The Creative Commons and the Power of Open

If you’ve ever read Wikipedia or watched a TEDtalk video, you’ve benefited from shared content with a Creative Commons license. Creative Commons, CC for short, has the lofty goal of making “a license for all of us to create a better world.”

You can find amazing content—images, video, software, news, stories, databases and whole academic courses—available free through a CC license. In some cases you can use these in commercial work, or remix and alter the content at will. You can also release your own work under a Creative Commons License. For some creatives, CC licensing is an important part of their business practices.


Acrylic Air Balloons” by Nicolas Raymond is licensed under CC BY 2.0

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that provides licenses and other tools that support a nuanced approach to distributing electronic content. These licenses are not an alternative to traditional copyright, but give copyright holders more choices about how their work is used. The goal is to “maximize digital creativity, sharing, and innovation.”

Creative Commons was a quick success. It was founded in 2001, and by 2003 there were an estimated 1 million licenses in use. By 2009, the CC website claims nearly 350 million licenses were in use. And now it has become a global standard for sharing intellectual property.

Creative Commons License Types

There are six types of the current CC license that let the licensor (creator) retain some rights:

  • Attribution CC BY
  • Attribution-NoDerivs CC BY-ND
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike CC BY-NC-SA
  • Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA
  • Attribution-NonCommercial CC BY-NC
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND

These are combinations of requirements for attribution or giving credit (BY), allowing or not allowing revisions or derivation (ND), allowing or not allowing commercial (NC) use, and requiring or not requiring the derived work be shared the same way (SA for Share Alike).

There is one type of license that releases all rights to a work into the public domain, called CC0.

A CC license has 3 parts, called “layers:” There’s the legal document part, the traditional legal document; a “human readable” certificate for non-lawyers called the Commons Deed; and a digital “machine readable” version. When you click on the “some rights reserved” link on a Flickr image, you see the Commons Deed.

Finding Creative Commons Content

Google Image Search

By selecting “search tools” and clicking on the “usage rights” drop down menu, you can restrict Google Image Search to the rights level you are seeking.

It’s worth double-checking the rights once you’ve found the images you are considering using.

Flickr hosts lots of CC licensed photos, videos and illustrations. To restrict your search to the appropriate license, look for the advanced search link and select your preference in the CC license section of the advanced search options page.

CC site search

Creative Commons has its own search page. At this time you have access to 13 different search tools. Some specialize in content types such as music or media.

Looking for free courses? Check out The Open University.

Attribution and Linkbacks

Most CC licenses require that you give credit to the licensor, and add links to the original work and the creator’s web page, as well as specify the license attached to the work. This is called attribution, and the CC wiki gives examples for attribution across media.

If you change or remix the work (“deriving” it) you generally must state that. For instance, this work, “Balloons on Blue”, is a derivative of “Hot Air Balloon Fest Uniontown, NJ” by dfbphotos, used under CC BY. “Balloons on Blue” is licensed under CC BY by Susan Neuhaus.

Tip: When searching through lots of images for a project, I found it helpful to make a Pinterest Board. I saved the images I was considering to the Board, and copied the name of the artist and the type of license in the comments.

Potential Trouble

Misunderstandings can still arise. A librarian, Bobbi Newman, used a CC-licensed image from Flickr in a slideshow. The image creator felt it had been used inappropriately because Ms. Newman’s slides were uploaded to slidesh
, which offers a paid subscription as well as a free one, and it wasn’t clear to the photographer that the librarian’s use of his image was non-commercial. Ms. Newman blogged about the experience, and while the dispute was resolved, it leaves a few questions unanswered.

If CC licenses can be changed, how would a blogger or a publisher who used the work know that the license was changed? According to CC, once a creative commons license has been granted, it cannot be revoked. But clearly the licensor in this situation believed that he had done just that.

What if a blogger decides to accept ads on her blog, months or even years after posting a CC image licensed only for non-commercial use?

A Texas family sued Creative Commons and Virgin Mobile of Australia when pictures of their teen were used in an ad without permission. Its an old case, but it illustrates that there are limits to what the CC license can do. In this case, Creative Commons does not address the teen’s right to privacy, as discussed in Professor Lawrence Lessig’s blog.

These stories make me think that those of us who can’t afford lawyers should be very, very careful when using CC-licensed work.

Offering Your Own Work

Creative Commons walks potential licensors through the licensing process, asking a series of questions and using your answers to create the appropriate license. In addition to choosing yes or no to the options above (see License Types), you can choose what type of mark you’d like:

• HTML – RDFa, for use on web pages
• XMP can be embedded in PDFs among other files, or
• Offline, for a simple, plain text notice

You can get a spiffy little icon to use to mark your licensed work.

You can also mark video and other media.

Is CC Licensing a Viable Model for Creators?

Photographer Jonathan Worth was inspired by author Cory Doctorow to test the “open” waters. Angry at the amount of time spent online defending his copyright, he opened the work on his website with CC license and then sold prints, with success.

Cartoonist and filmmaker Nina Paley has put her film Sita Sings the Blues into the public domain (CC0). After it languished for years while she tried to secure licensing for two songs, she made the film freely available through Creative Commons, sold merchandise, and accepted voluntary contributions.

“The old business model of coercion and extortion is failing. New models are emerging, and I’m happy to be part of that. But we’re still making this up as we go along. You are free to make money with the free content of Sita Sings the Blues, and you are free to share money with me. People have been making money in Free Software for years; it’s time for Free Culture to follow.”

Publisher Bloomsbury Academic releases some CC-licensed (as well as self-licensed) content for free on its site, while still selling hard copies and other e-content. They saw the open license content as a way to quickly establish credibility as a new imprint. They believe that “. . .for certain types of books, free promotes the print.”

Curt Smith of the music group Tears for Fears says: “CC is a smart way to go for any artist. Why would anyone want to go around suing their fans?”

There’s a great thread on Flickr debating Creative Commons and its potential effect on photographers’ ability to make a living.

It is clear that the open nature of the internet has challenged traditional models of rights ownership and compensation for professionals. What is not so clear is how to strike a fair balance between the rights of creators and the good of the community. Creative Commons licensing is one tool for creating that balance for our own work.


Posted on: June 16, 2014

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