Monday, April 11, 2011

Creative Commons in the Classroom: Use, Share, Remix

On Tuesday 19 April, I will be speaking at IATEFL in Brighton - my first presentation at an international conference. I am due to present on the use of Creative Commons-licensed works (hereafter CC) in the classroom and other copyright-related issues. It was very fortunate that the first time I was able to present at this conference, it happened to be in my home town!

In many ways, it's an exciting prospect as get to stand up in front of professional peers from around the world and talk with them on a subject that I know a little something about (and which will hopefully be useful for them). On the other hand, it's also a fairly nerve-wracking idea, as I'll be standing up in front of professional peers from around the world and talk with them on a subject that I know a little about.

Partly because it's rather a big deal for me (I've organised a conference before, but never spoken at one), I've trialled the presentation at an in-house conference and a couple of workshops at work. It seems to have been mostly well received so far, with other teachers telling me that it was useful to know and interesting in parts. However, I'm aware that copyright is not the most thrilling subject to speak on and many people - teachers, students, others - pay little consideration to the idea beyond  possibly the occasional thought in the back of the mind ('I should probably think about this, but…'), so I really need to try and make the subject come alive and relate it directly to people's lives.

This post then is an attempt to introduce the subject and to call for testimonies from other teachers, in order to add some authentic voices to the topic. If you're already familiar with copyright and CC, please scroll down to the section 'A request for input'. If not, then firstly here's some context…

What is copyright, and where's the problem?

Copyright is 'a set of exclusive rights granted to the author or creator of an original work, including the right to copy, distribute and adapt the work' (Wikipedia). In law, it is a form of intellectual property and while it is not possible to provide legal protection for an idea, copyright covers the expression of an idea. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, copyright exists 'to encourage a dynamic creative culture, while returning value to creators so that they can lead a dignified economic existence, and to provide widespread, affordable access to content for the public'. As we shall see, this is often not how things turn out in practice.

In most countries (including the UK), copyright is automatically conferred on a work once it has been created, enabling 'all rights reserved' to the creator without them having to register the work with an official body. Although copyright law initially applied only to the copying of books, it now covers a wide range of works, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Written articles
  • Maps
  • Charts
  • Musical compositions
  • Photographs
  • Paintings
  • Motion pictures
  • Sculptures
  • Computer programs
  • Databases
'But I'm a teacher, not a sculptor, a film-maker or a computer programmer. What does this have to do with me?' Teachers and students make use of copyrighted works all the time. Whenever we use a textbook. Whenever we screen or watch a film or video clip in class, or listen to a piece of music or other audio file. When a teacher makes a lesson plan. When a student creates an original piece of writing. This means that within even just one classroom, large numbers of copyrighted works are both being used and created every day.

Secker (2010) claims that there is a 'general perception that there exists some sort of blanket exception for educational or not-for-profit use prevails in education, particularly outside of higher education'. This 'educational exception' is often not the case. In the UK, educational institutions are required to purchase a licence from the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA), in order to use copyrighted works. This licence generally permits the photocopying of 5% of a published edition (e.g. a textbook) or one complete chapter. I have yet to meet a teacher, even the most cautious of rule-followers, that will stand over a photocopier as the clock ticks for a fast-pending class and count the pages that they are copying to make sure they fall within their allocated page count.

Under British law, photocopying and scanning of published works when performed in education falls under the concept of 'fair dealing'. This is a legal defence rather than a legal right, as the UK does not have the concept of 'fair use' enshrined within its copyright laws (as the US does, being theoretically more lenient on the use of copyrighted works in a educational context). Fair dealing in the UK does not apply to electronic resources, meaning that copying pages from a textbook and making it available across a Virtual Leaning Environment (VLE) can be a risky business.

Plagiarism. Using 'Google Image Search' to source pictures for learning materials. Uploads to VLEs. Student work that builds on existing works. These are just some of the many other copyright-related issues that also arise in learning contexts, few easily solvable. Perhaps most importantly, if teaching is supposed to be about the spread of knowledge in order to facilitate learning, the greater the restriction on that knowledge, the more that learning opportunity is inhibited.

Creative Commons - towards a solution

There are some who claim that in the so-called Information Age, existing copyright regimes are in need of radical reform, in order for them to be more relevant in the reality of the Internet ('the world's greatest copy machine', as Cory Doctorow has described it). Under Britain's Copyright, Designs & Patents Act (1988), it was still technically illegal to view a website (Secker), until a 2003 amendment fixed this anomaly. This was because in order for a computer to display a web page, it has to download a copy of it from the server onto the client machine. The very tools that facilitate our modern times have copying built into their DNA.

Step forward, Creative Commons. This non-profit organisation was founded in 2001, to create 'a balance between the reality of the Internet and the reality of copyright laws'. The licences they issue enable the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools, by allowing the user to communicate which rights they wish to reserve on their work. Their mission statement depicts a 'vision (that) is nothing less than realising the full potential of the Internet - universal access to research, education, full participation in culture, and driving a new era of development, growth, and productivity'. They are not an alternative to copyright, more a compliment to it - a case of 'some rights reserved'.

There are four key elements to these licences - Attribution ('give my name when you use my work'), Non-Commercial ('please don't use my work to make money for yourself from it'), No Derivatives ('you can use this as long as you don't make any changes to the original') and Share-Alike ('you can use this as long as you issue the resulting work under the same licence terms'). Works can be issued under any combination of these elements, from the least restrictive Attribution (CC-BY) to the most restrictive Attribution - Non-Commercial - No Derivatives (CC-BY-NC-ND). Generally, these conditions are fixed into the digital file, either within the metadata or in some visual form (such as by using the CC symbols), which is then uploaded to the Internet. I believe that they are an essential of a modern Internet user's toolkit, teacher or not.

Barack Obama uses them. So does TED. So does Wikipedia, MIT, and the Open University. And so do many millions of individuals around the world that wish to share ether work as a contribution towards a global creative commons. By the end of 2009, there were approximately 350 million such licenced works available on the Internet. At the growth rate they have been showing, it is likely to now exceed 1 billion. That suggests that it's not so much 'are there any quality works I can find related to my subject?' but more a case of 'how do I filter through this mountain of free stuff?'

Here are a few good reasons for using CC in education:
  • Getting appropriate copyright clearance for certain materials can take too long for the material to remain relevant to the teaching objective
  • Academic staff often don't have time to absorb the complexities of a copyright licence
  • Institutional licences may not cover all student work, such as something which incorporates images and text from multiple sources that is then shared with others
  • As the traditional content industries lose more income in the face of challenges to their business models, there are greater risks of prosecution for copyright infringement
  • Cleared digital resources are easier to source, reuse and adapt than uncleared or non-digital resources
  • Not misusing copyright is good 'netiquette' and should be part of teaching today's younger people to become digitally literate
  • There's masses and masses of really high quality material available for use

A request for input

This post is meant more as a beginning than an end. Although many teachers I speak to often don't see how the copyright issue affects their daily work, the deeper I go into this issue, the more I hear of people that do have genuine concerns about copyright. On the other hand, while there are many examples of use of CC works in education around the world, I have so far come across very few examples within ELT (English Language Teaching). 

'Whodunit', the first free-to-share commercial ELT textbook, was only released last year. The eltpics project on Flickr (thanks to Phil Bird for alerting me to it), an image pool that collects CC resources in one place, was started only in October 2010. Further cursory Google searches bring up the odd few language teachers that use CC in the classroom but not a great deal.

I have two questions for readers - whether teachers or students. Please either add your responses in the comments section of this post, or for private communication please send an email using the icon in the sidebar:
  1. Have you ever had any negative experiences with copyright at work/school?
  2. Have you ever had any positive experiences with using Creative Commons in the classroom?


Martin said...

Here's what I'd like to know about CC: what does 'non-commercial' mean in the context of the paid-for ELT lesson?

Good luck!

Globalism said...

Hi Martin,

Many thanks for your comment (and for being the first one here).

You've posed a common yet difficult question here. Many people look at the 'non-commercial' part of a licence and question whether it can be used in a context where money is clearly being made (such as in an ELT lesson, where students are paying for the lessons and teachers receive a wage).

This is what CC says in their FAQ:

Our noncommercial licenses (BY-NC, BY-NC-SA, BY-NC-ND) prohibit uses that are 'primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation.' Whether or not a use is or is not commercial will depend on the specifics of the situation and the intentions of the user, as stated in the definition. In our experience, most of the time whether a use is permitted is pretty clear, and known conflicts are relatively few considering the popularity of the NC licenses. As with all license terms, however, there will always be use cases that are challenging to categorize as commercial or noncommercial. CC cannot help you determine what is and is not commercial use. If you are unsure, we suggest that you either contact the licensor for clarification or search for works licensed under a CC license that permits commercial uses.

Obviously some of this response takes a common legal 'hands off' approach to the situation, in that CC takes no direct responsibility for a conflict should it arise. My interpretation would be that the licence prohibits reuse that directly profits from the work, rather that indirectly.

It's easier when the licensor has made the terms clear. TED, for example, states that you can't use TEDTalks for commercial purposes but they actively encourage teachers to use them in the classroom. There is financial advantage to be found anywhere in an educational context, whether through a teacher's salary, a taxpayer's contribution to a state education system, or a student paying for lessons. Nevertheless, I'd see this as an indirect use of the work.

For the uncertain, it's clearly helpful if the licensor has been more specific about the terms of use.

Hope that goes some way to answer your question!

Martin said...

Hi Dom,

Many thanks for the prompt and detailed reply.

I agree that your interpretation of NC makes sense and is one that I would tend to go along with. Unfortunately, my opinion, like yours, is worth little here. A CC license is a legal document and such documents mean what courts say they mean, not what we would like them to mean or think they should mean.

I'm not even sure what 'primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage' covers. Using CC content as 20/50/80% of a class or course? Using CC content for promotional materials? Redistributing CC content as supplementary materials? Charging for classroom materials that include CC content?

On top of that, there's the issue of derivative works. When we take the text of a song or video and manipulate it to form a gapfill etc. is that a derivative work? How about cropping an image?

I'm not even sure that TEDTalks is a clear-cut example. They say we can use their content in our classrooms "as long as comply with the terms of the Creative Commons license outlined above." That just points us back at CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 which returns us to the above questions of what non-commercial and no derivative works mean in the ELT classroom.

Now, I'm not pouring cold water on the whole idea of using CC content in the classroom. I think it's a huge step forward from the wholesale apathy towards IPR displayed by many teachers. However, I don't think it's a panacea and I fear that one day a court will make a decision that leaves all of us who use CC content legally exposed for some aspect of our use of CC content.

Globalism said...

Hi Martin,

Thanks again for your detailed and thoughtful comment. My ISP's just cut the Internet at home and I'd rather not respond over 3G, so permit me a more delayed response second time around!

Martin said...

Hi Dom,

Take your time! I'll get on with my work and try not to be too annoyed with myself for starting two paragraphs with 'I'm not even sure'.

The perils of a small edit window!

Globalism said...

Thanks. Edit window even smaller on iPhone screen ;)

Might have to go into work today on my holiday just to get Internet - grr, Virgin Media!

eLearningTechie said...

I embed this issue into the eLearning training that I do:
First, I present staff with the muddiness that is our standard UK copyright. Faced with legal text and all the different shades of grey, session participants usually get quite frustrated. Then I present them with the alternative, Creative Commons, and listen to the sigh of relief from the audience.

My top tip is to use the CC search tool ( for finding suitable content rather than standard Google.

Hope this helps.

Globalism said...


I think that you are right to be cautious with regards to interpreting NC. CC is like the grey area between the black and white of 'all rights reserved' and 'public domain', so there is always room for interpretation.

Yes, such a licence is a legal document. In cases where CC has come up against the courts, it so far seems to have fallen in the favour of the licensor. See below for details:

Belgian and Israeli Courts Grant Remedies to CC Licensors

Creative Commons license upheld in Dutch and Spanish courts

Spanish Court Recognizes CC-Music

As with any law, the conditions are often open to interpretation. My interpretation of your questions would be as follows:

* CC-BY-ND for 20% of a class or course would seem reasonable, 80% would seem unreasonable (and probably poor teaching)
* Using it for promotional materials would be against the terms, whereas distributing it to students as additional course material would not. Likewise, charging for class materials that specifically include it would be out, whereas using it as part of a lesson would be fine.

With regards to derivative works, a derivative work would be anything that builds on or changes the original. So using the lyrics from a CC song for a gapfill or cropping an image would be a derivative work. I put TED videos out on my own YouTube channel, but under the terms of their licence, I can't chop off the IBM ads in them. Of course, my viewers don't have to watch those parts ;)

In the case of using a TEDTalk in the classroom, I wouldn't consider turning it off halfway through a video (e.g. to prompt some discussion questions) to be a derivative work.

I'd agree that CC content is not a panacea in general to the copyright quandry, but it is at least a step in the right direction towards a more sensible use of IP in the classroom.

I tend to be a 'glass half full' kinda guy - TED tell me they want me to use their talks in the classroom, that means I can even though students pay to have my lessons!


Many thanks for your useful contribution. I usually tell people about CC search, so it's a bit of an oversight not to have included it in the original post - I'll try and re-edit it a little later on to make sure that's included.

Glad to hear that someone else has also been faced with the joyless task of trying to explain copyright to those that might rather not know! That's why I like putting word out about CC. It's good to be able to share stuff.

Martin said...

Thanks for answering the various hypotheticals I posed. As I wrote before, while your interpretation is certainly reasonable, it's one person's opinion and, when it comes to legal exposure, I don't think we can expect school owners and others who would be directly affected by a copyright claim to be terribly reassured by 'a bloke on the internet says'. That's especially so when, as you point out, courts generally find in favour of the licensor.

Equally, if a content creator wants to make materials available, it's rather underwhelming when there is no clear understanding of what a license actually permits and denies.

Perhaps promotion of CC licenses should come with a disclaimer!

Globalism said...

Hi Martin,

I'm glad you found my interpretations reasonable.

Of course, a school involved in a legal challenge would likely find little solace in the words of 'a bloke on the internet'. This whole area can certainly be a minefield, which goes some way to explaining why many people would rather not address the issue at all.

However, I do feel that there's considerably more leeway in the use of CC works than with copyright-only works. The licences were specifically designed to permit sharing, and someone that issues their work in such a way is likely to expect such uses as at least possible. If we had to check or get permission for every single thing that we use in the classroom, we'd never do any teaching.

This is why I think that CC is, on the whole, a very classroom-friendly system. I use it not only to have access to a wider range of works in my lessons, but also to teach my students about attribution and plagiarism. These are young people who (to generalise) as a generation, have mostly never paid for music.

A fair point that talking about CC should also come with a disclaimer. My apologies if my enthusiasms for them masked real concerns. Here are a few things that people should be aware of when using them:

* They are non-revokable, meaning that it's not possible to stop somebody who has obtained your work from using it under the terms you have specified (eg if you decide to withdraw the licence, as I believe the Brazilian govt. might be doing with some of their licenced content).
* CC doesn't provide any legal advice or services to users, so it's often up to your interpretation.
* How can I get a 100% cast iron guarantee that somebody will abide with the letter of the licence? I can't, once I put it out there, so of course it comes with risks involved.

I'm sure there are many other negative aspects of CC, but my aim is not to focus on them but to use CC as an alternative to the greater negative aspect of 'all rights reserved'.

Tim O'Reilly said that 'obscurity is a far greater threat to authors than piracy'. There is always the risk that if you put your work on the internet, someone will take it and pass it off as their own or use it without your permission. But they could do that just as easily if you had it published only on paper.

Martin said...

Hi Dom,

I agree, I think any differences between us are perhaps due to coming at it from different directions. You are comparing CC to the many problems of traditional copyright and, quite reasonably, finding that in the areas where it is problematic, CC is not.

My way of looking at it is that traditional copyright is clearer, but more restrictive and CC is freer, but more vague. I'm very risk-averse, so I get nervous when I don't know for sure what a license allows. I imagine school ownders and content creators feel the same, when their livelihoods are on the line in a way that teachers are not.

I'm pro-CC in the classroom and have used it myself and promoted it to colleagues. (Most of whom smiled indulgently and went back to Google Images) Please don't take what I'm saying as against the main thrust of your post & IATEFL session. I simply feel there is an optimism regarding CC that is ignoring some real risks and that CC would benefit from those risks being managed.

Finally, I'm not sure I agree that 'if we had to check or get permission for every single thing that we use in the classroom, we'd never do any teaching'. Leaving aside Dogme, plenty of lessons are taught using regular coursebooks, along with self-produced supplementary materials and handouts from resource books with a 'photocopiable' section. Many teachers remain unconvinced by evangelists for 'authentic materials' (whatever they are).

Anyway, I'm sure you've got lots of IATEFL stuff to worry about, so I'll leave you alone for now!

Rodd Lucier said...

There are some great discussion points that follow your overview Dom. I know you've already found my most recent CC workshop and related post

You might also be interested in reviewing the CC licensed slidedecks I've produced on this topic.

For CC media, check out or the CC content directories

For classroom use, a post from last year with a free CC licensed classroom manual is available at

Globalism said...


Thanks again for your considered response to this discussion and for making the contribution to the post. I don't often get much interaction around what I post here, so when I do it's very much appreciated.

Admittedly I do have a certain optimism regarding the use of CC, and find it to be a suitable alternative to traditional copyright. These days, I am more of a subject teacher than language specifically. My students make presentations and websites, plus a little DTP. In this case, not only does their use of CC works enhance the quality of what they produce, but it also prepares them to avoid the academic issue of plagiarism. I don't believe this would be the case if I just rigidly enforced copyright rules rather than offered them alternatives.

I tend to take a 'broad brush' approach in the classroom, in that it's better to show them what they can use rather than to tell them what they can't use. I also accept that I'm not going to catch every instance of copyright infringement by my students, but teaching them about attribution and enabling them to make derivative works from that which others have created is part of building their contemporary digital literacy skills.

However, that's not to say that there are no challenges in using CC - where to draw the line in NC works, for example, or how to attribute correctly. If you have further suggestions for what constitutes a CC risk and how to better manage those, I'd love to hear them.

Every teacher's teaching context will be different though, and this post is by no means intended to denigrate the qualities of a textbook. Students have learned from great teachers for hundreds (thousands) of years prior to the internet coming along, with whatever materials were available at the time. I believe though that it is beholden to today's educators to accept the reality of the internet and how our students use it, and guide them towards appropriate uses of what they find on it.

I bet that indulgent smiles of Google Image-using colleagues would disappear if they got stung on the IP front!


Many thanks for the great range of resources that you've pointed me towards. I'm glad to hear that using CC goes down well with such young learners! I'm also planning to make use of your 'flowchart' in the handout for my talk (with attribution, of course).

Victoria said...


In my twitter guise as @VictoriaB52, I set up a flickr #eltpics picture resource for ELT teachers.

One benefit of using #eltpics is that you know the pictures were taken and 'donated' to #eltpics by teachers. They know the score and that they will be used in classrooms and blogs etc.. Each image set is accompanied by a blurb describing the set as:

"A set of photos, based on a weekly theme, taken by ELT teachers, trainers and writers from around the world.
These are, in turn, available free to others in the field of ELT under a CC license.
Anyone interested in joining in can tweet an image with the hashtag #eltpics"

I hope it's a way forward (eek. horrible expression) in further areas of ELT publishing. Indeed, one of my main influences was Marcos Benevides and his co-authored, 'Fiction in Action: Whodunit' book which was published under a CC licence. He later won a well-deserved ELTon award for this book.

This is definitely an area which needs to be discussed further and, maybe, should be highlighted more during basic training courses, such as the CELTA.

Grand post.


Globalism said...

Hi Victoria,

Thanks for the comment and the contribution to this post. I was thrilled to come across the 'eltpics' project because I'm often on the lookout for innovative uses of CC and had previously encountered such limited use of it in the ELT world. It was great to encounter this collaborative ethos of sharing starting to creep in to the sector!

For the record, I used four pictures from the pool in the talk. They were intended to prompt ideas for lessons and did so from the audience straight away. Will certainly try and add some of my own pics to the pool and play my own part in making it grow.

I'm also glad to hear that you think it is an area which needs further discussion. Perhaps it's not paid attention to because it's so easy to source and take stuff via a simple search. Either way, it would definitely be a useful component of 'starting out' training courses.

It's not going to get any more difficult to source material using the internet, but I do believe that certain owners of content are going to become increasingly more likely to pursue people when stuff is taken without permission being given. And on the internet, national borders don't apply in the same way.

Of course, the other perspective is that if you're going to put something up on the 'Net, you have to accept that it may be copied by someone somewhere. It's really not that difficult though to just say where something came from.