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Appendix D: Analyzing “Attribution” and “ShareAlike”

The Attribution-ShareAlike License is suggested as an ideal license for discipleship resources intended for use by the global church. The “Attribution” condition provides a crucial pointer to the original work for users of derivative works, ensuring the authoritativeness of the original. The “ShareAlike” condition locks the work “open”, by requiring all derivative works to be made available under the same license.

Of the six primary Creative Commons Licenses, the Attribution-ShareAlike is optimally suited for discipleship resources intended for use by the global church. The two conditions of the license work together to form a license that provides the necessary legal freedom, even through multiple generations of derivative works. The two conditions of the license are considered in detail here.

“Attribution” Points the World to You

The “Attribution” condition requires that any use of the content, like a translation or adaptation, clearly attribute the original work to the original creator. This attribution statement should provide a hyperlink to the website of the owner of the original content (where applicable), and state the license under which the original work is available. A statement of attribution for an adaptation of a fictitious study guide for the book of Romans might say something like this:

Based on A Study of Romans by John Doe (www.example.com), available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0).

This simple statement of attribution accomplishes a number of important things. It clearly states:

  • the name of the original work

  • the name of the original work’s creator

  • the website where the original work can be found

  • the license under which the original work is made available.

Any derivative work made from this fictitious example is legally required to include a similar statement of attribution. This provides an unbroken chain back to the original work.

What is the worst thing that you could imagine happening to a discipleship resource that you release under Attribution-ShareAlike? For some, it is the possibility that someone of the denomination they disagree with most might take their resource and change the doctrinal distinctives of it to reflect their own particular view of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, eternal security, etc. The thought that their name might be associated (in the attribution statement) with doctrine about which they disagree is horrifying to them. For others, the concern is that the discipleship resource could be corrupted—whether malevolently or accidentally—by others and this might reflect back to them, given that their name is clearly stated in the attribution statement.

It is important to understand that a statement of attribution is not a statement of endorsement. An attribution of the original work to the original creator, does not in any way imply that the creator of the original work endorses (or is even aware of) this particular use of it. The statement of attribution merely states what the original work is, who the creator of the original work is, and that they released the work under a license that permits reuse of the content.

In the traditional model of the analog world, any mention by name in a work was often seen as an implicit endorsement of the work by the named entity. Not so in the digital world and the realm of the Creative Commons. In this new context, attribution is nothing more than an indicator to the consumer of the derivative work that the work is built using portions of an original work created by the original content creator who provides no official endorsement, authorization or connection to the content of the derivative work. This is why the terms of the Attribution-ShareAlike License specifically state that the attribution is not to be made in a way that suggests any endorsement of the derivative by the creator of the original content.

The second thing to note about the statement of attribution is the importance of the link to the website specified by the creator of the original work. In the digital world, you cannot control what happens to your content. Attempting to control or prevent the creation of derivative works is fighting a losing battle. You can, however, control what is on your own website. The Attribution-ShareAlike License requires that any derivative work—good or bad—contain a hyperlink, where hyperlinks are possible, to the website specified by the copyright holder of the original work on which the derivative work is based. This simple requirement changes everything.

A hyperlink is a statement attributing authoritativeness to the original content creator. It says, effectively, “I acknowledge that what I have created is not my work alone and the original on which it is based is located here.” Each hyperlink back to the original is a vote in favor of the authoritativeness of the original. In terms of Internet search algorithms, this boosts the “search engine optimization” of the original website, increasing their ranking in relevant search results. All of this translates into increased exposure and mindshare for the creator of the original content. As more of their content is used in other derivative works that are then distributed by others all over the digital world, each one of those works is legally required to contain a link back to the original. This is nothing but good for the creator of the original content.

People tend to want to go to the original. The “Attribution” condition provides any consumer of the content with a clear “chain of title” back to the original work. When they click on that hyperlink to get to the original, they are taken to the website specified by the creator of the original work. The content creator now has both the authority and the opportunity to establish their own identity in the mind of the consumer, based on the original content that is available on their website, which is controlled by them and is the highest authority for their work. The original, authoritative work is thus able to exhibit its doctrinal soundness and provide the standard by which all derivatives are to be judged.

On their authoritative website, the content owner may list which translations of the content are “official” and which ones are user-generated. They may have other works available to the consumer (whether free or otherwise). They may provide a forum for discussing the content or to request help with translation of the content into other languages. They may also have an up-to-date list of known derivative works that should be avoided, alerting consumers to content that is specifically not endorsed by the creator of the original content.

For all these reasons, the requirement of “Attribution” is a crucial component of the Attribution-ShareAlike License. That said, there may be situations and contexts where a content owner does not want attribution in a derivative work. If content has been released under an Attribution-ShareAlike License and the use of the content does not violate the license, the owner of the original cannot require the creator of the derivative work to “cease and desist” their use of the content. But Creative Commons licenses provide several mechanisms that allow the copyright holder to choose not to be associated with derivative works or uses of their content with which they disagree. The Creative Commons FAQ says this on the topic:

All CC licenses prohibit using the attribution requirement to suggest that the original author or licensor endorses or supports a particular use of a work. This “No Endorsement” provision protects reputation, and its violation constitutes a violation of the license and results in automatic termination. Second, licensors may waive the attribution requirement—choose not to be identified as the author or licensor of the work—if they wish. Third, if a work is modified or incorporated into a collection, and the original author or licensor does not like the how the work has been modified or used in the collection, Creative Commons licenses require that the person modifying the work or incorporating the work into a collection remove reference to the original author or licensor upon notice. Finally, if the selected Creative Commons license permits modifications and adaptations of the original work, then the person modifying the work must indicate that the original has been modified. This ensures that changes made to the original work—whether or not acceptable to the original author or licensor—are not attributed back to the licensor.1

“ShareAlike” Locks the Content Open

As important as the “Attribution” condition is, the “ShareAlike” condition is equally important. It prevents the “locking down” of any derivative works, keeping them open for use by others while also limiting the potential for commercial exploitation of the content.

Another commonly used Creative Commons license is called the “Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY).” As you might guess, it is identical to the “Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (CC BY-SA)” apart from the fact that the “ShareAlike” condition is not used. The foundational difference between the two is that derivative works made from an Attribution license are not required to be distributed under the same license. By contrast, derivative works made from an Attribution-ShareAlike License are. This might not seem like a significant difference at first, but the implications become especially clear in the context of world missions and the translation of discipleship resources by and for the global church that speaks other languages.

Let’s say the fictitious work A Study of Romans is released by John Doe under a Creative Commons Attribution license, without the “ShareAlike” condition. The work is made available online and is soon discovered by believers in other parts of the world who are bilingual in English. Word gets out, people get interested, and legal translations of the work are started by believers speaking a dozen different languages. They complete their translations and each one duly provides a statement of attribution in the beginning of the work, specifying that it is a translation from John Doe’s original work. So far so good, but note carefully what has happened.

The Attribution license (without a ShareAlike condition) grants anyone legal freedom to translate the work, but when they do so, what they create automatically belongs to them, with “all rights reserved” by default. Such is the nature of copyright law. In this situation, John Doe would be legally locked out of the translations of his own book, in the same way that others were locked out of his original book before he released it under an open license. Unless the translators of the work choose to voluntarily release their translations under an open license—so that others, including John Doe, can access and use them—their translation work is their own and all rights are reserved to them.

Now imagine that a publishing company finds out about these translations and has the opportunity and means to strike a deal with the translators. The company would be able to legally buy the rights to those translations without any obligation to make them available with the same freedom that was given by John Doe when he originally released it. The Creative Commons Attribution License is an excellent license that can be extremely useful in the right contexts. But it is not ideal as a general license for use in the equipping of the global church with adequate discipleship resources in every language of the world, because it fails to maintain the openness and freedom of derivative works made from the original content.

Now imagine the exact same context, with the exception that John Doe released the fictitious A Study of Romans under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. Everything remains the same with one crucial difference: John Doe (and anyone else) are able to access and use the translations of his work with the same freedom that he made available in his original work. The Attribution-ShareAlike License includes the legal requirement that derivative works of the original content may only be distributed under the same (or functionally similar) license. In this way, what was intended to be free and open, remains free and open, forever.2

 

 

1 “Frequently Asked Questions,” n.d., http://wiki.creativecommons.org/Frequently_Asked_Questions

2 Another advantage of this license that stems from the ShareAlike condition is that it is ideally suited to prevent the problems of “joint ownership” of works that are created collaboratively. When each contributor to a project agrees to release their contributions under an Attribution-ShareAlike License, the completed work can be freely used according to the terms of the license without the ambiguity and legal complications of a jointly owned, “all rights reserved” work. This is one of the many reasons that openly collaborative projects like Wikipedia use the Attribution-ShareAlike License.