazing photographs and videos taken by NASA spacecraft and astronauts are automatically entered into the public domain. All works created by US government employees in the course of their work become public domain because they are paid for by (US) public funds. NASA is just one example.
  • Pixabay: a curated photography site (editors check submissions for quality) with all submitted photographs (or vector graphics) licensed CC0. (I have submitted photographs here – and some weren’t selected. Photographs selected by this site are generally of high quality.)
  • Project Gutenberg: fill up your e-reader for free: Project Gutenberg has tens of thousands of free e-books that are in the public domain.
  • Flickr’s The Commons: photographs from a variety of sources that are all public domain.
  • Musopen: a music site that has public domain performances – recordings that are free to download, listen to, remix, sample, etc. The site also offers public domain sheet music, and has sponsored recordings to be entered into the public domain. For example, the site commissioned recordings of the complete works of Frederic Chopin.
  • Public Domain Day: less of a source of public domain works, and more a commentary on the state of public domain in the US. This site celebrates works that are released into the public domain every year on January 1st. Or at least, released into the public domain in Canada or Europe. As the site notes, nothing will be released into the public domain in the US until 2019!
  • Public Domain Sherpa: a site devoted to giving information and help in finding works in the public domain in the US.
  • Public Domain Movies: there are various sites that host movies that are in the public domain. The Internet Archive is a great source of classic copyright-free movies, as well as other copyright-free media.
Cross-posted from my school blog.

Sharing for the common good: the Creative Commons

from Wikimedia Commons – license public domain

Once upon a time, people thought it was great to share stories, music, painting. They’d listen to others, tell their own, and spread creativity around. Shakespeare used others’ ideas to craft new plays that were highly entertaining and thought-provoking. Mozart took other tunes and weaved them into new works. Sculptors, painters, and other artists learned from each other and crafted artwork that incorporated themes and elements from others.

In this age of commercial entertainment, however, copyright is king and those who would like to incorporate elements of songs, stories, or videos that they enjoy into their own work are threatened with the strong arm of the law. Videos get taken down from YouTube, teens get threatened with lawsuits for piracy, and famous writers get stricken off lists for “stealing” from others’ books.

In an effort to restore the idea of the common good and encourage creativity and sharing, Creative Commons was founded with a system of licensing creative works that preserved the creator’s rights but allowed for others to, share, re-use and re-mix artistic works. Today, millions of creative works (books, articles, photographs, artwork, music, videos, etc) are licensed using Creative Commons licenses that allow anyone (you!) to download them freely and use them yourself in your own work.

Why would an artist want to do that? Doesn’t it promote stealing?

A. David Holloway – Wikimedia Commons – CC-BY

Many artists and creators do want to use free Creative Commons licenses because those licenses preserve their rights to be credited with their work but also allow others to share and remix the work. This not only encourages more creativity, it also promotes their work. Musicians get heard when people watch videos using their work. Photographers get seen when people see their photos in a blog post. And this increased exposure helps them get more widely known and, ultimately, more successful.

All Creative Commons licenses include a requirement to attribute the original source of the work. People who use CC-licensed works respect that and give attribution …and this promotes the original artist. And this isn’t stealing: it’s freely sharing.

Watch this video to get an idea of how Creative Commons licenses work and why artists would want to use them.

So I can use these things as I wish?

by Foter – licensed CC-BY-SA

No. The key phrase for Creative Commons is “some rights reserved.” CC licenses have different elements that put particular requirements on how the work can be used. Different licenses can combine different elements, but there are four basic components:

  • Attribution: all CC licenses (except CC0/public domain) require you to say who created the original work that you used. This preserves the original creator’s ownership of their work.
  • Share-Alike: this element means that any work that incorporates this piece must use the same license. This expands the use of CC licenses.
  • No Derivatives: this element means that the work cannot be modified but must be used as it was originally created. This preserves the integrity of the original piece.
  • Non-Commercial: this element means that any use of this work must not be for sale.

This means that an artist can decide exactly how other people can use his/her work. It gives control and freedom to the creator while also letting others share and use their creations.

If you want a more detailed explanation, watch this video about CC licenses that explains the different elements.

Where can I find CC-licensed work?

flickrlicensesearchThere are many sources of CC-licensed work around the internet. Here are some places to start:

  • Use the Creative Commons search tool (you can even add it to your browser)
  • Some of my favorite sources for images:
    • Pixabay: An edited site of photographs and illustrations, all licensed CC0/public domain. Some beautiful photographs!
    • Flickr: Use the advanced search to find photographs with CC licenses or public domain works.
    • Wikimedia Commons: This is the source of media (photos, music, etc) that Wikipedia uses. They all have various open licenses.
  • Some of my favorite sources for music:

How about my work? How can I protect my own work with a CC license?

Licensing your work with a Creative Commons license is as simple as choosing which license you want to use, and then labeling your work with it. It’s that easy!


Cross-posted from my school blog.

Copyright: it’s not just a good idea. It’s the law!

copyright_bewareWhen someone makes something, it is theirs to do with as they wish. If you make food, you can eat it, give it away, sell it. If you build a house, you can live in it or sell it. You choose what happens to your property.

There’s a difference with the things you make with your mind. If you come up with a  song, or write a book, or design a logo, or create a painting, for the most part what you have made is intangible. It can’t be held and passed on to one other person. It can, however, be spread to many people – especially in this digital age.

It therefore becomes a little harder for someone who makes what’s termed intellectual property to maintain control of their creation. If I write a song, it might be sung by other people. It could spread around the world and be sung by millions of people. (I should be so lucky!)

copyrightTo help protect the creators of intellectual property (initially, the writers of books and their publishers), the legal concept of copyright was created. Laws were passed recognizing the right of creators to control their work and decide how it would be spread. (“Copyright” meant the creator – or publisher – has the right to copy that work.) There are now copyright laws in every country, and most countries have signed the Berne Convention which provides for copyright protection across national boundaries.

What does this mean for students and parents?

For creative students & parents who write poems, books, essays, blogs (like this one!), etc. or compose music, create videos, take photographs, etc. it means that there are legal systems in place to protect your work and ensure that you can control who uses it. It means that if someone else takes your work and uses it without your permission, there is a legal mechanism that you can use to stop that.

If you’re not creating work but interested in using someone else’s work – in school work or for your own personal work – it means that you can do so with the copyright holder’s permission. (It might be the creator, or it might be the publisher.)

How do I get permission to use something?

You write to the copyright holder and ask. It can be very simple. I’ve done it, and so have other teachers and students. It can get more complicated if the copyright holder is a big corporation.

What if I don’t want to ask permission or I can’t reach the copyright holder?

lady-justice-677945_1280There are provisions in copyright law to allow people to use protected works under certain conditions. This is called fair use of protected works. Your use of copyright-protected works may be fair use according to these four criteria:

  • The purpose and nature of how you use the work: if your use is transformative (that is, if it changes the nature of the work), then that is generally considered fair use. For example, if you use a work in a piece of criticism or analysis (a book review or an academic analysis) it is generally considered fair use. (This is what protects most students’ use of copyright-protected works in their school work.)
  • How much of the work you use: if you use a lot of the protected work (or all of it), that is generally considered less fair use than if you use a small portion. (The amount will vary: you should only use part of a long, epic poem while you might have to use all of a haiku.)
  • Whether your work will impact the ability of the creator (or copyright holder) to make money off their work. (If your work will limit the artist’s ability to sell their creation, then it’s not fair use.)
  • What kind of work you are using: if the original work is more factual, then it’s easier to claim fair use.

Fair use is not a strictly defined notion. It can cause problems for the artist: a famous case was of Shepard Fairey’s famous “Hope” poster of US President Barack Obama. Fairey used a photograph as basis for his poster, and considered his changing of that photograph into a cartoonish poster as fair use. This was taken to court and he had to settle with the copyright holder of the photograph.

Could I get in trouble for using copyright-protected work in my school assignment?

If a student properly cites his/her sources, and abides by the guidelines of fair use, then generally students can use copyright-protected works.

There have been cases where students have had problems, generally by posting entire works online or distributing protected works.

What if I use copyright-protected work in my own personal work?

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 8.59.46 AM
If you follow the fair use guidelines, you should be OK. As Shepard Fairey found out, those guidelines are not clear-cut.

Students do have problems with using protected works – perhaps the most common thing is that student videos uploaded to YouTube using protected music are taken down for violating copyright.

There is a lot of commercial music videos on YouTube, which generally fall into a few categories: official videos approved of by the artist/studio, licensed uses of the music (YouTube has a feature called AudioSwap which allows you to use commercial music on your video), videos that are allowed or ignored (possibly with advertisements attached) and videos that slip through the cracks. According to YouTube’s own statistics, 300 hours of videos are uploaded to YouTube every minute. This means that there is far more video on the service than can possibly be effectively policed.

What if I download protected movies or music for my own personal use?

You are violating the right of the creator (or copyright holder – the company that produces & sells the movie or music) to decide how they want to distribute the work. You’ve probably found the music or movie from someone who has made an illegal copy of the work, and are therefore benefiting from someone else’s criminal activity.

That being said, there are many people who do exactly this. There are people who argue that it should be acceptable to download music for free, and others who rebut those arguments. In the end, it’s an individual’s ethical choice of whether or not to do this …but there’s no denying that it goes against copyright laws and copyright protection.

For other options of how to use and license work, see my other posts about Creative Commons licenses, the public domain, and academic honesty.

Image sources: the ©! image and dictionary photo are by me. The photo of the justice statue is by Ajel, taken from Pixabay, used under public domain. The featured image of the judge is a photograph by Mr. Barraud, taken from Flickr, used under public domain. Screenshot of Mashable page by me.


Cross-posted from my school blog.

Sharing a good read

by Joy Ito - CC-BY
Cory Doctorow by Joi Ito CC-BY

Reading books is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Losing yourself in a story and coming out with a sense of joy and wonder is fantastic. If you can learn something along the way it’s even better. (I love reading nonfiction, so if fiction can teach me something I’m really grateful.)

An author who brings me much happiness and satisfaction is Cory Doctorow. I find his books (both fiction and nonfiction) thoroughly enjoyable as well as rewarding. What’s more, I greatly admire how he markets and distributes his work.


The most important thing about any book is, “is it any good?” If it’s not an enjoyable read, then whatever it says doesn’t matter at all. I thoroughly enjoy Doctorow’s writing and find it gripping and engaging. I really can’t put his books down: once I get stuck into a story, I want to keep reading and find out what happens next.

I was sick of cars driving right past me. The next time a car appeared down Market Street, I stepped right out into the road, waving my arms over my head, shouting “STOP.” The car slewed to a stop and only then did I notice that it wasn’t a cop car, ambulance or fire-engine.

It was a military-looking Jeep, like an armored Hummer, only it didn’t have any military insignia on it. The car skidded to a stop just in front of me, and I jumped back and lost my balance and ended up on the road. I felt the doors open near me, and then saw a confusion of booted feet moving close by. I looked up and saw a bunch of military-looking guys in coveralls, holding big, bulky rifles and wearing hooded gas masks with tinted face-plates.

I barely had time to register them before those rifles were pointed at me. (Little Brother)

I’m a fan, but I’m not a fool. I realize that his style wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. My wife would not enjoy his work. (Fair enough. Much of what she reads doesn’t appeal to me either!) You might not either. There’s really only one way to find out: pick up a book and try it out.

For me, any writer who describes a character as a “sucking chest wound of a human being” is well worth reading.


Besides my admiration for the man being able to create terrific literature, I also love the theme of creating that runs through his books. Many of his main characters are artists or creative types, building or making or composing. He’s got one book, Makers, that’s all about the creation process but his other books abound with movie makers , programmers, and more.

Apart from making his books more fascinating, the different takes on the creative process also makes creativity more real and more reachable. Doctorow writes many books for teens. By making his protagonists artists and creators, he encourages his readers to do the same.

That idea came from me. I created it. It wasn’t lying around, waiting to be picked up like a bunch of pebbles on the beach. It was something that didn’t exist until I made it, and probably wouldn’t have existed unless I did. That’s what ‘to create’ means: to make something new. (Pirate Cinema)

If just one teenager reads one of Doctorow’s books and decides that her own creative impulses are worth pursuing and makes something new and original, I’d say that he has achieved real success.


Doctorow goes into a lot of interesting and thought-provoking ideas in his books, and he explains them well. I’ve used this section from Little Brother in my programming classes to get students excited about the thrill of building programs:

If you’ve never programmed a computer, you should. There’s nothing like it in the whole world. When you program a computer, it does exactly what you tell it to do. It’s like designing a machine – any machine, like a car, like a faucet, like a gas-hinge for a door – using math and instructions. It’s awesome in the truest sense: it can fill you with awe.

Whether it’s creating programs, editing videos, using 3D printers, encrypting email, hacking security systems …or cold-brewing coffee, taking over abandoned buildings, finding free gourmet food, or any number of other interesting and fascinating real-life tasks, Doctorow’s books always leave me knowing more and wanting to try new things.


What really sets Doctorow apart from other good writers is how he distributes his books. He gives them away for free.

Yes. That’s correct: he gives them away for free. All his books are licensed with a Creative Commons license that retains his rights as author but gives permission for you (and me!) to download his books for free and share them with friends. He recognizes the reality of today’s internet-fueled sharing economy:

I can’t stop you from copying this book (even if I wanted to). I can’t force you to buy it in order to read it (even if I wanted to). All I can do is ask you to consider purchasing it if you enjoyed it. (Pirate Cinema)

To make a living from his writing, he encourages …no, he exhorts the reader to purchase a copy of the book. All his ebooks have “commercial interludes” between chapters with links to online bookstores and calls to buy a copy. (Sometimes – particularly in Pirate Cinema – these commercials are enjoyable enough to read in their own right.) He also encourages people to buy and donate copies of the books for people (usually teachers and librarians) who lack the budget to buy a copy of the book themselves.

These are effective commercial techniques. I’ve bought many copies of his books for others …and if you look at his “donate” pages, there are plenty of people out there like me.

Anyway, time to stop reading my thoughts about Doctorow. Go read one one of his books.


free as a bird

How freely should you share your work?

free as a birdI’ve been thinking about creativity and licensing this weekend. It all comes from making a video.

The Project

I made a short promo for the upcoming Learning 2.014 conference to show in a faculty meeting about all the great presenters we had lined up. It was fun and lively and I figured that I should publish it publicly. And that’s when the issue of copyright reared its ugly head.

I had to dump the music I’d used – it was perfect, but commercial. (I gave credit in the video – fine in a closed meeting, but no good for publicly sharing.) I surfed over to Jamendo and in ten minutes found a great replacement. (Check out Rafiqi’s music – it’s terrific!) With a Creative Commons license, I had permission to use and share. Rafiqi had licensed their song with a share alike (CC-BY-SA) license. So I’d have to publish my video with that license. No problem …I thought.


I realised that the photos from last year’s conference that started the video were mostly licensed with a non-commercial sharealike (CC-BY-NC-SA) license. That was in conflict with CC-BY-SA.

For a moment I thought I’d just live with that. The photographers wouldn’t mind. I wasn’t making a commercial video & I was using the photos in a way they’d approve. But it really wasn’t the right thing to do. The licenses were chosen for a reason by the creators of the work. It really isn’t up to me to guess their intentions. I could write to the photographers and ask for a release …but that’s what CC licenses are meant to avoid.

So I headed to Flickr to find other photos. Sorry, Jeff and Kim: Your photos are nice, but your licenses are too restrictive. Fortunately, Brian and Thomas (and I) use a simple CC-BY license. So I could use their photos with a simple attribution, and no conflict with the CC-BY-SA license of the music. Problem solved. I added the new photos, tidied up the video and published on YouTube. Voila!

Why choose a particular license?

What were the reasons for the choices these artists made for licensing their work? The musicians chose a license that allowed me to sell my video as long as I also published it with a CC-BY-SA license. The photographers didn’t want me to sell my video. They also wanted me to share in the same way. Why the different choices? What’s the right way to choose?

Now, I don’t want to guess at the other photographers’ thinking so I’ll go through my own. I am a teacher. I take photographs. Some of them are good, most are just ordinary. I’m never going to sell my work. If someone else likes one of my photos and wants to sell something using it, good for them. They’re more entrepreneurial than I am. If I get credit, then that’s enough for me.

This is especially true when I’m doing something like taking photos at a conference. I am never ever going to sell or commercially publish one of those photos. And the chances that someone else will is very small.

So I use the CC-BY license. Go ahead and use my work, just give me credit.

And it seems to me that this is the right path for most of us. As teachers, we constantly borrow and share. (And some of us are lazy and don’t think too much about copyright or attribution – I’ve written about that before.) We should make sure that others can borrow and can share our own work.

That’s the idea behind “Free Cultural Works” – things that are put out in the open and available to all. As teachers, we want to promote this – to make sure that there are photos and writings and music and such in the digital commons that all of us – teachers and students and all – can access, use, remix, etc. We want this for ourselves. We want this for our students. We have to help in building it by creating and contributing.

I don’t propose that this be a hard rule. That would be unreasonable especially for teachers who are also professional or pro-am creators. Poets like Bob or photographers like Dave are definitely entitled to protect their creations as much as they like. However, all of us – including the pro creators – can and should choose our licenses with care. If we can publish more freely, then we should. If I’m particularly proud of a photo, then I’m entitled to license it more restrictively. But the more I can make things available for others, the more I’m contributing and helping others create.

To paraphrase Einstein:

Everything should be published as freely as possible, but no freer.

Use me!

As part of a project-based learning week for our grade 9 students, I gave a presentation on copyright, Creative Commons and remixing work. I put together a few resources for the students, gave them a talk and sent them forth. (Based on the number and kinds of questions I got from many of them, they heard!)

I also wanted some posters to hang around school to remind students to look for things that they had permission to use. I found several explaining what the different types of licenses were like (including this very good infographic by Shihaam Donelly), but what I really wanted was something interesting and exciting that tells the students that they can use CC-licensed work. (One of the things I love about Creative Commons licenses is that they are permissive – just as I like rules about what students can do and not lists of “don’t”s.)

So I made one. I used Inkscape (I am really getting to love that program!) and got some advice from our Yearbook teacher about graphic design and put together a poster in about an hour. Here it is:

I’ve added a CC-BY license …if you’d like to use it, please do! You already have permission.

Want a PDF? Click here to download. 

Seeing is stealing

photo by me – go ahead and take it!

A colleague asked me to find out about a photograph she found on the internet. It was a photo of the word “teach” spelled out in blocks, with a wooden heart pendant inserted into the word. (Think “teaching with heart.”) She liked the photo and wanted to know if she could use it.

I did an image search for the photo (Google’s image search was more useful than TinEye in this case) and found a number of sites that were using the image. Most of them had it unattributed, but one cited the photographer and the source of the image.

The photograph is on Flickr: it’s a photograph by Susana (susivinh), who has a large collection of excellent photographs. The “teach” photograph is licensed by Getty Images – you can use it, but you have to pay for it.

I wrote to Susana – she was very happy to answer my questions about the photo. She can’t override the Getty license, but she’s made a lot of her other photos available with a CC-BY-ND license. (Do check them out – they’re beautiful.) She’s a little disappointed that people are using her work without permission and without license. (She told me that nobody has paid to license that image.)

The funny sad thing is that Susana’s photo is used by a number of teachers as part of their blog/portfolio …and they’re violating the photo’s licensing terms. They’ve stolen it.

Teachers: we have to set an example for our students. Every school has an “Academic Honesty” policy …it needs to apply to teachers as well as students. We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to our students to do the right thing. There are plenty of sources of freely licensed material (I’ve written about some before) – teachers should seek those out and use them.

Any beautiful photograph you find on the web was created by a human being. Even if she is not a professional photographer, she bought her camera and lenses, and she has spent time in thinking up and composing the photograph. If you want to use it, you owe it to her to at least get her permission if not pay her for her time and creativity.

(The photo on this post was taken by me. Go ahead and steal it. You have my permission.)