Why the Comprehensive Attribution Statement Makes Sense

The other day I was pointed via a tweet by David Wiley to the Comprehensive Attribution Statement (CAS) that Lumen uses. The CAS is part of Lumen’s “attribution architecture”, which is to say it provides a standard way to cite content sources. In short, it’s a sort of endnote format for remixed content. Here’s the distinctions it makes:

The LLAA builds up a comprehensive attribution statement (CAS) from several smaller attribution primitives (AP). Each individual attribution primitive corresponds to a type of content:

  • Original content – Material that was either created specifically for the Open Course Framework (OCF) or material created previously that has never been published before (e.g., a faculty member’s lecture notes)
  • CC licensed content – Materials previously released under a Creative Commons license
  • Copyrighted video content – Materials from YouTube, Vimeo, and other sources whose Terms of Use allow embedding
  • Public domain content – Materials no longer covered by copyright
  • CC licensed content with specific attribution requirements

Attribution primitives should be listed in this order, with all type 1 attributions preceding all type 2 attributions, all type 2 attributions preceding all type 3 attributions, etc. The exception to this rule is attribution of original content created by Lumen Learning, which should always be listed last.

And here’s what a statement like that might look like in practice:

This page is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License and contains content from a variety of sources published under a variety of open licenses, including:

  • Original content contributed by Mr. Putey of the Anglo-French Silly Walk Initiative.
  • Content created by Edmund Blackadder for the History of English Dictionaries project, originally published at http://someurl456.org/ under a CC BY license.
  • The video documentary of the Kennedy assassination was created by Dave Lister and published at http://youtube.com/linktovideo. This video is copyrighted and is not licensed under an open license. Embedded as permitted by YouTube’s Terms of Use.
  • Content created by Henry Wensleydale.
  • Original content created by Lumen Learning.

Why is this a big deal? Because attribution of remixed content is a bit of a mess. Actually, not a “bit” of a mess — it’s a disaster.

For example, photos are put up, and linked a dozen different ways. Here’s a great example of someone trying to do the right thing in a useless fashion:


This is a good attempt, but there’s no link to the original, no statement about what CC license is used. No photographer listed. And my guess is that that is largely because the decision was made to cram the attribution into the caption. Unfortunately it misses the major purposes of open content attribution — first, that I should be able to use attribution to find the original (if possible) and related work of the author/photographer. Second, that a person that wants to reuse this image has sufficient information to do their own attribution of it (and to not break any laws). The easiest way to do that is to give up the ad hoc methods of citation and come up with a more mundane but predictable approach.

Text gets even messier to cite. If I rewrite a text, for example, a worksheet on twitter in the classroom, it’s easy to get bogged down in the detail of how that was used. I’ve cited such text a dozen ways, trying to explain whether the borrowed text was written in collaboration, just borrowed — whether pieces were “used” or whether pieces were “written for”, whether it was “based on” vs. “contains material from”, what bits were under what licenses, etc. The Lumen approach to this gets some of those distinctions in while not losing sight of the fact the main purpose of the statement is to provide a path to the original and a concise desciptions of the conditions of reuse. So for instance, if some of Reclaim Learning’s materials are borrowed from UMW’s Domain of One’s Own project and edited by Jim Groom, Reclaim’s Attribution might look like this:

This page is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License and contains content from a variety of sources published under a variety of open licenses, including:

What I really like about this is two things. First, having struggled with attribution, these categories make sense — highlighting what is crucial and ignoring what is not. Second, I like that if I take this page and edit it for my own uses, I just add in the reference for the original content and put my attribution on top:

This page is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License and contains content from a variety of sources published under a variety of open licenses, including:

This follows the document around attached to the bottom of it, out of the way, but accessible. I’d go a step further on student-facing pages and make it a clickable hidden div to minimize distraction while enforcing structure, but YMMV (example of how that might look here: http://screencast.com/t/cW9xkzwjOq5t). For different sorts of projects, the format could vary (open data projects, for example, have particular requirements). But there would be on the site a statement of what the customized format was and how to interpret it.

As I was saying in a private conversation with Jared Stein, I’ve been waiting for the open metadata revolution for quite a number of years. Header-embedded metadata is neat to think about. But ultimately a simple endnote set of conventions would get us 90% of what we want, today. And if Google Scholar can create citation indexes out of APA and MLA citations, there’s no reason that a format like this could at least start to form the basis of a reuse tracking system.


10 thoughts on “Why the Comprehensive Attribution Statement Makes Sense

  1. hi Mike, thanks for this! I’ll look up Lumen’s text as well, but what struck me reading your blogpost is this: for mixed/mashed-up text – are you citing the sources just at the end like a reference list in an academic paper, or are you also doing in-text citations (as you do in captions for images)? I ask this because if someone then wants to re-use the CC work, should they be able to cite the original that you’re using, or should they just be citing the secondary source?
    I do know I recently saw something that cited the original CC-BY work it was derived from, but I wasn’t sure which parts were changed… do I care? Do they care? I’m not sure. But if large chunks of something are re-used with little re-mixing, I think it’s only fair to cite the original author(s)? I might be thinking in the wrong paradigm (as a recent discussion with Martin Weller made me realize that publishing my blog as CC-By-NC-SA means others can re-publish my stuff non-commercially without ever telling me – but i noticed that some ppl post their photos on Flickr and ask to know if you’re using it, even though it’s CC-BY-xx). There’s sort of a “courtesy” thing going that has nothing to do with the law, I guess. Or is that what you mean by CC with special attribution requirements?

  2. I think the idea here is the Comprehensive Attribution Statement must allow a reuser to meet their own citation requirements (which includes linking to the originals). So the citations get carried forward with each remix.

    On top of that you could also add in text citations, but all the data you need should be in the CAS, even if you are doing other things in-text.

    With textual reuse, things get tricky as far as saying who did what; so the best remedy for that is to link back to all the sources, so a person can quickly see, for example, how much of the work was done by each individual listed. It just gets far to complex far too quickly to try to explain what was changed, better to provide the reader links to figure that out themselves.

    With image use it’s a bit easier, because you can say something like “Image of birdbath by Martin Weller, CC BY-SA. Originally published at http://somethingorotherurl.com/birdbath.” and it’s clear Martin contributed the birdbath.

    Thanks for the comment!

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