Graduate Student Authors’ Experiences with Creative Commons Licenses

by | Nov 30, 2021 | 0 comments


Against the Grain Vol. 33#5

By Nancy Sims  (Copyright Program Librarian, University of Minnesota Libraries) 

In the following piece, several authors offer their perspectives (lightly edited from interview prompts) on using Creative Commons licenses with their terminal graduate research papers.  Graduate authors are featured because their works of authorship tend to be developed in various directions subsequent to publication, their decisions tend to reflect their own goals and plans and also the perspectives of more senior scholars, and most importantly, they are in places to lead future directions in academic publishing. 

May 2020, an R1 University in the northeast U.S.

My school encouraged releasing your thesis with a CC license, which I was fine with in principle.  However, I’m in computer science and my thesis came with an accompanying artefact containing a whole bunch of code.  This was all itself freely licensed, but not with CC licenses (which in general aren’t for code)… and it occurred to me that incautious license text in the thesis itself could conflict with those licenses.  This is something that I could deal with — everyone working in software pretty much has to be an armchair IP lawyer — but not when the realization comes at ~11am on the day of the thesis filing deadline and you’ve already been up all night.  So I punted.  I can always distribute my thesis from my webpage, it’s in the university open access archive, and realistically at most a handful of people will ever look at it anyway. 

Morgan Lemmer-Webber
Spring 2021, University of Wisconsin – Madison, Art History
Currently co-founder and director of FOSS and Crafts Studios LLC, and on the academic job market for the upcoming application cycle

My introduction to Creative Commons licenses, free and open source software, and free culture likely took a different path than many scholars.  My wife had been a long time advocate for user freedom and the advancement of the software and cultural commons by the time we met.  At the time I started my master’s program, she was a member of the tech team at Creative Commons.  Therefore I had a fairly sound understanding of the basics of free culture licenses independent of my academic career.

Even with this background knowledge, I still published my master’s thesis with the “all rights reserved” copyright option available through UMI.1  […] I was […] given the impression by multiple senior scholars that publishing original research under a Creative Commons license would limit the ability to publish it down the line in an academic journal or as a monograph through an academic press.

As I progressed on to my PhD program, I became involved in multiple public and digital humanities projects.  These projects gave me a more tangible application for Creative Commons licenses in my own work.  Through this work, I became increasingly involved in advocacy for the use of free software and free culture in academia culminating in co-hosting FOSS & Crafts, an interdisciplinary podcast about free software, free culture, and making things together.

While I had been on this journey of user freedom in parallel to writing my dissertation, I had not seriously considered what license I would release my dissertation under until I was in the final year of writing.  I was conducting an interview with Vicky Rampin (née Steeves) about reproducibility and open research in library sciences for the podcast when my dissertation topic came up.  She suggested that I should slap a Creative Commons license on it and put it up on the Internet when I finished.2  Despite having given it little prior thought, it immediately seemed like the most natural way to proceed given my other advocacy and public scholarship goals. 

After this decision was made, I began thinking about expanding the potential for engagement with my research utilizing the freedom that a Creative Commons license allowed.  I had already had several members of the general public express an interest in my dissertation topic.  Since I already have a platform for public scholarship, I decided to release the official defense copy of my dissertation online3 concurrently to publishing two podcast episodes presenting my research in a manner that is more easily digestible to a public audience.4

My involvement in the free and open source software and free culture movements has, until recently, run parallel to my academic career with only minimal overlap.  However, the common thread that runs through all of my interests has been that of freedom, access, and agency.  My choice to release my dissertation under a Creative Commons license may not currently align with the standard track of academic publishing;  however, I am positive that I have had more public engagement with my scholarship through this route than I would have within the first few months post-graduation had I merely published through ProQuest/UMI.  While the results of further efforts to publish this work remain unseen, I look forward to a future where this route of open access publication for original scholarship is more broadly applied.

Ross Mounce
2013, University of Bath
Currently Director of Open Access Programmes, Arcadia Fund

I didn’t really know about Creative Commons licenses before I started my research but through being invited to give a talk at the 2011 Open Knowledge Conference in Berlin run by the Open Knowledge Foundation, I became sensitised to issues around the lack of open licensing of research outputs.  I soon became an open data activist and then also an open access activist.

I wanted to licence my thesis under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License (CC BY), but the upload portal and signature/declaration form did not have any kind of Creative Commons licensing available as an option.  I am truly indebted to my librarians, including Kara Jones and Katie Evans who realised my desire to make my thesis openly licensed and who helped me achieve that, despite it not being formally available as an option to simply select.  […]

Having vocally advocated for increased use of Creative Commons licensing to the palaeontology community during my PhD research, it was fitting that I lived by my own words and made my thesis available under a Creative Commons license.  My thesis has been cited at least four times as of 2021 (one of those is a self-citation), so I know that people are getting good use out of it. […]

I have no worries about sharing my research under the CC BY license.  If someone wants to sell a print copy of my thesis on Amazon — go for it!  If someone wants to print a bit of my thesis on a mug or a t-shirt, or include it in a rap song — go for it — I would be highly entertained!  I stand to lose nothing from someone else re-using my work, provided that the CC BY licence is fully respected.  I would not want someone to pass-off my work as theirs — e.g., plagiarism.  But I know that the CC BY licence provides recourse against plagiarism if it does occur — proper and sufficient attribution has to be given, and a re-user has to indicate if they make any changes.  […]

I am yet to see an instance of people re-using my research in a way I do not like.  On the contrary, I have seen many instances where people have re-used my research outputs, particularly my data files, that I do “like” as they have further advanced our collective knowledge.  Re-use of research outputs is generally a good thing in my opinion, provided ethics are abided by such as CARE principles.

Bruno Ruviaro
2010, Stanford University
Currently Associate Professor of Music, Santa Clara University

I knew about Creative Commons licenses before I started working on my Doctoral Dissertation.  My Doctor of Musical Arts dissertation consisted of a portfolio of musical compositions presented in concert along with written documentation of the process.  A great deal of the creative scholarship there involved what we call Musical Borrowing, broadly defined as the act of borrowing from other musical compositions in order to produce new pieces of music.  Because of this, my dissertation5 had to tackle questions of copyright from a creative perspective in a quite direct way.  […] 

The dissertation itself, composed primarily of the musical scores and associated documentation, was released using a Creative Commons (CC-BY-NC) license.  I did not have any concerns about sharing the work under this license, nor did any of my advisors or mentors.  Also, the university made it relatively easy to select a Creative Commons license at the time I uploaded the work.  I have routinely released all my works using Creative Commons licenses, and I never had any trouble with it. 

The heavy usage of borrowed samples in my creative work is not anything new, as there have been many musicians past and present whose creative output is greatly indebted to Musical Borrowing in various forms.  Musical ideas flow and evolve a billion times from one musician to another;  at the grassroots level that’s what makes music breathe.  Originality and authorship cannot (should not) be understood in isolation from this larger river of musical memories and exchanges from which we all drink.  Particularly in Electronic Music, the practice of sampling is second nature to many.  I am convinced the law needs to evolve to recognize the multitude of ways in which borrowing happens in music.  At the bottom of this is the very question of what it means to “own” music?  To “own” a sound, a melody, or any other aspect of music?  The increasing encroachment of intellectual property law into multiple domains of music is troubling to me.  It amounts to a privatization of musical expression, akin to a music-specific “primitive accumulation” process where the very building blocks of music are treated as public land to be enclosed, demarcated by barbed wire, its residents expelled, and its usage monopolized and put under strict control.  


1. Lemmer-Webber, “The Body as Ornament,” 2012.

2. FOSS & Crafts, “Vicky Steeves,” 2021.

3. Lemmer-Webber, Morgan.  Women and Wool Working in the Roman Empire. 2021.  University of Wisconsin Madison, PhD Dissertation.

4. FOSS & Crafts, “Women and Wool Working” Parts 1 and 2, 2021.

5. Ruviaro, Bruno.  Intellectual Improperty.  2010.  Stanford U, PhD Dissertation.


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