DIY A2J 6: How to Share Your Public Writing While Retaining Authorial Control

Although its use is of questionable significance in the age of the internet, many of us mark our public writing, including our public legal education materials, with a copyright statement asserting an exclusive right to control the use and distribution of our work. This is a fairly normal thing to do, and almost universal among legal aid providers; after all, when you’ve sweat blood over something, you want to keep it for yourself and you don’t want to discover someone else claiming it as their own or using it for their own purposes.

I certainly felt that way and my old website, BC Family Law Resource, used to sport a prominent copyright statement on every page and a longer, somewhat contradictory statement in the Terms of Use section that allowed for limited reuse:

DIY 6 Old Copyright

My views mellowed over time and, sometime in 2010 or 2011, I began to rethink my approach and eventually came to the conclusions that:

  1. I didn’t particularly want to hoard knowledge, like a squirrel with a stash of acorns heading into winter, but preferred to share it as widely as possible;
  2. I could withstand the narcissistic injury of my work’s appropriation, and in fact the appropriation of my work, if it helped someone, was actually rather flattering; and,
  3. what really bugged me, deep down, were the ideas that someone would take my work and use it for a commercial purpose and that someone wouldn’t at least say that it was I who was the source of material.

Besides, it’s not like I was making any money off this stuff anyway. After looking around for a more flexible option than a copyright claim that would let me keep some control while improving others’ ability to use and reuse my material, I discovered the Creative Commons conditional license.

Creative Commons, whose mandate is to “develop, support and steward legal and technical infrastructure that maximizes digital creativity, sharing and innovation,” has developed six licences that are written in plain language (which they nicely call “human readable”), backed by a proper legal license, and readable by third-party software. The licenses vary according to the rights you want others to have:

  • the Attribution license lets others distribute, adjust, edit and build on your work, and even use it for commercial purposes, as long as (1) you are credited for the original;
  • the Attribution Share-Alike license lets others distribute, adjust, edit and build on your work, and even use it for commercial purposes, as long as (1) you are credited for the original and (2) they make their work shareable on the same terms as your work;
  • the Attribution No-Derivatives license lets others distribute your work, and even use it for commercial purposes, as long as (1) you are credited for the original and (2) your work is unaltered from the original;
  • the Attribution Non-Commercial license lets others distribute, adjust, edit and build on your work, as long as (1) you are credited for the original and (2) they only take, copy and adapt your work for non-commercial purposes;
  • the Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike license lets others distribute, adjust, edit and build on your work, as long as (1) you are credited for the original, (2) they only take, copy and adapt your work for non-commercial purposes and (3) they make their work shareable on the same terms as your work; and,
  • the Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivatives license lets others distribute your work, as long as (1) you are credited for the original, (2) they only take, copy and adapt your work for non-commercial purposes and (3) your work is unaltered from the original.

I use the Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike license. I like the freedom it gives others to copy and reuse my work as they like, I like the obligation it puts on them to adopt my view that information they make should be shared on the same terms, and I like that it prevents people from making a buck off my hard work.

If you’d like to adopt a Creative Commons license, go to creativecommons.org/choose/ and select the terms you’d like. It’s extraordinarily easy. When you’re done, which should take all of two minutes, the website will give you a customized bit of HTML code that you can copy and paste into your own website. The code will give you the graphic icon of the licence and provide a link to the human readable form of the license:

DIY 6 CC website

… as well as the proper legal text of the license:

DIY 6 CC code

Here’s what the Creative Commons code gives me when pasted into my family law blog (the graphic icon for the license is the black and grey box):

DIY 6 blog

… and here’s what it looks like in the wikibook JP Boyd on Family Law, which was born of my old public legal education website:

DIY 6 Wiki 2

This way, people can take the material I’ve licensed and do what they want with it as long as: I get credit as the author of the source material; they don’t use my material, or what they’ve created with it, for a commercial purpose; and, they share their work with others on the same terms.

Incidentally, the wikibook just mentioned is really the ultimate example of reuse… in 2013, I gave the content of my old website to Courthouse Libraries BC, after an extensive rewrite to accommodate the province’s then new Family Law Act. The wikibook is kept current by a team of twenty lawyers overseen by three editors emeriti from the judiciary and a multidisciplinary advisory committee made up of lawyers, educators and librarians. The entire contents of the wikibook, which run to more than 650 pages in its print version, are made available for anyone to use, copy, store and republish. (The Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family has just finished a study looking at the short- and long-term effects of the wikibook and reaching some impressive conclusions. I’ll write more about the study shortly, as the results are highly supportive of this model of public legal education.)

If you’d like to start licensing your public legal education material with a Creative Commons license, here are some tips and suggestions:

1. Decide ahead of time what level of reuse you’re comfortable with. There is some risk in choosing a license that allows others to edit, adapt and manipulate your work as a result of the possibility that the legal meaning of your work may become distorted or inaccurate. 

2. If you give the Creative Commons website a bit more information about you and the work you are licensing, the HTML code will include a snippet that is readable by third-party software.

3. Nothing is stopping you from using these licenses on print materials, however be sure to provide the address of the specific page on the Creative Commons website that explains the terms of reuse provided by the license.

4. Make a point of telling your readers and users that they can take, copy, reuse and adapt your work! 

It took me awhile to get over the feeling of giving up control of things that I’d worked at fairly hard, however once you get there, you’ll find that it’s a relief to simply release your work into the wild and to stop worrying about plagiarizing university students and thieving non-profits. I highly recommend it.

John-Paul Boyd is the executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family. The Institute is a federally-incorporated charity established in 1987 and is affiliated with the University of Calgary

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