The Growing Adoption of Creative Commons Textbooks

Ten years after its creation, governments are turning to the Creative Commons license to reform their education programs.

College students in the aisles of the Georgetown University bookstore.
By + More

Cable Green doesn't have to look very far to find an example of an education system weighed down by what he considers a bloated and inefficient textbook industry. The director of global learning for Creative Commons simply points to his home state of Washington. "My state spends $130 million per year buying textbooks," he says. "We only have a million public school kids in the state, so we're spending $130 per kid per year." Because each book is expected to last half a decade, the kids aren't permitted to keep them or write in them. The books are only available in one format, paper, and are sometimes seven to 10 years out of date. If one of Green's kids loses a textbook, as a parent Green is expected to fork over the money to replace it.

A superior alternative, he believes, would be easy to execute. "Instead of spending $130 million a year getting those outcomes, what if the state put up $100 million in one time money," he suggests. "We have 12 grades and eight textbooks per grade, so what if we put up a $1 million [request for proposal] for each book, and anyone can reply. The professors from the best universities can reply. McGraw Hill can reply. It's an open RFP, but the conditions are that the books are licensed under Creative Commons because they're paid for with taxpayer money."

[READ: Barnes & Noble's Convoluted Defense of Pricey Books]

Under this model, the intellectual property that results from these purchases would be owned by the public. In addition to being free to download online, the schools can print up paper versions for less than $5 per copy. Perhaps more importantly, the kids, once they complete the grade, would be permitted to keep the books, using them in the future if they need to. From there, the state would only have to spend approximately $10 million a year to ensure all the textbooks are updated with timely information. "It would save the state $120 million a year, and we'd actually have resources that our kids can use," Green says. "This isn't difficult."

The Creative Commons license celebrated its 10-year anniversary in December. And though the state of Washington has yet to adopt such a reform, several governments, both in the U.S. and across the globe, have passed and implemented similar policies as they've struggled to address the rising costs plaguing both lower and higher education systems. This movement, often referred to as open education resources (OER), threatens to upend what many reformers consider an anachronistic textbook industry, one that's ripe for disruption and change.

[RELATED: Is the Academic Publishing Industry on the Verge of Disruption?]

Though governments have increasingly warmed to Creative Commons, it has spent much of its existence largely as a decentralized, grassroots movement. The nonprofit organization that created and updates the licenses released its first versions in December 2002. Founded by Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig and other academics, Creative Commons sought to provide a less rigid alternative to the standard copyright system, allowing artists and other content creators to be more permissive in how they let others use and distribute their work. Employing the phrase "some rights reserved," Creative Commons licenses, of which there are several iterations, create a menu of options for the dissemination of intellectual property. One version, the Attribution Non-Commercial, permits one to republish a piece of content as long as the original creator is credited and the work is not sold for commercial gain. Other variants are more permissive, granting the rights for artists to create derivative works and remixes that incorporate CC-licensed material.

Upon its launch a decade ago, Creative Commons was embraced by the artist and literary community, and its iconic logo began appearing on the sidebars of thousands of blogs, web pages, and Flickr photos. By 2005, the nonprofit estimated there were 20 million works that utilized the license, and by 2009 that number had climbed to 350 million. But while the organization has always embraced its grassroots enthusiasm, it continually sought recognition and adoption from larger, more traditional institutions.