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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.
Copyright and licensing
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 and how it is used, reproduced or edited. They have the right to control how it is copied, hence copyright. If someone other than the originator wants to use the work for their own purposes, using someone's painting as a book cover for example, they must ask permission of the copyright holder. The copyright holder can either say "yes", "no" or "give me some money and you can". This is a legal protection that primarily prevents anyone profiting from someone else's work, either directly or indirectly or gaining any sort of credit or livelihood from others work.
Copyright is not just limited to restricting who can claim credit for producing an original work. To be realistically and practically enforceable it applies whether or not you're directly profiting from its use yourself (hosting websites, for instance, can make money from advertising banners) or it can be used in a manner that the originator doesn't agree with and so doesn't consent to. So those uploading copyrighted videos to YouTube and putting "no copyright intended" (or some other nonsensical mash-up of legal terminology) or "I don't own the copyright to this" don't understand the fundamental nature of copyright protection and aren't actually exempting themselves from legal action. Such a thing is like someone walking out of a shop with something they didn't pay for and shouting "no theft intended!"
A license has the legal effect of rights being granted by the copyright holder to a person or organisation who wants to use the work. These licenses determine certain caveats and restrictions: what you can use, where you can use it, how much money you're going to exchange for it and how you intend to use the work. For instance, licenses for software often have restrictions on use, and for many media programs and high-end graphics software there is a difference between commercial licenses (where you can produce things for profit) and student or personal licenses where you generally use them as a hobby, for fun or personal projects where you don't profit from it. The price difference between these two can easily be an order of magnitude or more to reflect this. Licences aren't always granted, as it's still up to the copyright holder whether they want to grant or give permission for it to be used. 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 (Though there are notable exceptions to this factoid; Avenue Q was granted to be performed at a student venue for charity, and Les Misérables is one of the few to ever produce and license a schools edition while it was still running in a major theatre).
Granting a license does not mean you've given your copyright away; an author of an diagram, painting, photograph or a piece of text, or music retains their status as author and the copyrights that come with it no matter how often they license it, unless they explicitly transfer the copyright to another person or organization (at which point the author no longer has the copyright, and the new copyright holder has the new exclusive right to issue or not issue licenses). This is why those that call Creative Commons an "anti copyright organisation" are at best misguided, or at worse outright lying. If you violate the license terms, whether it be a bespoke license or one of the many readily available free licenses, the copyright holder can still legally smack you for it. Licenses are just contracts that control who can use it and with what restrictions. With this massive misconception of copyright law dealt with, we can discuss Creative Commons in a bit more specific detail.
Why Creative Commons?
Assume that you create something, and so it's copyrighted, but don't mind sharing it with others and letting them do what they like with it. It'd be a simple matter to just give permission to everyone who asks or simply not pursue or search out any "copyright violations", but assume that requests happen so frequently it begins to become annoying or time-consuming. In these cases, a Creative Commons license becomes essentially a shorthand way of cutting out the arduous process of generating a specific license or granting requests as they come. 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 own work that uses it under a similar license, he or she can use it. In this respect, licenses such as the Creative Commons licenses and the somewhat more unwieldy 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. This doesn't just restrict to images; text too can be shared between these projects - which would otherwise need to construct a lot of copyright mumbo jumbo in order to do this.
These licenses define the terms if you want to reuse the stuff — you are not forced to obey them, but under most circumstances, 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. However, like all copyright licenses, Creative Commons licenses do not restrict fair use (as fair use is an exception to the copyright laws, it doesn't require accepting any license from the copyright holder, including Creative Commons), nor do they prevent the copyright holder from offering something to someone under a different license as an alternative to the Creative Commons (as long as they in fact own the copyright to everything they're offering under a different license). For example, an artist who releases a picture under CC-BY-NC can also sell the rights to use it commercially; anyone can use it noncommercially under the CC-BY-NC license, but only those who pay can use it commercially under a different license.
For those who prefer no copyright at all instead of simply imposing fewer copyright restrictions, Creative Commons provides the CC-0 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. 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 (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.
Creative Commmons licenses come with shorthand terminology to construct or refer to a license:
- CC - Creative Commons. Denotes that the license is Creative Commons, obviously.
- BY - Literally "by". They user must attribute the work and say who it was made by. This restriction is present in all Creative Commons licenses except CC0.
- NC - Non-commercial. Cannot be used for profit, although defining "non-commercial" is complicated, and is currently the focus of the development for the 4.0 license.
- SA - Share-alike. All derivatives and reuse must be released under a similar CC license.
- ND - No derivatives. No changes or alterations can be made to the work. E.g., you can't manipulate an image or take only samples of the text. Without this, the Creative Commons deed explicitly says you are allowed to "remix" the work.
So, CC-BY-SA means you can reuse the work with attribution, you can use it for profit, you can remix it how you like, but once you release the final product, it must be under a CC-BY-SA license at the end.
The licenses are a blanket and generic coverage (lawyer-speak: "non-exclusive"); 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.
- Public domain - A complete lack of copyright, which the above-mentioned CC0 license is intended for (when possible).
- Fair use - A heavily unreliable way of getting around copyright laws for stuff still covered by copyright.
- RationalWiki:Copyrights - More detailed jargon on how RationalWiki uses the Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.Whatever.
- Conservapedia:Copyright - How not to do it.
- GNU Free Documentation License - How really not to do it.
- Open source - A similar idea which applies to software.
- Bizarrely, and surprisingly, Encyclopedia Dramatica has a pretty good description.
- BusyBox and the GPL Prevail Again - Updated 4Xs - serious pwnage of a company that thought they could just flout the license requirements.
- Techdirt.com - ASCAP Claiming That Creative Commons Must Be Stopped
- Creative Commons - Response to ASCAP’s deceptive claims
- Creative Commons - Lawsuit Against Virgin Mobile and Creative Commons – FAQ
- Lawyer readable vs Human readable
- Bad Science - The Doctor Will Sue You Now
- Creative Commons wiki - Defining Noncommercial
- Wikimedia Commons has a help page covering this very issue, which appears to be fairly common on Flickr.