Remixing Creative Commons licenses for personal information, Part I

November 18th, 2009 by Grace Meng

Creative Commons, in creating its licenses, did a very sexy thing.  It didn’t repeal the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, it didn’t change technology.  Yet it managed to shift the social norm around intellectual property.  It’s now cool to share.  And they did this, not by forcing people to give up their rights, but by offering a set of choices by which those rights can be exercised in a way that encourages collaboration and ultimately benefits the public.

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, we at CDP have been playing around with the idea of creating personal information licenses, a la Creative Commons. Right now, we live in a pardadoxical world where 1) people have little control over how their information is used and reused, and 2) lots of valuable, fascinating raw data is locked up because of the danger of violating privacy.  Big corporations get a lot of value out of their data-mining; researchers and regular individuals, not so much.  Modern privacy problems aren’t exactly analogous to modern intellectual property problems, but we think Creative Commons-type licenses could have a lot to offer in addressing these two issues.  We’re certainly not the first to think along these lines, but we want to add our voice to the ongoing discussion.

Over the next couple of posts, I’m going to lay out how such licenses might work, the scenarios in which people might choose to license their personal information, what such licenses could accomplish, and the challenges and obstacles such licenses would face.

What choices would the licenses offer?

Imagine a set of licenses with a specific, pre-determined set of choices.  Anyone who wants to signal their willingness to make their personal information available to the public could choose among these licenses and display it prominently, wherever their information is provided, whether it’s an online forum, a social network, or even personal website or blog.

The choices could include the following:


  1. First ask my permission before using the information
  2. Tell me that you are going to use my information.
  3. I don’t care.


  1. I’m okay with non-commercial academic use for research and/or publication.
  2. I’m okay with non-commercial governmental use.
  3. I’m okay with all uses.


  1. If I’ve provided any of this information, strip my information of classic identifiers (as enumerated, most likely, name, email address, etc.), though with no guarantee that this equals “anonymous.”
  2. If I have not provided any identifiers, do not try to re-identify me.
  3. [intermediary option of better anonymization, should the technology develop]
  4. I don’t care.

What kind of “personal information” could be licensed?

The license could be attached to any personal information the individual has gathered and displayed.  It could apply to:

Fertility Forum

Specifics of a medical condition, as shared on an online forum.


An individual’s profile information on Facebook, MySpace, or other social networking site.

An individual’s personal website and/or blog.

As these examples make clear, we’re not talking about slapping a license on “all personal information” about a person in the abstract universe, but about placing a license on specific bits of data collected and displayed by an individual online.  A set of information, a dataset, even arguably a database.  It’s an open question, what might be “licensable,” what might even be worth licensing.

Which brings us to the question, is it worth licensing information that’s already out there, in public view?  Would a license end up restricting rather than enabling more information sharing?  Why would it be useful to license information in the above examples?

All good questions that I’m going to try to address in Posts II and III…

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