The ABC’s of Creative Commons

I. What is Creative Commons and where does it come from?

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization founded in 2001 by a Board of Directors which includes Lawrence Lessig, a Professor at Harvard Law School. By 2009, there were an estimated 350 million (Creative Commons) licensed works. The goal of Creative Commons is to create reasonable copyright rules over the rigid base model that is currently in place. This means that Creative Commons is not an alternative to copyright, but a modification or a complement to it. If a user violates a Creative Commons license, they are violating copyright. “It provides standardized and scrutinized license texts, translation into languages and adaptations for various jurisdictions (presently over 50 adaptations are provided),” (Hagedorn, 2011, p. 130-131). This means that Creative Commons’ licenses are available in 50 different countries and are also available in various languages.

“Copyright is a state-guaranteed right given to creators of ‘literary and artistic works’ to control the reproduction, distribution, adaptation or translation of their Works,” (Hagedorn, 2011). The full copyright restrictions include all rights reserved, except when it falls under Fair Use, and the public domain is primarily no rights reserved, such as Shakespeare’s works. Creative Commons aim is “to build a layer of reasonable copyright on top of the extremes that now reign,” (Lessig, 2004, p. 282). If it takes a lifetime before a work is released into the public domain, then the current creative community loses the ability to expand and build upon these works. “’Fair Use’ is a crucial element in American copyright law—the principle that the public is entitled, without having to ask permission, to use copyright works in ways that do not unduly interfere with the copyright owner’s market for work,” (Von Lohmann, 2010, p. 9). Personal, noncommercial uses, commenting, news reporting, teaching and research all fall under the realm of Fair Use.

Creative Commons was created to allow more freedoms to the public than Fair Use allows. Creative Commons, in essence, is some rights reserved. It “provides free copyright licenses to enable artists to make their creative work with the freedoms they want it to carry,” (Lessig, 2008, p. 15). The author can choose what these freedoms are when they establish their Creative Commons license.
The authors “express these freedoms in a way that subsequent users can use and rely upon without the need to hire a lawyer,” (Lessig, 2004, p. 283) in the case of copyright infringement. There are people who want to publish their works in an open manner, in a public domain, in which other people can freely use the author’s work (while giving credit) to create something new. “It does this by making it easy for people to build upon other people’s work, by making it simple for creators to express the freedom for others to take and build upon their work,” (Lessig, 2004, p. 282). If an author allows the freedom for others to use his or her video or music to create something new, then it is not illegal for the user to do so and post it online—as long as proper credit is given to the original author. If the credit is not given, then the user is violating the Creative Commons license as well as copyright law.

II. How does Creative Commons work?

There is a “three-layer” design of licenses according to the Creative Commons website. The first layer is described as “legal code” which constitutes the license and provides the formal legal language for lawyers. The second layer is described as “commons deed” which is “human readable” in that it summarizes the legal code into a reference guide primarily for people who are not lawyers—or people who cannot understand the legal jargon in the contract. The third layer is described as a “machine readable” version of the legal code in which search engines and other kinds of technologies can easily understand what is stated in the license. “Taken together, these three layers of licenses ensure that the spectrum of rights isn’t just a legal concept. It’s something that the creators of works can understand, their users can understand, and even the Web itself can understand,” (Creative Commons).

There are four types of license conditions: Attribution, Share Alike, Non-Commercial and No Derivative Works (Creative Commons). These four can be combined in numerous ways to create a license fit for each author. The author chooses to allow commercial uses of the work, modifications of the work and then decides on the jurisdiction of the license (International or a specific country). Once the user finished the form the website generates HTML code for the user to implement on their work on the Internet.

“The Creative Commons Non-Commercial (CC NC) licenses exclude re-use scenarios leading to monetary profits or other commercial advantages. It thus effectively protects copyright owners whose income depends on commercially licensing their works,” (Hagedorn, 2011, p. 141). There is a grey area around the Non-Commercial part of the license and with every update the Creative Commons plans to sort out all these grey areas. A suggested grey area would be that if an author uses the Commercial license, then a user may take that work and publish it for monetary value without profits for the original author. The author has to make their license Non-Commercial in order to avoid that, but then there is a world of bloggers that would be unable to use/share the work for non-monetary gain. There wasn’t a log about this grey area on the Creative Commons website to fully form the full disclosure of the Commercial versus the Non-Commercial licenses. There is also one more license, the CC0 or CCZero, which is a special condition for a jurisdiction that has no concept of the public domain. This license provides, as close as it can, a work that is released directly into the public domain.

III. How is Creative Commons being used?

“‘Creative Commons’ licenses can be used with text, blogs, music, audio recordings, podcasts, photographs, videos, songs, websites, and films found on the internet,” (Gordon-Murnane, 2010). Flickr is an online photo sharing community and is also a supporter of Creative Commons. A Flickr user can search through the website specifically for Creative Commons licensed works in all the conditions described above. Google is also a supporter through their main search engine, image search engine as well as their book search engine.

“The Obama Administration has used Creative Commons licenses in a variety of ways, from licensing presidential campaign photos, releasing information on transition site via a CC Attribution license, to requiring that third-party content posted on be made available via CC Attribution Only as well,” (Creative Commons). Even Nine Inch Nails has released two albums under Creative Commons licensing.

The Creative Commons licensing is also being used by higher education. Massachusetts Institute of Technology launches OpenCourseWare to provide online public access to undergraduate and graduate program materials. Rice University also offers online access to learning content and tools to help instructors create course structures through Connexions.

Mozilla is an open-source software initiative. Any content on Mozilla’s website is protected under the Creative Commons copyright license, but that allows any Internet user to take a copy of the Firefox source-code to use it freely, study or change the code and improve on the design of the overall product.

IV. Why is it important?

A Creative Commons license is important because it encourages sharing. A person interested in a work under a Creative Commons licenses doesn’t have to track down the author and ask for permission to use the work. This allows for quick and easy sharing methods because it cuts out the time factor – the time it takes to track down the author and the time it takes for an author to grant or deny the permission being sought. Without Creative Commons, “cultural media of the 20th century is largely off limits, locked away from the public domain”, (Gordon-Murnane, 2010). Creative Commons offers the view of some rights shared (instead of all or none) and gives new meaning to the creative public domain. Users are now able “to share, remix, mash up, collaborate, adapt, and create something new and different”, (Gordon-Murnane, 2010).

Creative Commons is important because it protects the users who use an author’s works from copyright infringement as long as they are abiding by the author’s terms. Before Creative Commons licenses, there was no easy way for an author to share their works freely and there “was no place for members of the public to go to find new works that they were free to reuse and remix without paying fees,” (Kleinman, 2008, p. 594-595). Now Internet users can use Google to find Creative Commons licensed content as well as Flickr for searching through images and many other sources for video and music.


Creative Commons. (n.d.) Retrieved from

Gordon-Murnane, L. (2010). CREATIVE COMMONS: Copyright Tools for the 21st Century. Online, 34(1), 18-21.

Hagedorn, G., Mietchen, D., Morris, R. A., Agosti, D., Penev, L., Berendsohn, W. G., & Hobern, D. (2011). Creative Commons licenses and the non-commercial condition: Implications for the re-use of biodiversity information. Zookeys, 150127-149. doi:10.3897/zookeys.150.2189

Kleinman, M. (2008). The beauty of “Some Rights Reserved”. College & Research Libraries News, 69(10), 594-597.

Lessig, L. (2004). Free culture: The nature and future of creativity. New York, NY: Penguin Press.

Lessig, L. (2008). Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. New York, NY: Penguin Press.

Von Lohmann, F. (2010). Unintended consequences: Twelve years under the dmca. Electronic Frontier Foundation.


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