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Parkin Space: Intellectual Property and the Internet


A trainer’s life is spent neck-deep in intellectual property. Everything we read, every process we teach, every concept we quote, every idea we apply, every training experience we design, every paper we write oozes with intellectual property. The laws which control what we can do with it have always been simple in concept but complex in the details.

Unless you create the work for your employer on company time, or you are a work-for-hire contractor, you automatically acquire copyright over anything that you write, draw or photograph. You don’t need to register your work (or even assert copyright overtly) to have the legal right to decide how others can use it. In fact the law acts as a lockbox by default: unless you specifically grant someone a defined right to use your material, they may not copy it or make derivatives of it, for any purpose. Beyond that, it gets murky and lawyers have to get involved.

So how do you grant limited rights to your work without abdicating all your rights and without having to engage a lawyer to sign an agreement with each and every person who would like to exploit it? Or, if you want to use someone else’s material, how do you do so legally without having to negotiate a contract?

It’s easy, if the work is published under a Creative Commons (CC) license, using a choice of easily-understood licenses available online for free. Founded by a Stanford law professor, and fueled by the blogging explosion, Creative Commons has been around in the US since 2001. CC licenses are popular among those who write online, create music, or publish their art or photography online, and it has taken hold in the offline world too.

Till recently, the carefully-crafted legalese behind the licenses invoked American law and American legal language. Now, as of November 1, there is a UK version of Creative Commons. Over the coming year, local legal versions will roll out in more than 60 countries.

Everything I write online (with the exception of things I do for other people) is published under a Creative Commons license that gives anyone the right to re-publish the work and/or derivatives of it on condition that I am acknowledged. No need to contact me, no need to ask permission, no need to talk to my lawyer. I could have chosen a CC license with more liberal or more restrictive conditions, simply by clicking the appropriate buttons when I selected it online at the Creative Commons site

Anyone finding my independent writing on the internet sees a CC icon and, by clicking on it, can know immediately what use-restrictions exist. Here’s the really clever part: because licensed work links back to Creative Commons, their search engine can find material whose legal status matches your needs. Looking for a game to use as an ice-breaker or a photo of an Olympic champion? Creative Commons might deliver what you need in a way that cuts through the legal red tape.

There is already a lot of Creative Commons licensed content available online, and that pool expands daily as individuals and organizations endorse the concept. One of the latest on board is the BBC, who are building the “Creative Archive” in which substantial amounts of BBC archive material will be made available for downloading and use. That’s going to be a treasure trove of audio, video, and photographic material for educators and trainers.

It’s the philosophy behind Creative Commons that appeals to me most. No, not the notion of making lawyers less necessary (though I am all for that), but the idea of making more and more readily re-usable learning material available online. Not in the restrictive SCORM sense, but in the sense of people’s thoughts, experiences, favourite tools and techniques, published in whatever informal way they see fit. The more generous we are with our own ideas, the more we will ultimately benefit from those of others. To me, this is the still-untapped power of the Internet.

* To read all of Godfrey Parkin's columns, go to Parkin Space


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