Adventures in Digital History

Fair Use, Creative Commons, & Copyright

If there is one thing I’ve learned about since being taught the fundamentals of digital technologies, it’s the application of fair use, creative commons licenses, and copyright. These concepts are far more widespread now than they were ten years ago, but I’m willing to bet anyone reading this post has some idea what these things are. I personally watch quite a bit of YouTube, and the content creators seem to always be fighting copyright and manipulating media within creative commons. I have used some of these methods as well. For example, Kevin MacLeod, the metaphorical “god” of royalty-free music, is an easily recognizable name on the internet for his ambient music tracks used in almost every video and commercial these days. I guarantee you’ve heard at least one of his songs, because I’ve even heard them used in high-profile commercials for big name companies. However, the logistics of music versus historical copyright are fairly different than YouTube.

It was requested that we look at the some Wikipedia articles, specifically the changes history and discussion pages. I chose to look at the Digital History and Claude Shannon pages. I chose these two pages because of the connections to digital history and the history of the information age, which are two topics that are interconnected by the history of digital technologies. One thing I noticed about both pages is that they were updated fairly recently. There are many, many revisions posted in the history as well. The digital history page has 500 pages of revisions alone. However, the discussion pages are quite thorough as well. Many of the people who edit these pages are knowledgeable about the topics they are posting about, providing sources and discussing the changes being made. While Wikipedia is free to use and pretty much anyone can edit it, there are people who monitor and try to fact check information. Moreover, sources must be provided as well. There are some pages on lesser known subjects that can be lacking in these important features, but the two articles I looked at are very well maintained. I personally use Wikipedia as a starting point for most research because of this. Their sources have to come from somewhere, and those citations can be very helpful!

Another big thing to consider is fair use. Fair use is pretty simple to explain, because it’s a United States law that permits limited use of copyrighted materials. So, all those copyrighted images, videos, and music clips you’ve used in the past for presentations? Since they are being used for educational purposes, that’s fair use. I’ve done my fair share or this. It anyone wants to see my own liberal use of fair use, simple watch my short video-documentary on John Forbes Nash Jr. that I created for Dr. McClurken’s History of Mental Health class. Everything in that video falls under fair use, and I absolutely abused the educational clause to create it. The important thing is I cited everything I put in that video. Give credit where credit is due, and fair use will be your friend. Don’t, and copyright claims will be your worst enemy.

On the topic of fair use, you have to take creative commons into consideration as well. Creative commons licenses are public copyright licenses that allow the distribution of copyrighted work. You can assign creative commons licenses to your own work. I have experience with creative commons because of my photography work. Like any artist, I don’t want other to unjustly steal my work and claim it as their own. For that reason, I assign some of the more stringent CC licenses to my photographs. I do this more so with my black and white prints than my digital photographs, simply because the prints are works of art created by hand in a darkroom, versus the digital editing done to the digital photographs. However, I would also enforce harsher CC on any other art I create. A common problem I see online has to do with stolen artwork, especially with the more-recent issues with NFTs. However, creative commons is also applied to a lot of music. Musicians like Kevin MacLeod create music that people are allowed to use without being claimed. Some videos are set up this way as well. Google actually have a search function that allows you to filter content based on CC licenses, making it easier for someone to avoid copyright infringement.

For our own projects, creative commons is a bit up in the air. We are essentially taking other people’s projects, fixing and adapting them to 2022 standards without modifying much else. Out of all the licenses, I think Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike CC BY-NC-SA would fit our project best. According to the Creative Commons site, “This license lets others remix, adapt, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.” Since we are primarily working with other works that are not our own, credit should be given. This is also an academic project that others can use as a foundation for their own research into the various topics the sites cover. Plus, I don’t think any of us would like for our hard work to go to waste, making this an optimal choice of licensing.


  • Laura Baldwin

    First of all: thank you for the excellent description and definition of Creative Commons! I think I get the gist of it, but I find it a little confusing, so your explanation was very helpful in gaining a greater understanding of it. I also think that Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike CC BY-NC-SA licence would work best for my group’s project because we want to make the information we collect and interpret to be accessible for others, and if others want to use our information to create something else, as long as it is non-commercial and also available for others to build off of, then that just helps advance our mission.

    • Lyndsey Clark

      Glad my explanation was helpful! Creative commons can be confusing sometimes, but I like having it as an option to protect my work. Sometimes it can be a bit daunting figuring out what fits your work best, but that’s why you have the choice. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike CC BY-NC-SA seems lenient enough to work well with most of our project, yet strict enough to ensure we get credited for our work.

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