Too often the debate over creative control tends to the extremes. At one pole is a vision of total control — a world in which every last use of a work is regulated and in which 'all rights reserved' (and then some) is the norm. At the other end is a vision of anarchy — a world in which creators enjoy a wide range of freedom but are left vulnerable to exploitation. Balance, compromise, and moderation — once the driving forces of a copyright system that valued innovation and protection equally — have become endangered species.

"Creative Commons is working to revive them. We use private rights to create public goods: creative works set free for certain uses. Like the free software and open-source movements, our ends are cooperative and community-minded, but our means are voluntary and libertarian. We work to offer creators a best-of-both-worlds way to protect their works while encouraging certain uses of them — to declare 'some rights reserved.'

"Thus, a single goal unites Creative Commons' current and future projects: to build a layer of reasonable, flexible copyright in the face of increasingly restrictive default rules." 1

Creative Commons

Founded in 2001 with the help of the Center for the Public Domain, Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization "led by a Board of Directors that includes cyberlaw and intellectual property experts James Boyle, Michael Carroll, Molly Shaffer Van Houweling, and Lawrence Lessig, MIT computer science professor Hal Abelson, lawyer-turned-documentary filmmaker-turned-cyberlaw expert Eric Saltzman, renowned documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, noted Japanese entrepreneur Joi Ito, and public domain web publisher Eric Eldred."1 The organization currently lives at the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society.

The organization's first project was to define a set of copyright licenses that outlined the vast ground between strict control (full copyright) and no control (the public domain) of content, in hopes of revitalizing the sharing and improving of art and creativity. On December 16, 2002, the Creative Commons Licenses were released to the public.

Another project of Creative Commons is the Founders' Copyright, a recreation of the original American copyright law created in 1790, translated into the legalese of today. It provides creators with a full copyright, with the provision that the work pass into the public domain much sooner than it would have under modern copyright law (i.e., life of the creator plus seventy years).

On December 16, 2003, Creative Commons announced the Sampling License to encourage the use of other works in formats such as musical sampling, video collages, and "mash-ups".

The iCommons (International Commons) project is an effort to bring the Creative Commons licenses to other jurisdictions. Currently, sixteen countries are participating: Australia, Brazil, Catalonia, China, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Jordan, the Netherlands, Spain, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

Currently, Creative Commons is busy preparing a Science Commons license, to address the needs of scientists wishing to allow their research to be shared without the increasingly troubling restrictions placed on some scientific knowledge.

The Licenses

"He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine receives light without darkening me."Thomas Jefferson

The Creative Commons Licenses are a collection of licenses with four components:1

  • Attribution: Permit others to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work and derivative works based upon it only if they give you credit.
  • Noncommercial: Permit others to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work and derivative works based upon it only for noncommercial purposes.
  • No Derivative Works: Permit others to copy, distribute, display and perform only verbatim copies of the work, not derivative works based upon it.
  • Share Alike: Permit others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs your work.

Because the "Share Alike" and "No Derivative Works" licenses prescribe conflicting usage, they are mutually exclusive. Thus, there are eleven possible combinations of the licenses. Creative Commons has three formats available for each of the possible licenses: the license in technical legalese, a short IANAL-readable description of the terms of usage, and a set of computer-readable metadata describing the terms of use for a variety of formats. (More about the computer-readable metadata below, under "Technology".)

(The Free Software Foundation's GNU General Public License helped to inspire the creation of these licenses, but whereas the GPL is tailored to address computer code and software, the Creative Commons Licenses is much more flexible — it can be tailored for all forms of text, images, web site content and design, video, music recordings and compositions, computer fonts, wallpainting/graffiti, and more. Creative Commons respects the GPL and Free Documentation License, and recommends that software and documentation be released under appropriate licenses, and not a CCL.)

The Founders' Copyright is a recreation of the United Stats' first model of copyright law, outlined in 1790. Whereas today's copyright law can extend a copyright to 70 years after the copyright holder's death (or, in some cases, ninety-five years), effectively preventing three or four generations from having the freedom to build upon it (see Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act), the Founders' Copyright ensures creators with a full copyright for a set period of time, after which the work passes into the public domain. Compared to the strictness of today's standard copyright law (the next works to automatically pass into the public domain, which were published in 1923, will do so in 2019) this lets creators benefit from their works and allows the public domain to grow.

The Founders' Copyright grants the creator with a monopoly on the work for 14 years, after which the work passes into the public domain. If the creator wishes, the copyright may be extended for another 14 years. The Founders' Copyright is, in essence, the same as today's "automatic" copyright, except that it passes into the public domain much sooner. Creative Commons achieves this by buying a work's copyright from the creator for one dollar, and granting the original creator exclusive rights to the work for 14 (or 28) years, and after this time has passed, Creative Commons releases the work into the public domain.

Creative Commons has a list of works under the Founders' Copyright, most notably a wide selection of O'Reilly books.

The Sampling Licenses are designed to specify how some works that are commonly used in derivative works (i.e. music and sampling, images and photo collages, and video and video collages) can be used:1

  • The Sampling License: let[s] authors invite others to transform their work, even for commercial purposes, while prohibiting distribution of verbatim copies, or any use in advertising.
  • The Sampling-Plus License: offer[s] the same freedoms as the Sampling license, but will also allow noncommercial sharing of the verbatim work.

The Science Commons is still in a period of development. It will define a way to release scientific knowledge from the grasp of copyright, much like the way things used to be. Historically:1, emphasis mine

  • First, American intellectual property law [...] did not allow for intellectual property protection of "raw facts." One could patent the mousetrap, not the data on the behavior of mice, or the tensile strength of steel. A scientific article could be copyrighted. The data on which it rested could not be. Commercial proprietary ownership was to be limited to a stage close to the point where a finished product entered the marketplace. The data upstream remained for all the world to use.
  • Second, US law mandated that even those federal government works that could be copyrighted, fell immediately into the public domain — a provision of great importance given massive governmental involvement in scientific research. More broadly, the practice in federally funded scientific research was to encourage the widespread dissemination of data at or below cost in the belief that, like the interstate system, this provision of a public good would yield incalculable economic benefits.
  • Third, in the sciences themselves, and particularly in the universities, a strong sociological tradition — sometimes called the Mertonian tradition of open science — discouraged the proprietary exploitation of data (as opposed to inventions derived from data) and required as a condition of publication and replication the datasets on which the work was based.

However, due to the increasing involvement of private corporations and universities into the realm of scientific research, and with the stickiness of patents and trade secrets, these three points are becoming increasingly endangered. The details behind all this are a bit deep (the curious can read about them at; suffice it to say that just as technology (especially the Internet) has shown its usefulness in the gathering and distributing of facts, we are busy putting together laws restricting access to and use of this knowledge, instead of focusing on building upon this new knowledge.

The Science Commons is still just a proposal.

(What's that, you ask? "Why the need for all this — what's wrong with copyright and the public domain?" A lot, actually. See the section below titled "More" — read the writeups listed there, and then the book by Mr. Lessig that I mention.)


"These laws [old copyright laws] have become an insane and unintended burden on creators, because nobody had conceived of the Internet at the time, which has changed everything. Nobody had any idea of the new business opportunities and new businesses that were to be created by the Internet. This is why we need real reform now in intellectual property protection." — Lawrence Lessig5

The computer-readable metadata comes in a couple different flavors, depending on the type of media:

The RDF tag for HTML documents opens up the possibility of searching the Internet for a specific type of content with a specific type of usage license. This is the idea behind the Common Content search engine ( "An open catalog of Creative Commons licensed content". As of April 2004, the catalog has over 1600 listings, many of which contain hundreds of available works (including one from yours truly). The site itself is licensed under a CCL, and is supported by a variety of open-source tools (FreeBSD, Apache, Perl, and MySQL). Apart from the Common Content catalog, the Creative Commons site maintains a directory of CCLed works and notable content portals at

The use of Creative Commons metadata in RSS feeds and HTML pages is growing, too. Both Moveable Type and UserLand Manila, makers of web authoring and publishing tools, have support for adding Creative Commons licensing tags into RSS feeds and other web pages.

And, with the inclusion of license metadata in music files, a filesharing program could make it a point to only transfer properly-tagged files, released to the public under a Creative Commons license.


"Creative Commons, by setting up a conservancy of the middle, is increasing the right to know. ... You are assuring that our grandchildren will have access to information, that it won't die in the clutches of institutions trying to clutch it to their breasts."John Perry Barlow (lyricist, Grateful Dead)4

Though only a couple years old, Creative Commons has some reputable supporters. The Internet Archive ( provides unlimited storage and bandwidth to works under a Creative Commons license, as it does for many other works. iBiblio, Lulu Press, and the Linux Public Broadcasting Network offer CCLs to their contributors. Magnatune, an online record label which promotes its try-before-you-buy streaming music, and gives a full half of its sales back to the artists, licenses all music under the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. O'Reilly & Associates has decided to release all of its out-of-print titles under an Attribution license (pending author approval), and "has made a commitment to publishing all future titles under the Founders' Copyright"4 with an Attribution license after the copyright expires — it is the first organization to adopt the Founders' Copyright. Roger McGuinn, leader of the Byrds, has made a lot of material available under a CCL.

The Creative Commons site has a list of other such supporters at (and hopefully this list will continue to grow!).

Finally, Creative Commons is supported by donations from the Center for the Public Domain, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation, as well as by the work of dozens of volunteers.


Not satisfied? You can learn more about Creative Commons at, or visit their weblog which lists CC-related news at (RSS feed at; members of LiveJournal can add user creativecommons to their friends lists).

They've also got a wiki site: see

Related reading here on E2:

Lawrence Lessig's newest book, "Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity" (2004), deals specifically with many of the topics discussed above. Look for the book in your nearest bookstore, or download it for free at It's released under the Attribution-NonCommercial license, and is highly recommended by the author of this writeup.


  1. Creative Commons: (18 April 2004)
  2. Common Content: (18 April 2004)
  3. Lawrence Lessig, "Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity" (The Penguin Press, New York: 2004) and related web site: (18 April 2004)
  4. O'Reilly Network: Returning Creativity to the Commons, 3 Jan 2003: (18 April 2004)
  5. Lessig: IP protection a business, not a cultural, background (Newsforge): (19 April 2004)

This writeup is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial License. Human-readable details are available at Maybe you'd consider licensing your writeups under a CCL? Visit to see which license is right for you.

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