Becoming More Open

One of the things I feel quite strongly about is encouraging the responsible sharing of educational content through appropriate open licenses. There are lots of problems created by traditional copyright, and anyone who works in a school knows just how silly the copyright rules can be at times. While I understand the need for content creators to protect their work from being stolen and to protect their right to make a living, there are many times when the rules imposed by traditional copyright just seem completely absurd.

I’ve pushed the idea of Creative Commons for a number of years now, and I try to make sure that everything I produce is published under a CC license. I want to share by default, not by exception, and I can’t help but imagine what a better world we’d live in if everyone did the same. It’s so ironic that so many teachers are the most blatant abusers of copyright, yet feel so affronted when it’s suggested that they license their work in a way that might allow others to use it freely.

For quite a while now I’ve put a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share Alike license (or CC BY-NC-SA) on this blog (and most of the other sites I publish). I originally decided on that license type because it seemed logical to me… it implied that you can use my work without the need to seek permission so long as it was attributed to me, you didn’t restrict others from also taking it from you, and you didn’t make money from it. It seemed logical.

Tonight, as part of the Open Education Content for Educators course I’m doing with the Wikimedia Educators group, I read an article called The Case for Free Use: Reasons Not to Use a Creative Commons -NC License. I’d heard other people talk about why, for educational purposes, it’s a good idea to not include the Non-Commercial limitation in a CC license, but I’d always included it anyway because, while I’m happy to share, there’s a part of me that doesn’t really want to see other people getting rich off my work. However, I’ve realised that including the -NC limitation raises a whole lot of other issues that I hadn’t considered, and may actually make it harder to use my work than traditional copyright. I don’t want that. I want to be able to share freely, and to allow anyone to make use of what I create and write.

The use of an -NC license is very rarely justifiable on economic or ideological grounds. It excludes many people, from free content communities to small scale commercial users, while the decision to give away your work for free already eliminates most large scale commercial uses. If you want to obtain additional protection against large scale exploitation, use a Share-Alike license. This applies doubly to governments and educational or scientific institutions: content which is of high cultural or educational value should be made available under conditions which will ensure its widespread use. Unfortunately, these institutions are often the most likely to choose -NC licenses…

…Recognizable and genuine free content communities can only evolve around the principle of true freedom. You have the chance to send a clear message whenever you license your own works. You have the chance to be heard, amplified by the voices of free content supporters around the planet.

For this reason, I’ve decided to remove the -NC requirement and change the Creative Commons licence on this blog to a CC BY-SA licence.

If you also publish work under a Creative Commons license, I’d encourage you to have a read of this article and consider opening up your content to help build a freer, more open world.

As an aside, one of the conversations we are having at my school at the moment is about changing our mindset about the content we create, and perhaps making everything we do available under an OER or Creative Commons license. For a large independent school like ours this is a big step, since in many ways, our content is a valuable commodity and is part of the reason that parents send their children to our school. Some would view it as our competitive advantage, and the notion that we might make it freely available is seen by some as crazy. But nonetheless, we are serious about investigating ways to license what we create as Open Educational Resources and to look at lifting that ridiculous rule that says everything you produce while at school is copyright owned by the school, not the teacher. We want to find ways where it can be used freely by both. I have no idea just where this discussion will end up, and just how open and free we might be able to make things, but for a school like ours it’s wonderful to seethat we are even having the conversation.

PS: If you have a WordPress blog, you might like to use the Creative Commons Configurator, a free WordPress plugin that adds both human and machine readable information to your posts. It’s super easy to use, and is one of my favourite WP plugins.

If you use Microsoft Word, there is also a free add-in you can install called the Creative Commons Add In for Microsoft Office. It adds a button to the ribbon that lets you include a CC license of your choice to any printable document. If you must use Office, it’s a nice add-in to have.

Ideas for End of Year Slideshows

Slide ViewerIt’s that time of year when I start to get a lot of teachers at school asking me for assistance with creating an end of year slideshow of photographs of their classes, often with an intention to create a DVD that can be sent home as a memento of the year.

It’s a lovely idea, and I encourage it.  The kids love it, and it’s a lovely way to finish the year.

To assist with this, I thought I’d offer a few tips and suggestions on making slideshows…

  • Start by gathering all the photos you intend to include into a single folder.  It’s much easier if all your assets are already gathered in one place before you begin working with them.
  • Use a piece of software well suited to the task.  Although PowerPoint is often suggested, it’s a bit of a dog when it comes to putting these types of presentations together.  PowerPoint is the right tool for slideware presentations, but it’s actually not very good at doing “slideshows” with music.  The end product of PowerPoint is, well, a PowerPoint file, and it requires PowerPoint to view it, so it can’t just be “played”in the same way a video can.
  • Instead of PowerPoint, try a tool like Photostory.  It’s much easier to get your photos in the desired order, add music and narration soundtracks, add titles, etc.  Plus, it gives you an actual video file at the end so everything is nice and self contained.  It’s the right tool for the task, and does a much better job than PowerPoint!
  • You could also try a web 2.0 service such as, which makes amazing high definition slideshows with only a few mouse clicks.  Feed it your photos, choose a template and you’re done! Both myself and the school have Animoto Pro accounts, so you can use this to make your shows if you like.  Just see me if you want the login details.
  • You can copy the final slideshow file onto a disk, either a CD or a DVD, as a way of distributing it.  However, getting your video onto a DVD – that actually plays in a DVD player, as a DVD – requires several more steps and some more specialised software.  Ask me for more details if this is what you want to do (and be prepared for more work to do it!)
  • If you want to make multiple copies of the finished disk, there is a CD/DVD duplication tower up in IT Services.  If you take your master copy up there, and a stack of blank disks, that’s the fastest way to make lots of copies.

Then there is the thorny issue of copyright for the music… (sigh)

  • Please respect copyright when you choose your music!  If you just want to make a slideshow with a music backing track, you are in a very grey area (copyright wise) if you just rip commercially available music from a CD, or download it from the web.  If you were just using it in class, then you’d probably be fine, but if you intend to make multiple copies and distribute them to parents… well, personally, I think you’re taking a big risk.
  • While you may never get caught for flaunting copyrighted music, you never know whose parent just happens to be a copyright lawyer.  And you’re certainly not modelling good ethical use of media to your students.  If they see you ripping commercial music from CD, or downloading illegal music files from the net, then you’re just encouraging them to do the wrong thing.  Is that really what you want to do?
  • There are plenty of free and legal music sources you can use, where the music has been released under a Creative Commons license, or some other Open License.  Sure, it’s not going to be Top 40 stuff, but there’s lots of great musicians out there making amazing music that they quite willingly give away for free use.  Why risk a copyright violation (and worse, set a bad example for the kids!) when there are plenty of legal, ethical alternatives you can use.  Do you REALLY need a soundtrack by Pink?
  • For copyright free music, take a look at or  It’s amazing what’s out there.

Photo Credit: Slide Viewer by bcostin
NB: This post is based on an email I sent to all the staff at school

Lessons from the Conservative Right

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why Larry Lessig is one of my heroes. This is a terrific video that ought to make you very angry (or at least, damn annoyed!)

The question is, what will you do about that anger? Are you in this fight? And what part are you, as a modern educator, playing in creating this important reform?

Recorded at TEDxNYED

Copyright or Copywrong?

cspdcomics-1I was in a staff meeting at school last week where we were given a presentation outlining 10 common myths about copyright.  I thought it not a bad summary of what many teachers just assume to be true.  Ironically, I’m reproducing it below basically word for word as it was presented to me, but I’m told on good authority that the original creator has authorised its use for reposting.

The other thing I really would have liked to have had included in the conversation was a little more talk about what the alternatives are.  It’s one thing to talk about what you can’t do legally, but unless you provide a list of workable alternatives, simply making “though shalt not” pronouncements  is a bit pointless.  Copyright has a place, but in a digital world that place is changing dramatically.  There is an obvious tension between the inputs and the outputs of copyright… if you are a content creator, you want the output of your work to be protected so others don’t simply steal your stuff, however, unless you can borrow and remix content from others, you will have very little to work with in the first place.

If you’ve not seen it, take a look at an amazing comic book produced by the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University.  Issue 1, entitled Bound By Law, looks at the copyright issues faced by documentary filmmakers, and is an extremely insightful look at the pros and cons of copyright and how it can often unintentionally stifle the very same creativity it is supposed to be protecting.  I think it explains it very well, and it should be read by all high school students (and teachers!).  You can download a copy (Under a Creative Commons licence of course) from

For another lucid overview of the real issues behind copyright law, you really can’t go past the TED Talk by Larry Lessig (founder of Creative Commons) called How Creativity is Being Strangled by the Law.  His final summation of the tensions that exist between the extremist viewpoints of “Let’s protect everything” vs “Everything should be free” is excellent, and he makes it very clear that, while the law might not be the ass we sometimes think it is, the notion of copyright certainly needs a good injection of balance and common sense if it is to remain relevant and workable.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here are the 10 myths about copyright, as presented by my school last week (and specifically applied to Australian copyright law)

1.  It’s OK – I found it on the net

The fact that something is on the internet doesn’t mean that it’s not protected by copyright or that you can use it as you wish.  Material on the net is protected to the same extent as anything on paper or in any other type of format. In many cases, however, copyright owners put a statement on to websites stating how people can use the material – the permission they give can often be quite extensive, but don’t assume that it will cover what you are planning to do with the material.

2.  We can use it – it doesn’t have a copyright notice on it

While it is recommended copyright owners should put copyright notices on their material, it is not compulsory, and it doesn’t affect whether or not something is protected. We will have a compliance issue to deal with whether or not the material has a copyright notice on it.

3.  We’re non-profit so it’s OK

In some narrow cases, the non-profit statues of an organisation can affect its ability to rely on exceptions. However, there is no general rule to the effect that it’s OK to use copyright material for non-profit purposes.

4.  It’s all right we’re attributing the creator

If you’re using copyright material, you do generally have to attribute the person or people who created the material. This is a general moral rights obligation. However, you’ll still have copyright issues to consider; attributing the creator doesn’t change this.

5.  We only need to worry about copyright if we’re charging money

In some narrow cases, the fact that an organisation is charging money can affect its ability to rely on exception to the general rule that you need permission if you want to use copyright material in one of the ways reserved to the copyright owner.  However, there is no general rule to the effect that you don’t have to worry about copyright if you’re not charging people for the material you are using.

6.  The copyright owner should see this as good promotion

Whether or not a copyright owner sees your use of their material as good promotion is their decision, not yours, and you can never be sure they’ll see the situation in the same light as you do.  Also, even if the copyright owner does see your use of the material as good publicity, don’t assume that this means that they’ll give you permission to use it for free. Many copyright owners make their living from the licence fees they charge, and they will often want to know beforehand how you want to use the material. If you don’t get a clearance when you’re supposed to, you’ve still infringed copyright – which may, for the College, work out as bad publicity.

7.  It’s OK – I’m using less than 10%

There is no general rule that you can use less than 10% without permission.  If you’re using any ‘substantial’ part of a copyright owner’s material – whether you’ve made changes to it or not – you’ll have to deal with the copyright issue. In the context, a ‘substantial’ part is any part that is important, distinctive or essential. It doesn’t have to be a large part to be ‘substantial’ in a copyright sense.

8. It’s all right – I’ve changed it

There are two common, but wrong, beliefs in this area.  First, there is no general rule to the effect that it’s OK to use copyright material if you change it by 10% or more.  Second, there is no general rule to the effect that you can use copyright material if you make five or more changes.  As noted above, if you’re using any part that is important, distinctive or essential, you have to deal with copyright issues.

9. It’s OK – we paid for it

The fact that the College paid a contractor for something – such as a report or a series of photos – will have a bearing on how we can use it. However, this is not by itself a guarantee that we own copyright in it, and can use it as we like.  Similarly, the fact that we own a physical item – such as a painting or photograph or a DVD – does not mean you can use it as you like (such as copying it or screening it).

10. No one will ever find out

If you know, and your colleagues know, why mightn’t the copyright owner – or the collecting society that represents them – get to find out too?  Organisations that infringe copyright are always at risk from disgruntled employees, let alone the other people they come in contact with.  Also, copyright owners have six years to take action for an infringement – that’s a long time for information to come to light.

Better than Stealing

The Internet has made it easier than ever to find virtually any digital resource we might want. The ability to locate, download and use a piece of music, a passage of text, a video or a photo for our own use is so trivially easy to do that in the excitement of knowing we CAN do it, we sometimes overlook the question of whether we SHOULD do it.  The idea of the Internet as a place where things are freely shared has become so much a part of our thinking that we sometimes believe we have a right to reuse whatever resources we happen to find online.

One of the casualties of this cavalier approach to sharing can be a loss of respect for the intellectual property of others. In a world where everything appears to be so freely available, it is easy to overlook the fact that someone, somewhere, owns these resources.  We tend to rationalise our use of them, reasoning that if people put them on the Internet they must be willing to share them.  And that’s not always true.  Some people do not want you to take their work without asking.

On the other hand, some people ARE prepared to share their work. There are many who would be thrilled to think that someone wanted to look at their pictures, listen to their music or read their writing. The problem is that we don’t always know the author’s intentions. It would be nice to be able to tell, clearly and unambiguously, what the terms and conditions are for using their work.

This is precisely what Creative Commons sets out to do. Creative Commons is a set of conditions that clearly outlines the terms under which an author will allow their work to be used.  All CC licences require attribution, or some acknowledgment of the author, usually with a link back to the original work.  They provide a distinction between commercial and non-commercial uses, allowing the author to choose whether they will allow someone else to use their work to make money or not.  CC licences also provide options for whether the work must be used exactly as is, whether it can be edited, adapted and remixed, and can also stipulate that a work must be shared under the same conditions as it was made available.

Applying a CC license to your work is easy. The Creative Commons website, found at, provides a couple of simple questions to define the conditions under which author is prepared to publish their work, and then generates badges, computer-readable code and an easy-to-understand license document.  It’s a very simple process that will help make it much clearer to anyone who wishes to use the works exactly what they are legally able to do with them.

The huge benefit for educators is the removal of the many barriers created by traditional copyright. Teachers are able to locate thousands of CC digital resources that can be freely used with students without worrying about violating copyright or interpreting the often vague “fair dealing” law. These digital resources can be used, remixed and, most importantly, republished back to the web, all without fear of a copyright violation since the terms of use are clearly and explicitly stated upfront.

Of course, not every resource will be available under a Creative Commons license, so students still need to be taught about traditional copyright and the responsibilities that accompany it. If suitable resources are not available under CC, and permission cannot be sought for its use, then all the usual copyright restrictions still apply. However, Creative Commons offers a viable alternative for the legitimate remixing of digital media, while providing an excellent environment in which to frame discussions with students about the legal and ethical responsibilities of being a good digital citizen.

This article was written for, and recently published in, Australian Teacher Magazine

The Remix Society

I’ve been talking to a lot of teachers lately about copyright, Creative Commons and how we might deal with the issues that arise when we want to use other peoples’ images and media and remix them into something new and creative. The restrictive thinking of traditional copyright has become an anachronism in the digital age. It just doesn’t serve us well any more.

The example I’ve been citing is the one I heard Larry Lessig mention, and that’s the story of how when land owners were once given title to their land, the title of ownership used to be phrased in language that essentially said they owned not only the parcel of land, but all the ground below it to the center of the earth and all the sky above it to the heavens. It was a nice romantic concept, this idea that you owned not just the surface of the land but the infinite column of space that extended above it.

Well, it was a nice romantic concept until the airplane was invented, that is. As more aircraft started to appear in our skies a number of greedy land owners started to make demands for payment to allow these aircraft to pass through “their” space, which they technically owned. The point is that the original land titles which gave them ownership of this space above their land were drafted in a time when the idea of travelling through the space was unimaginable. It was simply not a problem that anybody envisioned and so the laws were written in a way that did not take account of the possibility. As aircraft took to the skies, the laws had to be changed to allow for it… for to not adapt the old, outdated laws would have completely stifled the development of flight. Put simply, the old laws no longer made sense – the airplane caused a complete rethink of how these laws should work.

It easy to see the parallels with copyright law in the digital age. Many of our copyright laws were written in a time when the implications of the digital age were equally unimaginable. Copyright law is not written with the notion that creative works could be infinitely reproducible and easily mashed together to form new creative works, and that digital convergence allows all media types to be easily brought together and combined, edited and remixed in new ways. Copyright law was written in a time that never imagined that the price and power of computing devices would drop to the point that they could be used to make artwork, create music, edit movies and build media that would have required highly specialised equipment and thousands of dollars only a few short years ago, so that the barrier to entry is such that anyone who wants to create can produce professional looking work with limited resources. Finally, consider that not only has the cost of making media dropped to virtually nothing, but the cost of distribution of that media has also dropped to almost nothing… consider that a creative kid sitting in their bedroom can now use a computer and their own creativity to make a video and distribute it to a global audience of millions at essentially no cost. This is not the world that copyright was written for.

Creativity has always been built on the work of others. Our great artists, musicians and film makers have always stood on the shoulders of the giants that came before them, building on their ideas and extending them into new areas. Very little creative work comes from a foundation of nothing… it nearly always uses, references or extends upon the work of others. Manet influenced Monet, who influenced Renoir, who influenced Gauguin, who influenced Picasso, who influenced Duchamp, and so on. Some of the greatest creative minds in history were great because they built on the ideas of those who came before them, adding to them and creating yet more new ideas because of it.  We have always been a remix society.

I have no idea what the long term answer is to all this but I do know that we need to find one. Creative Commons goes some way towards providing a balance between protecting the intellectual property rights of the creator and allowing some reasonable use of their work for remixing and recreating. It provides some common sense to an area where it often seems to be lacking.

This video is a great example of what can be done when someone wants to be creative with the work of someone else… the song, Again and Again by The Bird and The Bee, is borrowed to provide a soundtrack for an amazing piece of visual work that is creative in it’s own right.  Created with nothing more than a Macintosh computer and an amazing degree of creativity, the video has been viewed nearly a million times on YouTube.