Category Archives: University

University – love it or hate it

The sorry state of attribution in education

Lately, I’ve been dealing a bit with attribution and licensing, in part thanks to the people at Commons Machinery / Since I started on this, I have noticed all the places where attribution is done poorly or even not at all. Be it on flyers (“Pictures: Wikipedia / something / somethingelse”, without any indication which picture is from where, or which license they are under), websites (often no attribution at all) and even on the slides at university.

It just boggles my mind that academic researchers in computer science, who will meticulously enter citations and go into a frenzy if they are done incorrectly by students (seriously. A slightly wrong formatting cost me several points once), think nothing of just slapping a few pictures they found somewhere onto their slides, probably without checking their license, and definitely without attributing the artist (which is almost always required by licenses, by the way). And it somewhat makes me feel like an idiot for spending the time properly attributing the two xkcd comics I used in my presentation (yes, I use xkcd in my slides. Judge me).

This is wrong. I shouldn’t feel like an idiot for spending 1 minute getting the attribution right if the artist spent a few hours creating the thing I’m using. And if the artist was nice enough to pick a license for his / her work, and if he / she was also awesome enough to pick a license that actually allows me to use their work, and all they ask in return is that I credit them while doing so, I should damn well do so. Everything else would, in my opinion, be disrespectful to both the artist and the art.

So, why is no-one attributing properly? Because it’s hard. It’s annoying. First, you have to find out if the artist even picked a license (some do not). Then, if the license allows usage, you have to find out the name of the artist. You have to write up a boilerplate text, something like “‘Like I’m five’ by Randall Munroe / // CC BY-NC 2.5 // Source:“. You have to fit it into your design somehow. And then, for all you know, no one will even notice that you took the time to do so. And this assumes that you even know that you are supposed to attribute under a specific license, and how. Even professional writers like my favourite author, Patrick Rothfuss, can get this wrong. Pat wrote a blogpost and used an image from, without attribution. After he was notified about the missing attribution by a reader, he promptly added some attribution (which is good), but the attribution itself was still not properly done (“Comic lovelyness from the brilliant XKCD, of course” is sweet and a nice thought. It is also better than nothing. But it is not entirely correct as per the license).

Don’t get me wrong. This is not about me pointing out what my favourite author did wrong. I’m just using this as an example. Attribution is hard, and while I have some hope for the work by Commons Machinery /, it’ll probably be another year at least until there is something working, moderately bug-free and usable, and adoption by the general public may never come. This is because people are not aware of the attribution problem.

And why are people not aware of it? Because almost no one is doing it right! If, for example, in university, all slides would only carry properly attributed images, people may start to wonder “what is it with all those CC BY-NC-SA’s on the slides?”. People may even start to notice if those CC BY-NC-SA’s go missing. Right now, almost no one is doing this, because almost no one is thinking about it, because almost no one is doing it. Do you see the problem?

What can you do? A few ideas:

  • Practise proper attribution. Seriously. Yes, it’s annoying, but just imagine other people using your stuff without attributing you as the original artist. Would that feel good?
  • Pick a License for your stuff. Don’t just throw it out there, pick a license and stick it on your website. Here’s a license picker for Creative Commons, which is used mostly for texts and media, and here’s a license picker for open software licenses. Choose a license, stick it on your work, and you make the life of people like me easier (This work is licensed CC BY 4.0, by the way, as you can see in the sidebar). Bonus points if you inform youself about the advantages and drawbacks of the different licenses. For example, choosing “Non-Commercial use only” licenses may have unintended consequences, like keeping others, including non-profits, from using your work on their pages.
  • Get involved with Commons Machinery, and register as a beta-tester for They can always use more hands and brains, and it looks like their stuff is going in the right direction.
  • Ask questions. Tell your regional newspaper that “Picture: Wikipedia” is not a proper attribution. Ask your professor why the images are not attributed. Raise some awareness.
  • Practise proper attribution. Did I already mention this? Oh, well, it bears repeating.

So, that’s it for todays semi-rant. I’m looking forward to seeing proper attribution from all of you, and I will probably send an email to my professors about this tomorrow.