Bronze-level articleCreative Commons

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Creative Commons is the organisation behind Creative Commons Licenses, which are a way of using copyright laws to turn copyright on its head. They are poorly understood by far too many.[1]



Any original work, such as a painting or short story or piece of music, is—in most cases—automatically covered by copyright law. This means that the original author has the sole rights to distribute and display the work and essentially has control of where it is reproduced and used. If someone else wants to use it for their own purposes, using someone's painting as a book cover for example, they must ask permission of the copyright holder, who can either say yes, no or "give me some money and I will." This has the legal effect of the copyright holder and the person who wants to use the work generating a contract and a giving a licence to use the work. The licences aren't always given, with musicals playing on Broadway or the West End, for example, licences to perform those works elsewhere are almost universally denied, even for a lot of cash. People seem to think that this is a legal requirement but it isn't, it's solely the decision of the copyright holder(s) whether to issue a license. There is one notable exception in that Avenue Q was granted to be performed at a student venue for charity.

Why Creative Commons?

"I, the copyright holder of this work, license it under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License." - This image was found on Wikimedia commons and used as an image on the Homeopathy article. RationalWiki can use it freely because it operates on an identical license to Wikipedia and its sister sites.

Assume that you create something that is copyrighted but don't mind sharing it. It'd be a simple matter to just give permission to everyone, but assume that happens so frequently it begins to become annoying or time-consuming; a Creative Commons license becomes essentially a shorthand way of cutting out this process. It becomes a sign that says "hey guys, if you ask for permission to use this, I'll just say yes, so don't bother asking, just take it". This is very much a "non-exclusive" license; non-exclusive meaning it can be granted to anyone.

Providing an individual adheres to the terms of the license, such as being nice and giving credit to the original author, or releasing their work under a similar license, he or she can use it. In this respect, licenses such as the Creative Commons licenses and the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) can be thought of as networks of material that can be used in conjunction with each other. This can most easily be seen with the Wikimedia Foundation's projects where images used on Wikipedia can be shared, because of the licenses, with its sister sites such as Wikiversity or Wikimedia Commons because they share the same licenses and make use of images released under them.

These licenses are legally binding if you want to reuse the stuff — you are not forced to obey them, but nothing else gives you permissions beyond the default "none." Although neither the GFDL nor CC licenses have hit the courts yet (real-world lawyers are generally not that stupid), the similarly-constructed GPL has, and its requirements have been upheld.[2]

For those who prefer no copyright at all instead of simply imposing less copyright restrictions, Creative Commons provides the CC0 license as an informal public domain dedication. The license provides a lax fall-back license for use in cases for which the public domain dedication is not possible.

When you can't just use a CC item

CC licenses are copyright licenses. It is a massive misconception that CC and similar licenses force people to "give up" their rights and is a false belief held even by professional organisations that should know better.[3][4] They do not license other rights—such as moral rights of the author (enshrined in law in many countries; the CC 3.0 licenses expressly note they do not cover these) or model rights, i.e., the rights of the individuals—the models—in images, who have to consent to their likeness being used in certain circumstances (such as advertising).

Model rights in particular came up in 2007 when someone put up a casual photo of his friends on Flickr under a Creative Commons licence that allowed commercial use; Virgin Mobile Australia later took it and used it for an advertisement. The photographer demanded they obey the licence (which involved crediting him - they had not done this)—but the subject of the photo had not agreed to the use of her likeness being seen as an endorsement of their phones. This then led to the photographer suing Creative Commons for not informing him properly[5] (which he then lost). See what we mean about "poorly understood?"

So just because you can't be sued for copyright violation doesn't mean CC-licensed stuff can be reused totally without thought. If this is likely to be of commercial importance to you, talk to a real lawyer.

Note that this does not apply to something covered by CC0; for all intents and purposes it's in the public domain even though this is a simpler way than usual to renounce copyright, so it can be used in absolutely any way, though giving credit would still be a nice thing to do.

Advantages of Creative Commons

One of the main advantages of the Creative Commons licenses over the GFDL is that they have a "deed", which is said to be "human readable". This presents, in simple terms, what the license means and is essentially a translation of the more complex "lawyer-readable" document that goes with it.

Randall Munroe licences his webcomic, xkcd, under Creative Commons, as part of making sure his stuff can spread as widely as possible.

Creative Commons also has various "types" that can be optionally added to the deed and license. These stipulations then become part of the terms of use for the subject. For example, you can stipulate that the work must not be altered ("no derivatives"), this is the case with Ben Goldacre's "missing chapter" from Bad Science; you're free to repost the chapter anywhere that has a Creative Commons license so long as you present it in its entirety, including the creative commons spiel at the top.[6] You can also stipulate that someone using it must give you credit ("attribution"), which is usually satisfied by linking back to the original source. This is good for art or diagrams released under CC so people can go back to the original artist, appreciate them and possibly find more things they'd be interested in. Another possible stipulation is that something released under a Creative Commons license cannot be used to generate money ("non-commercial") (i.e. you must give away anything you use the work on for free).


This image was released under CC-BY-SA. Yet the author also declared that the image was not for re-use. Which instruction, therefore, takes priority? Hint: if you mark it CC-BY-SA, you won't win in court against someone using it per CC-BY-SA. D'oh!

The licenses are a blanket and generic coverage; this is the point, if you wanted more strict control, you'd sort your own licensing out on a case-by-case basis. This means anyone can use it for whatever purposes they like (within the license, but these usually only restrict commercial activity). If you release a beautiful image you made under CC to try and look like a cool, progressive internet nerd who's all for filesharing, free media and the Liberal Way etc. and it appears on a Ku Klux Klan supporting website, you can't really complain much. Releasing something under a CC license is always an intentional act, and you have to consider what your work could be used for and where it can appear if you want to use it.

A creative commons license cannot be "revoked". If you release an image or work under CC, it remains under CC even if you take the license logo from your original source or delete it at the original source. This for both legal and practical reasons; namely, if you release something and someone else uses it or it goes everywhere, you're going to have trouble tracking down every instance of it and will never be able to justify suing the ass off the people who used it fairly. As most CC licenses have the "share-alike" criteria, anyone using your work must also release it under CC, and someone using that work must release it under CC, and so on. This creates chains of freely licensed material and it would be a practical nightmare - as well as a dubious practice - to suddenly "pull the plug" on the license. Therefore something that is put under CC, stays under CC.

Notably this only counts if the original author releases it under CC; so it doesn't hold up if someone takes an image, slaps a CC logo on it and claims that they're using it fairly. This also covers the potential for wiki based vandals to place CC logos on copyrighted work and subsequently "steal" them.

In short: If you don't want what you've made or written to be tampered with and disseminated across the world, don't use the damn licenses.

See also

External links


  1. Bizarrely, and surprisingly, Encyclopedia Dramatica has a pretty good description.
  2. BusyBox and the GPL Prevail Again - Updated 4Xs - serious pwnage of a company that thought they could just flout the license requirements.
  3. - ASCAP Claiming That Creative Commons Must Be Stopped
  4. Creative Commons - Response to ASCAP’s deceptive claims
  5. Creative Commons - Lawsuit Against Virgin Mobile and Creative Commons – FAQ
  6. Bad Science - The Doctor Will Sue You Now
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