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Creative Commons: What Is It And Why Should You Be Using It?

Founded in 2001, Creative Commons is an American non-profit organisation, working internationally, devoted to expanding the range of creative works that people can share legally and build upon using licences. The licences are a helpful and simple, standardised way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work.

With the likes of flickr, 500px, YouTube, Internet Archive, Wikipedia and Bandcamp all adopting CC licences,  you’ll have probably heard of Creative Commons and it is easy to mistake those two words to mean works explicitly public domain, this is not the case however as there are many licences(including their popular CC0 licence) which make up the Creative Commons standard.



What is Creative Commons?

Founded in 2001, Creative Commons is an American non-profit organisation, working internationally, devoted to expanding the range of creative works that people can share legally and build upon using licences. The licences are a helpful and simple, standardised way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work.

To understand the benefits of Creative Commons licences, We need to first understand copyright and the public domain.

In essence, copyright exists as a form of intellectual property to grant the creator of an original work exclusive rights to determine under what conditions the original work may be used by others. There are exceptions such as fair use, territorial rights and public domain.

The public domain consists of creative works to which no exclusive intellectual property rights apply. Those rights may have expired, forfeited or waived. Examples such as, Shakespeare’s works and most early silent films are in the public domain as they had been created before copyright existed, or by their copyright term having expired.

The issue for organisations and individuals is the all rights reserved setting that copyright law creates and that is where the Creative Commons tools and licences come in.

One goal of Creative Commons is to increase the amount of openly licensed creativity in “the commons” — the body of work freely available for legal use, sharing, repurposing, and remixing. Through the use of CC licenses, millions of people around the world have made their photos, videos, writing, music, and other creative content available for any member of the public to use. -



We spoke to Jane Park, Creative Common's Director of Platforms and Partnerships about the Creative Commons organisation, history, licences and what the future holds for the internet, copyright and CC.

Who was CC originally targeted towards?

I don’t know if CC was targeting any specific group of people, but since CC was conceptualized by a group of academics, it may have been initially popular in the academic and educational community, with MIT OpenCourseWare being an early adopter. CC was also popular in the photography sector in its early years, with Flickr being one of the first user-generated content platforms to enable CC license options for its amateur photographer community.

CC was originally founded as a reaction to the Supreme Court decision in Eldred v. Ashcroft which upheld the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) that extended copyright terms by an additional 20 years. Essentially after that ruling the CC founders recognized that copyright was unlikely to be reformed anytime soon, so they founded Creative Commons as a relief valve from “all rights reserved” copyright, opening a pathway for creators to grant some rights while reserving others. I don’t think that even the founders could have foreseen the ubiquity of the licenses across domains and around the world 16 years later. Today, CC licenses are not only applied to academic texts and images, but to films, podcasts, music, and media that did not exist at the time of organizational inception, such as 3D designs and new kinds of datasets.

Is there a particular licence that is used more than others and why?

According to the latest State of the Commons report, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike(CC BY-SA) is the most used license, with Creative Commons Attribution(CC BY) the second most used license. Both of these licenses are known as “free culture” licenses, which means that they allow the most permissions with the least amount of conditions. I couldn’t tell you the scientific reasons why these licenses are most used, but I can tell you some likely reasons why, including:

  • CC BY-SA is the license used by Wikipedia, the world’s largest collectively owned knowledge resource

  • CC BY is promoted at the policy level in educational institutions, governments, and foundations, with the no brainer argument that any resources funded by taxpayer dollars (or philanthropic ventures) ought to be openly licensed for maximum impact back to the public

Complete data notes can be found here.

If there is already public domain, why create a CC0 Licence and are there any differences?

There is already a public domain, but it is not clearly understood, nor is it clearly marked in all cases. For that reason, Creative Commons offers two public domain tools.

Public Domain Mark -- This tool is not legally operative and is simply a mark, hence the name. This mark is recommended for use by institutions who have the resources to identify a work as being in the worldwide public domain. This mark is to be applied to those works already in the public domain, so that the public may know what to do with them.

CC0 Public Domain Dedication -- This tool is legally operative and is intended for use by copyright holders who wish to waive all rights within a work and place it into the worldwide public domain (or as nearly into the public domain as the law of a particular jurisdiction allows). CC0 is a way to actively place a work into the public domain today, without having to wait for copyright to expire.

Since 2001 CC has grown into an international community, Is there a profession or industry that you are surprised has adopted CC licences or did not see it used for that purpose?

Yes! As I mentioned earlier, 3D printing has blown up and CC licenses were there at the start. Thingiverse probably has one of the most vibrant sharing communities of any UGC (user-generated content) platform today, and its creators and users use CC for all kinds of designs, including this one of a skull candy dish.

On the CC website history page, it lists milestones up to 2009 and the launch of CC0. What important milestones have happened since then and how do you see CC evolving over the next ten years?

I guess we need to update that page! So many milestones I couldn’t remember them all, especially per domain, but here are some more recent ones:

2017: The CC Global Network is reconstructed from the ground up to make way for a new age where CC membership is no longer dependent on legal expertise, aka you don’t have to be a lawyers to become a member of the network.

Over the next ten years, I honestly have no idea, as 10 years is a century in Internet time. I do know that there are emerging media and trends that CC has to be aware of, like virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and the fact that more of the web is centralized and owned by a few major companies. That’s why CC is undertaking user research as part of its new usability initiative, so that it can update the usability of its current toolset, while at the same time anticipating and designing for the future of digital content sharing.

Certain online platforms have started experimenting with blockchain for copyright. ownership and attribution traceability, mainly for video and photographic media, is this something that CC has looked into or experimented with?  Are there any other new technologies that could help with attribution and CC licences in the future?

We've looked into it and have had conversations, even curating a track on CC and New Technologies at our recent Global Summit. Currently, however, we are not using it as the base technology for any of our projects or tools.

WRT new technologies, Rob Myers, CC’s Core Systems Manager, says:

“We're using Machine Learning for tagging images at the moment, that may help with attribution in future. And we've been watching Perceptual Hashing (where visual features of an image are used to algorithmically identify a digital image file, rather than traditional Hashing where the raw data is used) for a while -- it's great for identifying unusual images but still not as good as we'd need for visually very similar images (e.g. different green fields with blue sky above).”

What challenges does CC face as an organisation and advocate of commons and sharing in an international pool of news media, politics, regulation and copyright law that is the 2018 internet?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like copyright proponents are slowing down anytime soon. CC has community members around the world who work to advocate for fair and just copyright, but it seems like lately the efforts are focused less on reforming copyright and more on maintaining the status quo in the face of increasing restrictions and term extensions.

For example, Larry Lessig, CC’s founder, wrote a recent piece in Wired about the CLASSICS Act in the United States, or the “Compensating Legacy Artists for their Songs, Service, and Important Contributions to Society Act,” and how it’s sneaking in a copyright term extension for musical recordings made before 1972, which would essentially extend the copyright term on these works to 144 years (when otherwise they would be in the public domain). Most recently, the CLASSICS Act has been folded into the Music Modernization Act, which appeared to be a good thing until this happened. TechDirt has a good run-down on this in, “Of Course The RIAA Would Find A Way To Screw Over The Public In 'Modernizing' Copyright.”

Timothy Vollmer, CC’s Senior Manager of Public Policy, leads many of the more international efforts to stem the tide of increasing restrictions, including working with civil society to ensure better copyright rules through trade agreements: The focus here is on consumers’ digital rights, with CC and others urging the following copyright principles to ensure that users are protected:

  • “Protect and promote copyright balance, including fair use”

  • “Provide technology-enabling exceptions, such as for search engines and text- and data-mining”

  • “Require safe harbor provisions to protect online platforms from users’ infringement”

  • “Ensure legitimate exceptions for anti-circumvention, such as documentary filmmaking, cybersecurity research, and allowing assistive reading technologies for the blind”

  • “Adhere to existing multilateral commitments on copyright term”

  • “Guarantee proportionality and due process in copyright enforcement”

In regards to the recent European Parliament and Legal Affairs Committee vote on the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, specifically, article 13(which would require online platforms to monitor the uploads of users and have automated systems to tackle copyright infringements). If implemented, how would this affect sharing CC licence work and what system could be in place to protect commons and the open web?

We have some good news! This week the European Parliament voted to reject the Legal Affairs committee's attempt to fast-track this controversial copyright proposal, which includes Article 11, or the "link tax" and Article 13, the "censorship machine," both of which would have threatened the rights of users. However, the copyright reform will be debated in plenary in September, and Article 13 (that would require online platforms to monitor their users’ uploads and try to prevent copyright infringement through automated filtering) is already in the text offered by the European Commission, the Member States, and the Legal Affairs committee. Now is the chance for MEPs to change it, since the full parliament will be permitted to table amendments. If we do nothing, it is very likely to go through.

If it goes through, Tim Vollmer says it best:

“Article 13 will limit freedom of expression, as the required upload filters won’t be able to tell the difference between copyright infringement and permitted uses of copyrighted works under limitations and exceptions. It puts into jeopardy the sharing of video remixes, memes, parody, and code, even works that include openly licensed content.”
“Article 13 will also affect CC licensed content if that content contains any piece of copyrighted work claimed by another rights holder. For example, you can imagine that a documentary filmmaker is creating a video that includes original work that she licenses under CC, but she also includes a short clip from another copyrighted film that she wishes to included for purposes of commentary or parody. The Article 13 upload filters can't determine if/when a person is using said copyrighted work under a permissible limitation or exception to copyright law. So it'll flag the work and the documentary will be blocked from being uploaded to YouTube, Vimeo, etc. until the filmmaker negotiates a separate license for including the small copyrighted clip. Or take another example–a teacher is developing a digital textbook and is using CC licensed text and multimedia. But if the teacher wishes to use a copyrighted figure from an all rights reserved textbook under the teaching exception to copyright law, that digital book would get flagged and prevent him from uploading it to a platform. So you can see that creators often use a mix of both CC licensed and other copyrighted works under limitations and exceptions to copyright law. But the Article 13 upload filters don't care. It'll flag *anything* that includes a small piece of copyrighted work and censor that work before it goes online.”

With regards to a better system, Tim also says:

“Some of the larger organisations such as Wikipedia and GitHub so far have been successful at convincing EU legislators to give them a carve-out so their platforms would not be subject to Article 13 rules. So, at least for those few platforms, the CC licensed content will be able to flow freely. The language is pretty clunky. But there's a larger challenge in that these orgs with a decent sized voice are the only ones that get their exemption, while all the rest of smaller and potentially startup platforms don't get the pass.”

Some alternatives to Article 13 have been floated by other EU committees, which COMMUNIA has done some work to explain here.

If you’re interested in any of the copyright reform and policy work above, definitely consider subscribing to, “All Shares Considered,” our newsletter to help you get more involved in policy and advocacy to protect and expand the Commons here.

What projects are CC currently working on?

In terms of major active projects, we are revamping Creative Commons search, with the long term goal of building a front door to the CC-licensed commons, but we’re starting with images: You can still access the old CC search (which is more a portal to different platforms with CC content), but the new search will look more like the beta at that link.

Related to that, and as mentioned above, we’re conducting user research to improve our tools more generally, and to anticipate and design new tools that might further unlock knowledge and creativity in 2018 and beyond. We’re wrapping up our research phase soon and will soon start designing prototypes to test with our community. More about CC usability here.

CC is doing a ton of other stuff, like developing a CC certification for librarians and educators, and putting on another Global Summit in Lisbon, Portugal next year, so to get in the loop, subscribe to the general CC newsletter here.

Jane manages CC's relationships with online content platforms, specifically user-generated content platforms, and is thinking about ways CC might better serve creators and users on these platforms. As part of that, Jane is leading the usability initiative mentioned in the article, which involves a human-centered design approach to questions of CC usability. You can find Janes bio here.



The benefits of Creative Commons and their licences are endless, as a distributor or owner of information or media, CC licences gives you a recognised platform and clear flexibility with legal control over how you want your work shared. As a user, it allows you to recognise what works are available for your needs and how to attribute work used correctly.

As a photographer and photo editor i’ve found CC licences to be incredibly useful in being able to quickly understand and access images online and use them in projects, either to showcase my skills or just for creativity, as sometimes, I do not always have the correct image in a digital library or maybe i’m looking for something else. This helps especially in composition or remix work, an example would be a personal ongoing project of mine, CC Zero, where I create remixes of other people's images which have been found under the CC0 licence.

As a digitisation business, we are currently working on a private collection of images to be released under the creative commons licence structure, enabling others to reuse and remix images from that library. These would mainly consist of digitised images of slides, photographs and negatives and objects that we hold in our personal collection.

Below is a list of CC licences and their descriptions taken directly from the CC Website.

Attribution(CC BY)

This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.

Attribution-ShareAlike(CC BY-SA)

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to “copyleft” free and open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. This is the license used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects.

Attribution-NoDerivs(CC BY-ND)

This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.

Attribution-NonCommercial(CC BY-NC)

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike(CC BY-NC-SA)

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs(CC BY-NC-ND)

This license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

CC0 No Rights Reserved

CC0 enables scientists, educators, artists and other creators and owners of copyright- or database-protected content to waive those interests in their works and thereby place them as completely as possible in the public domain, so that others may freely build upon, enhance and reuse the works for any purposes without restriction under copyright or database law.

Public Domain Mark

Our Public Domain Mark enables works that are no longer restricted by copyright to be marked as such in a standard and simple way, making them easily discoverable and available to others. The Public Domain Mark operates as a tag or a label, allowing institutions like those as well as others with such knowledge to communicate that a work is no longer restricted by copyright and can be freely used by others.


If you want to share your own work using a Creative Commons licence, they have a very handy tool to help you work out exactly what permissions you want when sharing your work.


Alfie Shillingford