Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

On Attribution vs Privilege of CC0


Reading Time: 4 minutes

Let me share with you this true story of my Sudanese friend. One I share with students when I teach about copyright and plagiarism (and how to differentiate them). She was educated in the UK, but now lives in Sudan and has kids. She noticed her nieces/nephews science books were really bad so she created her own version with colorful illustrations and photos and they helped. She started using those books with others in her family. And then with others. Then it occurred to her she could commercialize this and make money, or go to the ministry of higher education and offer her services to make similar books across the science curriculum. 

You know what happened when she went? She showed them her work and they took out a (badly) photocopied version of it and said “oh? We already have this”. And just like that, a golden opportunity to make a difference in her country’s education system was gone.

Someone stole her work and gave it to others – copyright violation.

Someone used her work without attributing to her – plagiarism.

This kind of thing happens in my part of the world ALL THE TIME. Someone can take work you did and attribute it to themselves and make money off of it even if you had been offering it for free.

That bothers me.

While I do believe that making one’s work public (as in online in any form, whether public domain or other license) makes it easy for people to recognize it as yours originally… Putting a CC0 or public domain license on it means someone else can take it exactly as is and claim it as their own and make money off of something you created and made FREE. That bothers me. Even knowing that a license like copyright or CC-BY-NC won’t actually stop unethical people from doing what they will do (and even with copyright I don’t create stuff worth suing over!) it still makes me uncomfortable to go out and say CC0.

I think it’s all contextual. Some things I am OK with making CC0, like the picture of a cat. Some things are copyrighted like the DigPedCairo photos (my university owns the copyright but all organizers have permission to use them). Some things are CC-BY-NC-SA like my blog posts. My thesis is CC-BY-NC-ND because HELL no I don’t want people taking parts of my thesis out of contexts and doing stuff with it (though isn’t that exactly what we do when we quote someone’s work in an in-text reference?) 

There is privilege in posting our work openly in any form. You are comfortable enough in the quality of your work to put it out there. You are confident of your fame (to an extent) that you feel people will recognize it as yours even if not quoted as such. But recently, the DML Twitter account tweeted an article by someone else, and quoted a line from their article. The funny part? The line was taken VERBATIM from an article I had written…for DML. So there’s that. I contacted the author and they promised to add a citation. I believe it was an innocent mistake. But notice that it was a quotable line. Notice that the tweeter of said quotable line was from the same organization where I had written that line…maybe a month or two earlier. So there’s that.

There is also the reality that much of what we do, say, write, make is not completely original. Even my thoughts are inspired by others and I won’t always attribute. I won’t always actually know where they came from because the thread is sooooo long it would be hard to trace the origin.

But I also know how much it hurts people when their work or ideas are attributed to someone else. It’s not just an emotional hurt (though that’s bad enough), it can be career limiting and it can be a barrier to progress (as in the Sudanese case above). 

Inspired by Doug Belshaw’s post On CC0, which cites Alan Levine’s post on the same topic…which is funny coz Alan ans I were just talking last week about CC0 vs CC-BY!
Alan wrote clearly:

But then I am thinking… why not put all my photos in the public domain? Why not do the most friction free license? The main difference, as I can see is that I am not licensing with an expectation of attribution. Frankly, even with a CC-BY license, often people do not attribute (those catfishers using my photos for their fake profiles NEVER give me credit).

Alan, if you haven’t noticed, even attributes images he took himself. Because 

Because being part of sharing commons is not about following rules; it is setting an example for others. 

Sooooo should I let go completely? 

I recently told another professor she was free to reuse my Twitter Scavenger Hunt activity however she liked, no permission or attribution necessary. I originally got the idea from someone else (Kim Fox, a mass comm professor at AUC) but changed it dramatically to fit my context. And yeah. My version is famous enough within my circles that people know it but it’s something I would put as CC0 so more people can benefit from it.

But not everything I create can be CC0. Not yet. And in my local context these things can really really matter. It can make the difference between who gets a job or tenure or promotion and who doesn’t. 

You don’t know CC0 in practice until someone takes an important body of your work and sells it as their own to others who don’t recognize it as your own or that it is freely available. 

I know

I know that I can copyright and even DRM something and someone could steal and commercialize it. I know. That just won’t always be an acceptable state of affairs for me.

(i am not saying Never, Alan)


  1. I “never” prescribed CC0 for everyone or everything!

    It also bears considering that I am licensing photos CC0 (flowers, my dog, weird signs) which are much more granular than say something more substantial like a written piece of work, a book, a chapter, an adapted game.

    It’s one thing to reuse someone’s photo, or quote from a paper, and lapse on the reference, and another thing to pass it off as your own work, for pride, reputation, or money. The former could be a lapse, or just sloppy/lazy, the latter is definitely theft, and always wrong. Yet, knowing someone’s intent is another thing.

    • Yeah. I wasn’t saying u prescribed CC0 for everything! 🙂 I was just breaking it down for myself and even for my photos

  2. It’s very easy to release CC0 after you have already built a reputation. But attribution (as citation) is academic capital (and increasingly, in this age of twitter “zingers”, social capital) and we need to have some capital before we can give it away. Or so goes the argument.

    But is it possible to build a reputation as someone who gives great stuff away? Absolutely (and Cogdog is a great exemplar that I am proud to call a friend and fellow-traveller). Is it easy to convince someone to pay you to this? no.

    I think Audrey Watters is an interesting case, in that her stuff gets ripped off all over the place but she still commits to open sharing. All of us (as bloggers) have pretensions as volunteer journalists, but she has a *career* as a volunteer journalist based on her reputation as an incisive and critical voice.

    Great post, thanks for sharing! Lots to think over.

    • Thanks David. Audrey Alan and Doug are examples of intersectionality here – no stable academic job but famous and with lots of social capital. I don’t know the details of how they built it but I know Alan has always been this way (sharing culture) but used to be affiliated with institutions. So there’s that.

  3. This is wonderful and says more than what I was thinking of saying the other day while reading this in line for lunch (my addition that my mobile device is part of me as Maha stated somewhere/sometime). This topic of when/which license gets into this week’s discussions in all of my classes. Thanks!

  4. wow, Ken that’s GREAT to hear 🙂 thanks

  5. Self attribution is an interesting thing – I found that I had to do it in my academic articles. If I didn’t self-attribute my images I would always get asked “where did you get this from?” … like I wasn’t capable of producing it myself? Like the ideas and artwork in the images had to be someone else’s? Anyways, I found the only way to avoid that type of feedback was to explicitly attribute all images to myself (which BTW – should be the default assumption where there is no attribution)! Makes me a wonder a little of whether this is a gender thing or does it happen to everyone in academia when they show a diagram of a conceptual framework or an illustration that shows how the rest of the article is structured?

    Sorry, tangential rant.

    I worry about OER privilege and how it isn’t talked about enough. How the people creating OER do so in part because they can afford to. And those that cannot afford to work for nothing have their voices squashed by those who already have privilege. And how that “free” textbook means that someone else’s book doesn’t get adopted. It makes me wonder if instead we should be focused more on supporting self-publishing and low-cost rather than no-cost resources. But of course what is low to one is not necessarily low to another and Maha has already talked about the cost of a $1.

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