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Creative Commons

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Creative Commons
Creative Commons logo
Founder(s) Lawrence Lessig
Type Non-profit organization
Founded 2001
Headquarters San Francisco, California
 United States
Key people Joi Ito
Focus Expansion of "reasonable", flexible copyright
Method Creative Commons licenses

Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organization headquartered in San Francisco, California, United States devoted to expanding the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share. The organization has released several copyright- licenses known as Creative Commons licenses free of charge to the public. These licenses allow creators to communicate which rights they reserve, and which rights they waive for the benefit of recipients or other creators. An easy to understand one-page explanation of rights, with associated visual symbols, explains the specifics of each Creative Commons license. This simplicity distinguishes Creative Commons from an all-rights reserved copyright. Creative Commons was invented to create a more flexible copyright model, replacing "all rights reserved" with "some rights reserved". Wikipedia is one of the notable web-based projects using one of its licenses.

The organization was founded in 2001 by Larry Lessig, Hal Abelson, and Eric Eldred with support of the Centre for the Public Domain. The first set of copyright licenses were released in December 2002. In 2008, there were an estimated 130 million works licensed under Creative Commons. Creative Commons is governed by a board of directors and a technical advisory board. Joi Ito is currently the chair of the board and CEO. Creative Commons has been embraced by many as a way for content creators to take control of how they choose to share their intellectual property. There has also been criticism that it does not go far enough, or discourages regional cultural production.

Aim and influence

Golden Nica Award

Creative Commons has been described as being at the forefront of the copyleft movement, which seeks to support the building of a richer public domain by providing an alternative to the automatic "all rights reserved" copyright, dubbed "some rights reserved." David Berry and Giles Moss have credited Creative Commons with generating interest in the issue of intellectual property and contributing to the re-thinking of the role of the " commons" in the " information age". Beyond that, Creative Commons has provided "institutional, practical and legal support for individuals and groups wishing to experiment and communicate with culture more freely."

Creative Commons works to counter what the organization considers to be a dominant and increasingly restrictive permission culture. According to Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons, it is "a culture in which creators get to create only with the permission of the powerful, or of creators from the past". Lessig maintains that modern culture is dominated by traditional content distributors in order to maintain and strengthen their monopolies on cultural products such as popular music and popular cinema, and that Creative Commons can provide alternatives to these restrictions.


Creative Commons Japan Seminar, Tokyo 2007

The current CEO of Creative Commons is Joi Ito. Mike Linksvayer is Vice President and John Wilbanks is Vice President of Science.


The current Creative Commons Board include: Hal Abelson, Glenn Otis Brown, Michael W. Carroll, Catherine Casserly, Caterina Fake, Davis Guggenheim, Joi Ito (Chair), Lawrence Lessig, Laurie Racine, Eric Saltzman, Annette Thomas, Molly Suffer Van Houweling, Jimmy Wales, and Esther Wojcicki (Vice Chair).

Technical Advisory Board

The Technical Advisory Board includes five members: Hal Abelson, Ben Adida, Barbara Fox, Don McGovern and Eric Miller. Hal Abelson also serves on the Creative Commons Board.

Audit Committee

Creative Commons also has an Audit Committee, with two members: Molly Shaffer Van Houweling and Lawrence Lessig. Both serve on the Creative Commons Board.

Types of Creative Commons licenses

"Wanna Work Together?"
Mayer and Bettle explain what Creative Commons is.

There are six major licenses of the Creative Commons:

  • Attribution (CC-BY)
  • Attribution Share Alike (CC-BY-SA)
  • Attribution No Derivatives (CC-BY-ND)
  • Attribution Non-Commercial (CC-BY-NC)
  • Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike (CC-BY-NC-SA)
  • Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives (CC-BY-NC-ND)

There are four major conditions of the Creative Commons: Attribution (BY), requiring attribution to the original author; Share Alike (SA), allowing derivative works under the same or a similar license (later or jurisdiction version); Non-Commercial (NC), requiring the work is not used for commercial purposes; and No Derivative Works (ND), allowing only the original work, without derivatives.

As of the current versions, all Creative Commons licenses allow the "core right" to redistribute a work for non-commercial purposes without modification. The NC and ND options will make a work non-free.

Additional options include the CC0 option, or "No Rights Reserved." For software, Creative Commons has three available licenses: the BSD License, the CC GNU LGPL license, and the CC GNU GPL.

Usage and list of projects that release contents under Creative Commons licenses

Creative Commons maintains a content directory wiki of organizations and projects using Creative Commons licenses. On its website CC also provides case studies of projects using CC licenses across the world. CC licensed content can also be accessed through a number of content directories and search engines (see CC licensed content directories).

On January 13, 2009, some broadcasting content from Al Jazeera on the 2008–2009 Israel–Gaza conflict was released under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.

  • Wikipedia (cc-by-sa, since June 2009)
  • Wikia (cc-by-sa, since June 2009)
  • Citizendium (cc-by-sa)
  • knol (mostly, cc-by-sa or cc-by-nc-sa)
  • Arduino (cc-by-sa)
  • NINJAM (cc-by-sa)

Jurisdiction ports

Countries to which Creative Commons licenses have been ported (green) or are being ported (blue)

The original non-localized Creative Commons licenses were written with the U.S. legal system in mind, so the wording could be incompatible within different local legislations and render the licenses unenforceable in various jurisdictions. To address this issue, Creative Commons has started to port the various licenses to accommodate local copyright and private law. As of May 2010, there are 52 jurisdiction-specific licenses, with 9 other jurisdictions in drafting process, and more countries joining the worldwide project.


General criticism

CC some rights reserved.svg

Péter Benjamin Tóth asserts that Creative Commons' objectives are already well served by the current copyright regime, and that Creative Commons' "some rights reserved" slogan, as against Copyright's "all rights reserved", creates a false dichotomy. "Copyright provides a list of exclusive rights to the rightholder, from which he decides which ones he wishes to "sell" or grant and which to retain. The "Some rights reserved" concept is therefore not an alternative to, but rather the very nature of classical copyright." Other critics fear that Creative Commons could erode the copyright system over time.

Some of Creative Commons' critics support revision of the copyright act, but believe Creative Commons to be merely a contractual quick fix that dissuades the public from mobilizing toward a real revision of the Copyright Act and copyright term lengths. Others, such as Jeffrey Harrison, believe the Creative Commons system to be too lax, and caution against "allowing some of our most precious resources—the creativity of individuals—to be simply tossed into the commons to be exploited by whomever has spare time and a magic marker."

Other critics question whether Creative Commons licenses are truly useful for artists, suggesting that Creative Commons is directed mainly toward a "remix culture" that often fails to account for the real needs, such as financial compensation and recognition, of fine artists, especially in the visual arts world. Some critics also worry that a system that does not allow authors to obtain a reward for their creations will cause some artists to avoid sharing their work.

Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig counters that copyright laws have not always offered the strong and seemingly indefinite protection that today's law provides. Rather, the duration of copyright used to be limited to much shorter terms of years, and some works never gained protection because they did not follow the now-abandoned compulsory format.

Another critic questions whether Creative Commons can really be the commons that it purports to be, given that at least some restrictions apply to people's ability to use the resources within the common field. This is restricted entirely within the private rights of others and has nothing to do with rights shared by all. Creative Commons also does not define " creativity" or what aspects a work requires in order to become part of the commons.

Critics such as David Berry and Giles Moss also argue that the founding of Creative Commons is not the proper mechanism for creating a commons of original content. Rather, a commons should be created, and its presence preserved, through the political process and political activism, not through lawyers writing down new rules.

License proliferation and incompatibility

Critics have also argued that Creative Commons worsens license proliferation, by providing multiple licenses that are incompatible. The Creative Commons website states, "Since each of the six CC licenses functions differently, resources placed under different licenses may not necessarily be combined with one another without violating the license terms."Works licensed under incompatible licenses may not be recombined in a derivative work without obtaining permission from the license-holder. Some worry that "without a common legal framework, works which inadvertently mix licenses may become unshareable."

License misuse

Some copyright holders have complained that internet users erroneously brand their copyrighted works with Creative Commons licenses, then re-upload the works to the internet. Critics assert that this stems from rampant user-confusion about the licenses. At present, there are no checks in place to hold users accountable for mislicensing.

Although Creative Commons offers multiple licenses for different uses, some critics suggest that the licenses still do not address the differences among the media or among the various concerns that different authors have. For example, one critic points out that documentary filmmakers could have vastly different concerns from those held by a software designer or a law professor. Additionally, people wishing to use a Creative Commons-licensed work would have to determine if their particular use is allowed under the license or if they need additional permission.

Lessig wrote that the point of Creative Commons is to provide a middle ground between two extreme views of copyright protection—one demanding that all rights be controlled, and the other arguing that none should be controlled. Creative Commons provides a third option that allows authors to pick and choose which rights they want to control and which they want to relinquish. The multitude of licenses reflects the multitude of rights that can be passed on to subsequent creators.

The Free Software Foundation

Some of Creative Commons licenses have been denounced by FSF founder Richard Stallman because, he says, they "do not give everyone [...] minimum freedom" "to share, noncommercially, any published work".

Mako Hill asserts that Creative Commons fails to establish a "base level of freedom" that all Creative Commons licenses must meet, and with which all licensors and users must comply. "By failing to take any firm ethical position and draw any line in the sand, CC is a missed opportunity.... CC has replaced what could have been a call for a world where 'essential rights are unreservable' with the relatively hollow call for 'some rights reserved.'" Some critics fear that Creative Commons' popularity may detract from the more stringent goals of other free content organizations.

Other criticism of the non-commercial license

Other critics, such as Erik Moeller, raise concerns about the use of Creative Commons' non-commercial license. Works distributed under the Creative Commons Non-Commercial license are not compatible with many open-content sites, including Wikipedia, which explicitly allow and encourage some commercial uses. Moller explains that "the people who are likely to be hurt by an -NC license are not large corporations, but small publications like weblogs, advertising-funded radio stations, or local newspapers."

Lessig responds that the current copyright regime also harms compatibility and that authors can lessen this incompatibility by choosing the least restrictive license. Additionally, the non-commercial license is useful for preventing someone else from capitalizing on an author's work when the author still plans to do so in the future.


The maintainers of Debian, a GNU and Linux distribution known for its rigid adherence to a particular definition of software freedom, did not believe that even the Creative Commons Attribution License, the least restrictive of the licenses, adhered to the Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG) prior to version 3.0 of the license due to the license's anti- DRM provisions (which could restrict private redistribution to some extent) and its requirement in section 4a that downstream users remove an author's credit upon request from the author. As the other licenses are identical to the Creative Commons Attribution License with further restrictions, Debian considered them non-free for the same reasons. Version 3.0 of the license addressed these concerns and is considered to be compatible with the DFSG.

Legal cases

Dutch tabloid

A Creative Commons license was first tested in court in early 2006, when podcaster Adam Curry sued a Dutch tabloid who published photos without permission from his Flickr page. The photos were licensed under the Creative Commons Non-Commercial license. While the verdict was in favour of Curry, the tabloid avoided having to pay restitution to him as long as they did not repeat the offense. An analysis by Professor Bernt Hugenholtz, director of the Institute for Information Science of the University of Amsterdam and main creator of the Dutch CC license of the decision states, "The Dutch Court's decision is especially noteworthy because it confirms that the conditions of a Creative Commons license automatically apply to the content licensed under it, and bind users of such content even without expressly agreeing to, or having knowledge of, the conditions of the license."

Virgin Mobile

In 2007, Virgin Mobile launched an Australian bus stop ad campaign promoting their cellphone text messaging service using the work of amateur photographers who uploaded their work to Flickr using a Creative Commons-BY (Attribution) license. Users licensing their images this way freed their work for use by any other entity, as long as the original creator was attributed credit, without any other compensation required. Virgin upheld this single restriction by printing a URL leading to the photographer's Flickr page on each of their ads. However, one picture, depicting 15 year-old Alison Chang at a fund-raising carwash for her church, caused some controversy when she sued Virgin Mobile. The photo was taken by Alison's church youth counselor, Justin Ho-Wee Wong, who uploaded the image to Flickr under the Creative Commons license. In 2008, the case (concerning personality rights rather than copyright as such) was thrown out of a Texas court for lack of jurisdiction.

CC-Music – Spanish Court (2006)

The issue in this case was not whether the CC license was enforceable, but instead whether the major collecting society in Spain could collect royalties from a bar that played CC-licensed music. In this case, the main Spanish collecting society—Sociedad General de Autores y Editores ("SGAE") sued a disco owner for the public performance of music supposedly managed by the collecting society. However, the Lower Court rejected the collecting society's claims because the owner of the bar proved that the music he was using was not managed by the society, since it was under CC licence.

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