Creative Commons Has Failed Me and My Heart is Breaking

Update: YouTube did take down the spammer copies of my videos – I am glad this worked out but still will move away from CC-BY for some of my material

Update: Bill Fitzgerald wrote an excellent post about this and points out that Createspace actually has a policy about this. That is great news – it was not the case several years back. I also get accused of histrionics by one of the commenters in his blog. I probably am guilty of histronics.

I understand that this is the fault of Copyright Law and not Creative Commons per se, but I am at the point where I will be using CC licenses on my materials less and less.

I am 100% committed to allowing reasonable use, reuse, remixing, translation, republishing of my materials, even commercial and non-commercial.

So for me, I have been using the CC-BY license for years, wanting to give the maximum flexibility to those who would come into possession of my materials. I don’t want to add the SA, NC, or ND to my licenses because that limits the freedom of those using/adapting my materials.

It turns out that the only thing that I don’t want people to do is simply clone my materials with no value add at all and put up cloned copies of my materials on competitive sites as link and search bait. It is like my material is trapped in a content slum. You might think that search engines can tell the difference between me publishing my content and some scumbag replicating it in a content slum – but they can’t – when enough slums exist the original is lost in the noise.

These unethical spammers are not making derivative works (they merely clone my materials) and they are not trying to limit redistribution – so they are *technically* perfectly legal w.r.t. CC-BY.

If they did something like translated my work into multiple languages or even auto-tuned my lectures it would be awesome and great.

So for now, I am going to start converting my materials away from any CC license unless I am willing to have 1000 useless spammers duplicate the materials I am creating. Some materials I will still release as CC-BY – but my richest and most well-developed materials will be All Rights Reserved with some kind of asterisk.

Perhaps I will write up my own Copyright License that tries to give flexibility and options to those who would use my materials responsible manner while prohibiting evil spammers from using my work as link bait.

I doubt that there is any legal way to capture what I really want. Sadly, “All Rights Reserved”, while reprehensible at least gives me recourse when spammers decide my stuff is worth ripping off.

Sad sad sad. My heart is breaking. It almost brings me to tears to think about it.

It would be great if I were wrong – but I don’t think I am.

Note: I would add in passing that software can use a trademark to protect this brand while allowing flexible copyright licensing. But since books videos and other similar materials cannot take advantage of trademark protection for a brand I have to fall back to All Rights Reserved.

Note: My son Brent (the musician) is sitting here doing his Algebra homework and watching as I write this. He looked closely at CC for his work a few years back and felt that it made no sense at all. He would almost certainly let anyone who asked use his work – all they have to do is ask. He sits here wondering why it took me so long to figure it out and why I am feeling so bad about switching to All Rights Reserved and just saying ‘yes’ to requests for reasonable reuse.

Update: Commenters pointed out that spammers will ignore copyright – that is of course true. But if those spammers are using a well-known site like YouTube or Amazon Createspace as the outlet for their competitive clones of CC-BY materials – those sites will correctly say “too bad” when you ask them to take it down. Google’s web search is better at catching and punishing “content slums” – but other sites search engines like YouTube and Amazon that are merely looking at their internal content can’t tell the difference between the original CC-BY content and a useless duplicate.

16 thoughts on “Creative Commons Has Failed Me and My Heart is Breaking

  1. Alex Ballesté

    Unfortunately that kind of things happen again and again. Each time somebody do something great for people (like publishing these videos with CC licences), other guys abuse and then all we lose. Sad to read these lines.

  2. Chris Leonard

    The owners of these content slums will likely not pay any attention to the copyright of the content they are silo-ing. There is enough All Rights Reserved material in these sites to suggest they do a screenscrape, or similar, and ignore the content owner’s rights. I suspect they are only conforming to the CC BY licence by accident, not design. Sorry to be so negative, but I don’t honestly think that will be anything of a disincentive for these people.

  3. Bill Fitzgerald

    A couple additional steps you could take:

    1. In your videos/materials, include links back to your site, and information about the CC license that your work is released under. This way, even if someone comes across your content on a spam site, you are still clearly identified as the author.
    2. On your site, specify how you want to be attributed. If spammers aren’t abiding by those terms, that gives you some additional recourse.
    3. Use the NC and/or SA license variants. This would give you recourse if people were slapping your content up and selling ads.

    This approach would give you more recourse and options, without limiting the more seamless reuse that is supported by open licensing.

    And, if you are already doing any/all of these things, please ignore this :)

  4. Charles Severance Post author

    Bill – that is pretty much what I am going to do except that I will mark all my material that I want to keep from spammers as “All Rights Reserved” with a link back to a site where I explicitly list the acceptable forms of reuse that I am happy to encourage.

    It will consist of statements like (1) “If you are translating this material into a new language, you can license this under CC-BY” instead of ARR or (2) “If you are incorporating a small amount of my material (such as a few slides or a bit of audio) into a larger work, you can license under CC-BY or (3) “If you are significantly revising my materials to localize it or make it more suitable for your own use locally, you can license this as CC-BY-SA” or (4) “If you have made so many modifications to my work that my content is less than 40% of the material in the new work, you can licens my work as CC-BY”.

    The problem of course is that I am not a lawyer and don’t have a lawyer so me building a copyright license document is fraught with peril because I am 200% sure to get it wrong.

  5. Mike Caulfield (@holden)

    Chuck — can you tweet out the link to that page you are writing up when you finish it? I think our sense of use might be similar, and maybe I could reuse some of the language.

    I hit different problems with CC-BY on a course I was building — the question/answer bank was importable from the Common Cartridge export, and it occurred to me that it licensing it CC-BY essentially allows it to be shared with any student taking the tests. I wanted to assert that it was free for teachers while maintaining takedown rights on things like Course Hero. You can’t really get to that level of subtlety with CC licenses.

    The ultimate copyright notice would probably be “I’ve made this easy for you to reuse, because I believe in making the world a better place. Don’t be a dick.”

  6. Billy Meinke

    Dr. Chuck- Bill’s suggestions are helpful, and it looks like you’re doing what you can to protect your content from unwanted use.

    Your use of the more liberal CC licenses is commendable; I really enjoy seeing that. Unfortunately, just as plagiarism is a problem for the academy and not something licensing can fully prevent, unwanted use (or that which violates copyright) is something the online community is still figuring out how to deal with. CC licenses make it easy to communicate the rights you are granting openly, and as others have mentioned, ARR on your work won’t necessarily protect your content from misuse. I would recommend staying away from custom licenses unless they are used on an (non-exclusive) case-by-case basis, as they may limit downstream legal interoperability of your content.

    Forgive me for not knowing more about your content, but where are you hosting/serving it from? Certain platforms make it easier to mark content with machine-readable metadata, including license information.

  7. Charles Severance Post author

    Bill (M) – Here are two situations where I would have recourse but using CC-BY to enable barrier-free responsible reuse – removed my recourse. The first scenario is I write a book, make it CC-BY, provide a free electronic copy, and publish at a low price on Lulu so those who want a printed copy can get it. An unscrupulous person grabs the electronic copy and with no changes puts it up on Amazon Createspace and starts selling it. Createspace *would* take the book down if it was ARR but not if it is CC-BY. Second scenario – I have a Coursera course with 40 video lecture snippets that range from 2 to 15 minutes that work nicely when sequenced properly in the Coursera software but look silly when viewed out of context. I put the first two of the 40 lectures on YouTube because they made sense but did not put all 40 up because they would seem chaotic and make the course look silly and disorganized.

    Coursera allows download of high quality videos for those who have bad connections – sometimes a school will download one copy and pass them to many students – or perhaps a company will grab a copy of all the videos and put it up on their intranet behind a firewall. This is great. I license the lecture materials and videos as CC-BY to allow flexible responsible use of all or parts of the lecture materials and videos and because I firmly believe in open educational resources and permission-free remix/reuse etc. But one (out of over 100,000) students decides that they will download all my materials and construct their own YouTube channel of my materials. I contact youTube and ask for a take down request and of course since they are CC-BY – even as the owner of the materials I have no standing in my take down request.

    We are talking two situations where YouTube and Createspace *will* enforce copyright – but only ARR. And NC does solve the book on Createspace problem but limits translations and means that many copy shops will not allow the material to be used in course packs. So my goal is unfettered reuse in those situations (99.9999% of the time) that are responsible and stopping reuse in those situations that are irresponsible.

    If you look in the above comment from Mike Caulfield – you see yet another example. He wants to build a test item bank and license it for responsible reuse with a CC-style liense. But once that happens, someone gets a copy and puts up a web site with all the questions and all the answers as search and link bait. We all see instantly that this is not the intended putpose of the liberal license – but there is no legal recourse because the material is CC-BY.

    It comes down to the nearly impossible task of separating responsible from irresponsible reuse of materials. And ARR seems to be the only solution. I idly wonder of something like CC-Infinity (the opposite of CC0) is what I want. The default license is ARR and I pre-approve the following exceptions. As an example, “My book is ARR, but if you are translating it into a new language and publishing it, you can convert the license from ARR to CC-BY.”

    Or as Mike says above “but don’t be a dick”. But international law does not have a precise definition for “don’t be a dick” – so we use the license that international law *does* understand – ARR and do so with a very heavy heart, never knowing how much innovation we have killed because we are trying to stop the dicks of this world from abusing our content.

    Over the next few days, I will be replacing all the CC-BY licenses in my Coursera materials and replacing them with ARR. It goes against everything I hold dear to even utter those three words, let alone put them on materials that I have lovingly built for so long with the sole purpose to give them away and share them as broadly as I possibly can and empower as many teachers to make derivative works as I can.

    Mean people suck.

  8. John Iglar

    This really does suck …but it does go with the territory. And there really is no final solution. You can post your materials as ARR, but people will still take. Sure, you’ll have recourse but you’ll have to find and take action.

    It really seems that the problems you’ve faced could be dealt with by some combination of NC/ND/SA (yes, that limits – but isn’t that what you want?) plus some marking and links to your site in all your materials. (Post the 40 videos. Include a credit card at the beginning with a number. “This is video #14 in a series of 40. Original material at”) Plenty more work for you, though.

    There’s been debate about what OER and MOOCs and free courses and suchlike will mean for competent and capable teachers like yourself. Maybe you’ve got the right idea – mark it ARR and give permission to those who are responsible enough to ask.

    (But people will steal steal.)

  9. Charles Severance Post author

    John, the problem comes from high-value self-published distribution channels like YouTube and Createspace. Frankly I don’t care if someone makes a web site called and puts up a copy there. But when they publish and collect money for a book on Createspace and make it so I cannot publish *my own book* on Createspace because they were first and my book was CC-BY – that is a problem. If my book is ARR – Createspace will take the offending book down in 1 second and YouTube will take it down in a few days – as long as the copyright is ARR and I am the copyright holder.

    And NC/ND/SA stops all the reuse patterns that I want to enable and rarely stops things that I want to prohibit. So it is ARR + easy-to-get-permission. But what happens if I get hit by a bus and my content is stranded in ARR because I cannot give permission from the grave?

    This makes me sooo angry because I feel powerless and feel that I am forced to so something bad because there is no possible way for me to do the good that I want to do.

    I badly want Creative Commons to put their lawyer heads together and give me a license that meets my needs and meets the needs of Open Educational Resource authors. As the quality of OER materials increases, they will need increased protection. CC is fine when I take a picture of the Eiffel Tower and put it up on Flickr.

  10. John Iglar

    I think you are in a great position to raise this issue with Creative Commons …you are exactly the kind of high-profile & productive teacher who will continue to create OER …only IF this is sorted out. If someone from CC approached Amazon, shouldn’t they be able to sort this out?

    Licensing CC-BY should not prevent you from using your own work. There’s legal language in the license that says, “You must not distort, mutilate, modify or take other derogatory action in relation to the Work which would be prejudicial to the Original Author’s honor or reputation.” Sounds like this could be a case.

    Strength to you.

  11. libre fan

    Hello Dr Chuck,

    Sad to read about your bad experience with CC, but maybe, you might look at your misadventures from another point of view.

    As Bill Fitzgerald writes, you can:
    “1. In your videos/materials, include links back to your site, and information about the CC license that your work is released under. This way, even if someone comes across your content on a spam site, you are still clearly identified as the author.
    2. On your site, specify how you want to be attributed. If spammers aren’t abiding by those terms, that gives you some additional recourse.”

    Contrary to what Bill suggests, I wouldn’t use ND, NC for the reasons you rightly state.

    I would keep my CC,BY and add SA, maybe. Even if some scumbag makes money out of your book or material, you aren’t prevented from selling it, or a better version of it, even if Scumbag puts a ARR on it, since your original work is CC.

    Better still, if Scumbag makes it ARR, other scumbags are prevented from using it.

    If Scumbag doesn’t include your name and such, you can act, can’t you? CC protects you as well as ARR, from that perspective.

    If somebody is stupid enough to buy your book from a scumbag while you give away your work on your own website, let them be. I’m sure more enlightened people will look for the reliable source. Amazon sells “Kindle-Swindles” copies of books you can find on or on Gutenberg, free from DRM and in various formats. Too bad for the gullible and the sloppy people. More aware people would never link to the Amazon copy but to better source.

    Perhaps, serious people should stop posting stuff on youtube and social networks, have their own servers, or on uni. servers. I think this would be the best possible way to prevent gross abuse of your work. Of course, you need money to host videos on a server, but as a Michigan U Dr. you might have access to their servers.

    Maybe, in your case, the uni. should be involved in having CC respected just as they certainly protect other material in some way, or don’t they care?

    Flinging CC and other free licences on the rubbish heap doesn’t seem to be the right solution. Even hiding CC behind ARR isn’t the right way. It’s like saying scumbags have won.

    The way I look at it is scumbags won’t go away but what matters is having an independent place where your material is safely hosted. Was Einstein capable of preventing abuse of his findings? Does it make his work less relevant? Who would say Einstein = Hiroshima, to put it bluntly?
    So if we’re able to make the difference, you could also enable serious people to make the difference between Dr. Chuck’s work and the clones, because your material would be hosted on a server you can control.

    Sorry for the over-long comment.

  12. Kerry Raymond

    I share your concerns. I too would like to use CC licensing with resources I create but I don’t. I don’t have a problem with someone who wants to re-use my content for the purposes it was created (mostly famiy and local history) but object to finding it copied in entirety and wrapped in advertising or requiring some kind of subscription to access it, or using it as “bait” to catch Internet users for some other purpose eg malware, scams, etc.

  13. Pete Forsyth

    Dr. Chuck: to follow on what Bill F and Billy M have said, you should know that contributors to Wikipedia and Wikimedia sites have successfully extracted money from well established publishers (newspapers and the like) for failing to properly attribute with a link to both the author’s site and the license terms. Unless these spammers have been super diligent, you may be able to get paid, and/or get them to take down their content, with a simple DMCA takedown notice. I understand how this is not ideal, but look at it this way: by taking actions like that, you are improving the environment for others who wish to share like yourself.

  14. Pete Forsyth

    This blog post has stuck with me, and I feel compelled to ask. Where on earth did you come up with that headline? How has Creative Commons failed you? What promise did CC make to you that it has broken?

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