Brian Lamb: “I think Creative Commons is a cultural agreement”

Brian Lamb at the festival ZEMOS98 (Sevilla, Spain)

Brian Lamb at the festival ZEMOS98. Photo by Julio Albarrán (CC BY-NC-SA) (Sevilla, Spain)

In the small community of Kamloops, in the interior of British Columbia, Brian Lamb is the Director of Innovation at Thompson Rivers University Open Learning and gives interesting opinions about Creative Commons and intellectual property.

This interview was previously featured in the post Canadians using CC licenses. Lamb is one of the members of the Creative Commons Canada Advisory Board and founded some the earliest campus services for blogs and wikis in Canada. His weblog,, is highly recommendable.

 – How did you start using Creative Commons?

I worked in education technology medium for a long time and, early on, I got really frustrated with traditional education technology that tends to be so controlled – “This is your classroom, this is activity 1, this is activity 2” – because on my spare time I was using a weblog, wikis… and I thought “This is way easier, way cheaper, more fun” and I felt I was more interested on using those kinds of technologies but, really early on, with this kind of open sharing resources issues, copyright was always such an issue.

In the education world, where we want to take an image and put it in our core system we had people who his fulltime jobs was just writing, asking for permission and keeping track of people asking for permissions that said: “oh, but only for four months”, “only for these 30 people”. So, then, you will be doing a class and you couldn’t share the activity of your class with the world because you’re using a resource that they didn’t want to share.

But again, in my spare time, on my blog, we where sharing each other all the time and we were using material, probably a lot of time breaking the law but we didn’t care and it was clearly such a better way to work. When I talked to professors, a lot of them said: “Would you release your work more openly so we can be more innovative and have more dynamic online learning experiences and use the web the way I seen it being used everywhere except in education?” and professors always said the same things: “I’m happy to share my work, I want to share my work, but I’m afraid if I release my work – the only option they had was copyright or the public domain and at that time people thought everything published on the Internet was automatically public domain, there was a lot of  confusion ten years ago about what you’re aloud to do, what you’re  not – so people would always had the same objections: “If I release my work under public domain someone can still my things and I won’t get any credit” or “I’m afraid someone would take my work and put it into a textbook or an electronic resource without getting my permission or giving my share of the money”.

I probably first heard about Creative Commons in 2004-2005 and it was just such a liberate thing saying “Here is a set of works, and really conditions are: yes, you get attribution from your work and you decide whether is commercial or not”. And when I showed those professors with those objections that create your licenses screen was just answer questions “Yes” or “no”, practically speaking was a really powerful tool for me to say to people: “Yes, you can share your work”.

That was how I got involved, not in a formal level, but it was very exciting to see something relatively easy to understand, relatively practical, and that had, at least… and as I got into it I realize there are questions that had not being resolved but, at that time, it was the closest thing we had as a legal framework to point people to and it was and still is a very valuable thing for me when I want educators to be more open on their practices, because it gives them an amount of protection that makes them feel better.

– The creators using Creative Commons is actually protected by the law? 

There is no much case law with Creative Commons licenses and relatively few cases of people putting legal recourses. But I’d say, for example, my previous university (UBC) there was a case where a photographer had a photograph share in Creative Commons (Non-Commercial) and he thought because UBC charged tuition, counted as Commercial and he wanted money and end up setting a payment with him, mostly because it was cheaper that going to Court. He signed and agreement in knowledge that we violate his licenses and as a courtesy we gave him a small fee.

It’s something that has some legal way obviously but what I’ve seen more often is that in cases like that. There was a case where a person, a Corporate Consultant on Education, was taking my blog posts and syndicating them into his website, what he could do except his syndication system took my name off it and was not linking back to my blog, so he really was stealing my work. I found out about it because other people saw it and told me and I recognize it was my work and he was doing it to a number of people. What we did: we went on our blogs and we linked the saying “This guy is stealing our work” and it was all over the Internet so it was gone at the end of the day.

There wasn’t a lot of legal weight behind Creative Commons but I think the social agreement implied by the license actually does carry a lot of weight and I saw it many times, where people is taking photos and you call them on it.

– How you define the impact of an intellectual property infringement under Creative Commons?

I never paid so much attention to “Non-Commercial” or “Share Alik, I don’t think it is very clear. “Commercial” or “Non-Commercial” is unclear. There are confusion about where universities charging tuitions make ‘commercial use’ or not.

I always thought Creative Commons was more like a social or cultural badge. When I put my Creative Commons license on my website, is not so much the legal piece but I’m kind of telling the world “I like to share. If you want to use my stuff, go ahead” and Creative Commons has communicative curly, wherever I think about how to do Attribution, the idea that you need to provide some kind of Attribution and, at least, link back, is that, really, widely understood? If you want to reuse Creative Commons material, I think people everyone would understand you need to, at least, and if I get that, that is really all I care about.

I think Creative Commons is a cultural agreement. Like when you go to somebody’s house and there is like 20 people, maybe someone is smoking marihuana. You are in a private residence and everyone is cool with it. Is it really a problem? I don’t know if Creative Commons stands as a legal value, I almost don’t care but is almost a way to say, “We, as a culture, agree that we are all cool with this and if we follow these simple rules, we are not going to cost trouble to each other.”

I didn’t like this photographer may not want to share that image, he could wrote and say “take down that image” and I would even I think I had all the rights to use that image on a university website, but it is a cultural thing, a form of saying: “I like to share, I like to reuse, I’d do my best to respect your work and I’d agree if you want to reuse my stuff”. I think Creative Commons definitely needs to mature as a legal entity but, for the most part, function pretty well as a set of cultural norms or cultural agreements, but the problem we run into now, for example as Creative Commons is used more and more in education, for example, and universities want to make strategic decisions to release their material: “What does that mean?”

That kind of “happy cultural agreement” might be for you and me, for me taking one of your photographs, put it on my blog and linking back to you but it may be different for institutions with budgets of hundreds and hundreds of millions per year and government going oversight.  That is where Creative Commons need to mature. This is partly why I volunteer to be in the Creative Commons Canada Advisory Board because I’m very interested in this discussion and how it will be.

I don’t know how it will work, maybe it will won’t, and maybe we will get to a point where we realize the interests are too powerful for a cultural agreement to happen.

– Creative Commons may not work for public institution use in the future?

Not necessarily,  I think it has work very well on personal cultural levels and it needs to mature before we can think about it bigger. It happens the same with “copyright”: what is ‘fair dealing’? Try to get it clear. Good luck on trying to explain the differences. Part of that is just the nature of copyright law and intellectual property. Is complex. It involves judgment and you can’t quantify so you will always have judgment involved.

We are going to be struggling if we want to have a sharing economy in industries and institutions where intellectual property is a valuable commodity, even we will recognize our interests to share.

– What about websites, special social network platforms like Tumblr or Pinterest, where often people shares content not-Creative Commons licensed ‘freely’ like if it was under these licences?

That’s part of it too. In many ways, Creative Commons is playing catch up all over the Internet. You could argue that Internet is out of control and Creative Commons is not necessarily a way to control but to create simple rules that people would feel more comfortable with and I don’t know how we would ever address those kind of users [using copyright content as copyleft] without changing the Internet in ways that will be… that will have a lot of bad effects, too.

Actually, when I put something on my blog, I almost expect anyone can steal anything, really and partly that’s why I started with no-rights licences, I just have BY (Attribution) mainly because I want the credit, not because I want the glory, I’m just interested: if you take something I did and you use it, I just would be curious on what you’re doing, I like to see it because it’s interesting to me. If you build something that makes something else I’d be interested and happy.

Only one time I actually complain, when this Corporate Consultant on Education Technology was using my articles. He is one of those consultants that charge thousands of dollars a day to come to universities like mine to tell us what to do and he was taking my work as his. He is using my job to tell my university how to do my job and he is taking my stuff. There is where I actually felt like “you’re violating my licenses” and that was probably the only time I felt like that.

If I see someone taking my work, and this happens a lot online, we could call it a mug, or collective digital storytelling: we take each others images and we Photoshop them, play with them and make fun of each other. Sometimes we remember to put the attribution and sometimes we don’t, but nobody cares because it is understood, is among friends, even we don’t know each other, like you’re part of this course and you kind of joining a club where you understand the rules where this works.

I can’t imagine how Creative Commons will come up with a set of licenses that will make the president of my university and the legal department of my university; I don’t know how that will work.

That works with DS106, an online mug, a course on digital storytelling. It runs as a formal course in Virginia but people can participate as a paid in other certain ways. You can write things on your own blog and it gets syndicated on this website if you tagged. You can find stuff from other people. Hundreds of people all over the world using this tag and they share.

– What is needed to have more people, creators and consumers, awared of Creative Commons?

There are people not knowing about Creative Commons as there are people not knowing about copyright law. That is one of the reasons why I volunteer in the Advisory group. Sometimes, I’m a bit of an anarquist and I like people to know about things but sometimes people need to have an organization and be like, you know: “this is my job”. I’m going to get this done by the end of the year” and one of the mandates of Creative Commons is to try to inform people about these things. I think, for all the criticisms of Creative Commons, that’s a value there, because somebody needs to be doing education on ways of sharing on the Internet that still basically respects people and allow people to have some way the material could be reuse and how to do it.

There are other initiatives, like that group, Zemos 98, they started giving up on Creative Commons but started Copy Love, which is much loser than Creative Commons and more and more I’ve seen artists that are putting open sharing and are not in Creative Commons because they thought it became too much institutional, to legalistic and too stretch. And I think it is legitimate.  But there I think there is some value on having an organization (Creative Commons) that would put up on events, create resources, and distribute them in schools and having these conversations. But I don’t think it should be, necessarily, pushing the Creative Commons licenses and say “that is how you should do it”. I do workshops like that and I want to know but there should be rooms for Copy Love, too. Is good to have these conversations because nobody really knows…

The definition of Creative Commons’ “Non-Commercial” is about 140 pages and there’s no answers, is just a collection of peoples opinions. They did a consultation “What is non-commercial?” last year and these licenses have being around for 10 years.  “Share Alike”, I think I know what that means but so many times, when I’m with other people we are all about open education and open culture but when we talk about it, it came clear that we have different definitions on what that means. We need a part of humility on it and don’t pretend to Creative Commons being the ‘perfect expression’ but it can be a good mechanism to have an on-going discussion. I think. I hope. That’s why I volunteer in the Advisory Board.

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