Technology Management

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Legal, Ethical and Social Considerations of Creative Commons and the Public Domain

Legal, Ethical and Social Considerations of Creative Commons and the Public Domain
Dr. Anne Arendt
Abstract for Event:
Ethics Forum for Faculty Research
Tuesday, November 13, 2012 from 4:00 to 5:15 p.m. in Library Auditorium (LI 120)

What if you want to use music or images or whatnot from someone else in your own work but don’t want to have to contact them or get release forms?   In order to not plagiarize materials, we need to ensure adequate copyright release and attribution for resources we use. This is where creative commons and the public domain come in—these items already have some level of copyright release in place.  Instead of focusing on copyright issues and limitations, this presentation will focus on items placed in whole or in part into the public domain.


Ownership and rights issues relating to resources available on the Internet can be a source of angst, confusion and legal battles. In part this is due to the automatic copyright many individuals receive, including United States residents, upon creation of an original work. Now, however, there are options available for relaxing these rights. The service primarily used for these purposes both nationally and globally is Creative Commons ( One of these options is Creative Commons Zero (CC0). Essentially, CC0 permits originators of materials of varying sorts to opt to put those materials into the public domain – waiving all copyright and intellectual rights

For those who are not familiar with Creative Commons or public domain some additional definition may be in order. Creative Commons ( is a non-profit organization that has established alternative copyright licenses for the public, which are known as Creative Commons licenses. These licenses vary based on certain features: attribution requirements, share alike stipulations, non-commercial or commercial permissions, and whether the works can be altered. Most of these licenses do not release materials into the public domain (Creative Commons, 2012). The public domain is “the realm of material—ideas, images, sounds, discoveries, facts, texts—that is unprotected by intellectual property rights and free for all to use or build upon” (Center for the Study of Public Domain, n.d.). Items go into the public domain when rights have expired, been forfeited, or are not applicable for some reason.

In the case of CC0, the author chooses to put the materials in the public domain. As Creative Commons states, “Copyright and other laws throughout the world automatically extend copyright protection to works of authorship and databases, whether the author or creator wants those rights or not. CC0 gives those who want to give up those rights a way to do so, to the fullest extent allowed by law. Once the creator or a subsequent owner of a work applies CC0 to a work, the work is no longer his or hers in any meaningful sense under copyright law. Anyone can then use the work in any way and for any purpose, including commercial purposes, subject to other laws and the rights others may have in the work or how the work is used. Think of CC0 as the ‘no rights reserved’ option” (Creative Commons, 2012).

The ability for originators of works and materials to place these items into the public domain affects not just that individual but also all others who might make use of the resources or be affected by others who make use of the resources. In academics, this could have an impact on virtually all disciplines and areas of emphasis. It also has direct ties to consideration of what constitutes appropriate technology. In technology management, a technology is appropriate when “its intended positive consequences outweigh its unintended negative consequences” (Markert & Backer, 2010). The appropriateness of the technology is evaluated on technical, cultural and economic factors (Markert & Backer, 2010).

The implementation of copyright or intellectual rights options such as those of CC0 directly or indirectly brings up a number of legal, ethical and social considerations. One such consideration is how an individual’s decision to place materials in the public domain could potentially affect others both positively and negatively. Another consideration involves situations in which the person who waived rights may not have had clear authority to do so for the full extent of the materials. Consider, for example, if the author used other individual’s resources in which to make his or her own work. Still another consideration may be the value, quality and social or cultural meaning of the content put in public domain. Still one more consideration may be how an individual’s, group’s or institution’s rights might merge, converge or diverge from those of the individuals affiliated with that institution or company.

One area likely to be both directly and indirectly impacted by the increasing availability of public domain, and perceived to be in the public domain, resources are libraries. After all, a public library is one that is accessible by the public, contains a collection of literary documents or records kept for reference or borrowing and is generally funded from public sources. In the United States there are approximately 9,225 public libraries (administrative entities) in the 50 states and the District of Columbia (U.S. Census, 2009).

Based on the above, research is being done on the awareness, complexity and effects of CC0 and related licenses on libraries as perceived by library directors (libraries) and managers (branches) across the United States. In order to accomplish this, a quantitative survey is being administered via email inquiry and an anonymous online Web survey form which contains a series of content items, written as semi-structured questions, which ask about the respondents’ opinions, attitudes, knowledge and behavior (Graziano & Raulin, 2004; McMillan & Schumacher, 1997) relating to Creative Commons, public domain, and CC0 in specific.

Come learn about Creative Commons, public domain, CC0 and the aims of this research in relation to its potential legal, ethical and social impacts. There is much to be learned and even more to be considered.