Different Contexts of Open Licensing

tl;dr: I worked with students and refugees on questions around licensing and copyright and they perceived ‘open’ to be default. We also talked about different contexts of open, motivations and risks.

It has been a while since I last updated this space. With the beginning of the new year, I caught a persistent flu and I have been quite busy catching up on the things I missed because of that downtime. So I started the year a bit later than most others and one of my first gigs back from bed in the real world was a short workshop on copyright and open licensing with refugees and students at the University of Hamburg.

I have been working with this group for the whole semester now. We talked about storytelling, about narratives and about privacy among many other things. As we approach the end of the semester and some of them will publish their work online, I did not want to miss the chance to introduce them to some basic principles and ideas around copyright. During the semester I sensed that refugees and students alike had two foundational questions: how can I be certain not to violate any copyright regulations? How can I both publish online and still protect my work? Both questions are also questions one faces when talking to faculty about publishing online. I think both notions go to the core of the perception of copyright, especially in an online environment. Everyone has heard of or experienced some horror story about a user who was sued for thousands of Euros, Pounds or Dollars over the misuse of one image or one illegaly downloaded song. In our class it almost felt as if we had to overcome some kind of inertia before discussing how to publish online as if the group thought “if you don’t do anything, you can’t do anything wrong”. So, while there is no blueprint answer for this (at least not that I know), we talked through some ways of ensuring that students don’t violate any copyright laws. The steps I suggested were:

  1. Look for content that is openly licensed (Creative Commons, ideally CC0)
  2. If you use any image, conduct a reverse-search for the image before you use it to see if it appears elsewhere under a different license
  3. Whenever in doubt, use a different picture or resource
  4. Reference the resource correctly, follow the Creative Commons or Wikimedia Guidelines; do so even if you’re not required to because this is what you do online (and elsewhere)

While this process is pretty straightforward for 90 percent of all content, the second question on publishing online while protecting one’s work was a bit trickier and any approach to this needs context. Maha Bali pointed this out in a post well worth reading just recently. So I suggested to de-contruct the question a bit. What does publishing online mean? Where do you publish? On your own domain, on Facebook, on Medium? What are you publishing and is the work a group effort or your own thoughts and ideas? What does protection mean for your work? Who or what do you feel your work needs protection from? What is your threat model? Is it shaming, persecution, is it trolling or consequences for you and your family in your family or social networks? Is it to be taken out of context? Based on all of these questions, you could try and protect your work. But protection is relative here. You can protect your work by not publishing online or by restricing access, which would conflict with the goal of outreach and readership that most of the students and refugees are pursuing. Once you publish your work online for anyone to access it, you and your work become vulnerable. You can try and anonymize your work, you can alter the details, you can use an alias or a pseudonym and you can try and protect your identity online. You can use closed licencing to protect your intellectual property from anyone using it without your consent. But would that stop anyone if they really wanted to steal your work? You can use the Non Commercial license (even though nobody really knows where the line between commercial and non-commercial use is) or the No Derivs license. All of these measures can make sense in an individual case, depending on your context.

By the beginning of this session, most members of our group had not been introduced to the basic ideas of copyright. Most of them are in their 3rd semester and for many, this is the first time to be publishing any work online. What stood out for me was that, once I introduced them to Creative Commons and the idea of open licences, they would not believe that closed licensing is the default option for anything you do. I gave a brief introduction on copyright and things related and the first question afterwards implied that open was default and that you could close permissions down by using Creative Commons licenses, not the other way around. This might have been just me and my way of introducing this (I asked a colleague who was there as well and she said it did not come across that way) but it was really interesting for me to see how our group came around to the idea open licensing differently than most people I have talked with about this so far. Their perception was this: by default, anything you publish is open and usable for anyone. The way to restrict permissions is to license your work with, say, a CC-BY license if you want to be referenced. Now, while the outcome is the same (use of the license leads to referencing if done properly), the approach is inverted. That’s what our group took away and it took me a couple of minutes to make clear that it actually works the other way around.

My point here is not to argue for ‘open everything”. As Maha and many others have pointed out, there can be very good reasons to work in closed, private spaces and it may very well happen that parts of our group will not be publishing openly. My point is simply to underline that context matters more than anything when it comes to questions around openness and ownership.

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