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June 23, 2008

Creative borrowing?

Charles Arthur, What's the right way to talk about copyright stuff? (Guardian Technology, June 23 2008), asks, "How do you describe it when someone sells a photograph they don't have a right to?".

He is referring to the fact that "some people who had put photos on Flickr under a Creative Commons non-commercial licence found that they were being sold on eBay by someone who was claiming the rights to them".

Simple question?

Apparently not - and, judging by the responses to the article, using words like 'theft' and 'steal' clearly rub some people up the wrong way... "The photographs in question simply are not being stolen. They're being copied. No thieves in existence there, but copiers. Illegal copiers I'm sure...".

I have to confess that when I used to talk to my own children about illegally downloading music on the Web I tended to use the analogy of shoplifting, on the basis that each time they downloaded a track they would be denying a shop (and the artist) a sale .  So what was their typical reaction?  Basically, they thought I was completely mad (and they probably weren't wrong - either in the specific or general case!).

As ParkyDR says in a comment on the article: "Nothing has been taken, the original owner still has the photo, in this case even copying it was ok (CC licenced), the license was broken when the photo was sold".

Well, yes...  but it still feels a lot like theft in many ways?  As Nickminers says, "if you make money from a photo that was taken by somebody else, you have effectively stolen the money that the copyright holder should have earned from the sale".

Dvdhldn suggests using the phrase "copyright theft" as a compromise between "theft" and "illegal copying" which sounds reasonable to me.  Whatever... the key point here is that I don't think many people would disagree that selling someone else's CC-BY-NC images without permission is wrong.  The issue is only with what words we should use to label the activity.

So here's a less clear cut scenario...  Brian Kelly tweeted the other day about a new competitor service to Slideshare called AuthorSTREAM.  The new service looks interesting and offers some functionality not currently present in Slideshare, though I have to say I feel slightly uncomfortable about how far the new service has gone to make itself look and feel like the original.

But the service itself isn't the issue.  Brian also noticed that someone had taken copies of a large number of old UKOLN Powerpoint presentations and uploaded them to the AuthorSTREAM site.  I took a look for my own presentations and sure enough, a few of those uploaded were mine.

Hmmm... that's a little annoying.  Or is it?  No, perhaps not - there's no attempt at passing these presentations off as being by someone else so perhaps it is just good visibility.  On the other hand, I know of at least one case where the continued availability of old, technically out of date, material on the Web does more harm than good and I'd prefer to be in control of when I publish my own crap thank you very much.

So, it's not clear cut by any means...

I also noticed that one of my more recent presentations has been made available, uploaded by someone called 'Breezy' and labeled on AuthorSTREAM as andy powell presentation, though the original on Slideshare is called The Repository Roadmap - are we heading in the right direction?  This is more frustrating in a way.  The presentation is already available on the Web in a very accessible form and someone else uploading it to a different service just waters down the Google juice of the original.  That's downright unhelpful, at least from my perspective.  If Breezy had asked, I'd have said no and asked him or her to link to the original.

Now, I must stress that Breezy has done nothing legally wrong here.  The original presentation is made available under a CC-BY licence (at least that was what I intended, though I've just noticed that in fact, on this occasion, I forgot to add a CC licence until just now!).  So in some sense, I am explicitly encouraging Breezy to do what he or she has done through my use of open licences.

But supposing Breezy had taken all of my presentations from Slideshare and replicated them all on AuthorSTREAM.  Would that have been OK?  Again, according to the individual licence on each presentation Breezy would have done nothing wrong - at least, not legally.  But morally... that seems like a different kettle of fish?  At least from my point of view.

It's frustrating because what I really want is a licence that says, "you can take this content, unbundle it, and use the parts to create a new derivative work but you can't simply copy the whole work and republish it on the Web unchanged" and more fundamentally, "you can do stuff with the individual resources that I make available but you can't take everything I've ever created and make it all available at a new location on the Web wholesale".

The bottom line is that there's a difference between making a new, derivative work and simply copying stuff.

Enough said... at the end of the day Creative Commons licences are the best we've got for making content openly available on the Web and in those few cases where things go a bit wrong I can either learn to live with it or try to resolve the situation with a simple email.


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I have little doubt that this Brezy is no real character; rather it is the authorstream, people themselves trying to do a competitive. They have practically no traction compared to slideshare, so its an easy way for them to get started.

In fact this is quite common from a competitive standpoint - duplicating content, trying to lure away users etc.... welcome to the world wild web

You simply can't have both the control and openness you want here - this is the reality of the web, and if you think it's difficult for you, it puts into perspective how institutions and corporations struggle.

Creating value from resources is a commercial model. If you post a photo on Flickr (with a Creative Commons license that doesn't limit commercial use), and someone 'sells' it, then they are able to do so because others place value on what they have done (even if that value is negligible from an objective viewpoint).

This is like me giving away some strawberries and then being upset when the person I gave them to sets up a strawberry jam stall and makes a profit.

Of course if you had put stronger copyright on the image then we are in a different scenario, and one in which your rights have been violated. This situation I have more time for, and I would agree that someone has deprived you of potential income, although I suspect that we are going to inevitably find we need to adjust our attitude towards this - we can all recognise the issues from music and video online.

The issue of 'diluting' you 'Google Juice' is one I've had raised in terms of scholarly communication - and although I understand, in the end I just don't buy it - our measures of 'impact' or 'popularity' will have to change to adapt to this, rather than us sticking with our current measures. Google's strength is that it gets users to useful information - they are motivate to deal with this kind of 'noise' in the system and change it into useful results. Of course, one of the problems is that you are publishing an object that is not html - if you did, then you could use the title slide (or every slide) to link back to your preferred copy online, and thus any duplicated copy hosted would actually increase the links back to your original.

There is the question of whether Authorstream is doing something commercial or non-commercial I guess - if they are duplicating Slideshare content simply to drive a business, then they are making commercial use.

If we look at wikipedia, the thing is that anyone is welcome to take the content of wikipedia and reuse it, and several services have done so. None (yet) have challenged wikipedia - presumably because they don't have what wikipedia has - the dedicated user base, and they don't add sufficient value on top of wikipedia.

Enough for now - essentially, you can't have your cake and eat it (or perhaps more accurately, you can't eat your cake, and then still have it)

I feel that you are mixing up the wish that people do something creative with your content (presumably why you use CC-BY rather than something more restrictive) and the practicalities of providing a license that lets people do that. John Wilbanks has written a lot recently about the way that putting any sort of license on data just leads to a confusing fog of who has what rights that prevent anyone doing anything useful.

I think there is a similar issue here - any license you can imagine that would enable people to do creative and useful stuff with your context will also either let people simply copy verbatim or it will make it impossible for people to figure out what they can or can't do. I don't think there is a legally useful middle ground.

There is a mental shift required here that I don't think we have really got our head around, and is probably the reason why your kids are looking at you as though you're mad. They really do think about these things differently.

@Owen and @Cameron - Thanks for some interesting points. I completely agree with the points you both make. What I was trying to say in my closing paragraph (possibly not clearly enough) is that the benefits of using CC licences outweigh any potential disadvantages and that I therefore need to stop whinging!

I'd agree with the consensus that once you make content available for reuse, you have to accept that the uses may not necessarily fir in with your expectations.

There was a event discussion on the website-info-mgt list after I suggested that institutions should make their marketing materials (videos, photos, podcasts, etc.) available with a CC-licence. One person responded saying:
"I think there's merit in the idea, but Marketing departments would probably like conditions for videos such as:

1 No editing. 2 No re-encoding. 3 No resizing, stretching or distorting. 4 No stripping out of presentation layers (some video formats may be combined with other layers). In other words, no decomposition. 5 No overlaying (see above) or embedding (must appear with clear margin on all sides), that is, no composition. 6 No interference with audio tracks. 7 No interference with closed captioning, subtitles and other accessibility features (OK, Marketing may not be big on this but I put this in anyway). 8 No defamatory uses. 9 No misrepresentation of ownership, content or purpose. 10 Assertion of moral rights of authorship etc."

Mike Ellis (Eduserv) responded by arguing that this may happen, but we need to accept it:
"As soon as institutions start getting twitchy about the alternative ("ooh,
what if someone says something BAD???") then they'd better also be prepared to prevent people at (or visiting) the institution from taking photos, shooting video, tweeting, sending a text message, writing blog posts, writing ANYTHING, saying ANYTHING, mentioning the institution by name..."

Thanks Brian. The irony of the differing world-views here is not lost on me. Marketing departments are worried about their content being copied, modified, and made available on the Web in new forms that they are not quite happy with. I'm worried about my content being copied, left unchanged, then made available in exactly the same form at a new location on the Web. I actually want my stuff to be modified - hence my use of CC - before it is re-published! lol :-)

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