Creative Commons Attribution Dilemma

Screen Shot of

I recently updated my “home page” or “splash screen”:  Among some other changes that I made was the inclusion of a photo of myself; I was on the “fence” about doing this, because I have never been crazy about photos of myself.  However I bit the bullet and included one taken about 3 years ago by John December at a Web414 meeting.  It is shown here in a screen shot and the original is on Flickr.  One of the questions / concerns that I had in using the photo was to make sure that I followed the license of the work, in this case it was a creative commons license: attribution, non commercial, share and share alike.

I love creative commons licenses

I liked the idea of creative commons from the first moment that I heard about it during a conversation with myself, Rocky Lhotka and Matt Bumgardner on how design patterns out to be shared.  All of the blog entries, photos and podcasts that I have created carry some version of the creative commons license.  In addition to creating works with the license, I use works that others have shared as well (see many of the photos on this site).  I wanted to make that clear, because my dilemma / critique has nothing to do with the license itself.

Attribution means different things to different people

In order to comply with the license, you must attribute the work to the original author (along with the other components like non-commercial use and share and share alike).  Attribution is defined in the creative commons license as:

Attribution — You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).

When I decided to include John’s photo on my site I checked to see if he had any particular instructions for how he wanted the photo attributed to him.  I could not really find any (I checked on his Flickr profile and at his website).  John is not unique in providing instructions for how he wanted the photo attributed to him; it is usually the exception to find instructions on how people want to be attributed.  When I have run across specific instructions they are almost always reasonable examples include: it is usually people preferring their name to be used (instead of a Flickr handle) or having the link go to their blog or home page.

So barring specific instructions, I decided to take a look at the detailed version of the license to see if it provided any more guidance (the version above is the “human readable version).  Section 4.d reads:

If you distribute, publicly display, publicly perform, or publicly digitally perform the Work or any Derivative Works or Collective Works, You must keep intact all copyright notices for the Work and give the Original Author credit reasonable to the medium or means You are utilizing by conveying the name (or pseudonym if applicable) of the Original Author if supplied; the title of the Work if supplied; to the extent reasonably practicable, the Uniform Resource Identifier, if any, that Licensor specifies to be associated with the Work, unless such URI does not refer to the copyright notice or licensing information for the Work.

I found myself scratching my head and breaking out my “I am not a lawyer card” on that one!  Barring any specific instructions I clearly spelled out “Photo by John December” and linked the name to his website.  Another option would have been to link to the photo page on Flickr or to John’s Flickr Profile.

Other media gets even more complicated

Placing photos on a web page is probably the easiest use case for attribution.  You have hyperlinks and great CSS styling to help you out.  Other media, such as printed photos, sound recordings and video aren’t as robust in their ability to attribute.

Links to help you think more about this

Jeff Atwood on Defending Attribution Required
My article on a Creative Commons And PowerPoint Slides
Pete Prodoehl on One of his run-ins with non-Attribution


  • I talked with John at Photocamp Milwaukee 2 and verbally asked him if the attribution was okay; he agreed that it was.  Thanks again for sharing some of your photos under the creative commons license.
  • I just realized that nowhere have I spelled out my preferred attribution.

2 thoughts on “Creative Commons Attribution Dilemma”

  1. I’ve probably not been very good about providing enough to CC over the years. In the last few years, I’ve taken great pains to only use CC or Public Domain materials in presentations and other creative works I’ve done. Of course… this also breaks into what is acceptable fair use of Copyright material as well.

    In general though, I’ve preferred to keep my works under Copyright, and grant license when asked. Sometimes I ask for a little money, sometimes I just ask for the attribution (which essentially makes it CC). When asked, I’m not sure I’ve ever said no to anyone. I guess my big thing is knowing where my work is going, and feeling like I’m in control of it.

    I have had some of my work taken and used without permission and actually found out about, and asked to have it removed. In one case, the person actually claimed it was his, leading to a long email fight involving shadows, ladders and the color of a car in the background before he conceded that he took it.

    I do re-examine my default of Copyright over Creative Commons every now and then… but I guess I feel to protective of my work to totally let it go that way.

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