Creative Commons

Is copyright law too limiting? While copyright law exists to protect the rights and livelihoods of authors, artists, and other creators, some argue that it stifles the creativity of the public by preventing the remixing or reinterpreting of works. Because of this perceived flaw, a group of lawyers and other concerned individuals joined together to form Creative Commons, an organization that provides opt-in supplements to traditional copyright.

The creation of Creative Commons was sparked by the conflict between various individuals interested in making works that had gone out of copyright publically available and the federal government, which in 1998 passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Act, extending the period in which a work is protected by copyright. Two lawyers, Lawrence Lessig and Jonathan Zittrain, decided to challenge the law, believing that keeping lesser-known works in the public domain is necessary in order to preserve those works. They represented a plaintiff, Eric Eldred, who had created an online library of then-public domain books, in a case before the Supreme Court. They lost, 7:2. However, this loss did not prevent Lessig and company from looking into other ways to make work available, expanding their focus from public domain books to all sorts of content.

The concept that eventually became Creative Commons had originally been created by a group of law students several years before, who called it Copyright Commons. This concept relied on the idea that a copyright holder might put a symbol on his or her creation marking it as being contributed to the commons, a body of works available for public use. Realizing that it would be possible to adopt this concept and form it into a workable and legal system, the Creative Commons board of directors officially met for the first time in the spring of 2001. Less than a year later, Creative Commons was officially incorporated as a non-profit, and it launched its website soon after.

In order to encourage the free use of content, Creative Commons implemented a licensing system that creators can choose to use, not as an alternative to copyright, but as a way to express which specific rights they want to retain. Creative Commons refers to this as a “some rights reserved” system, as opposed to the “all rights reserved” copyright standard. In order to apply a Creative Commons license to a work, its creator must make a series of decisions: will derivative works be allowed? Can the work or its derivatives be used commercially? Must the person sharing or reinterpreting the work attribute it to its original creator? Once the creator decides, he or she may place a simple badge with symbols indicating which uses are allowed on the work. The badge links back to the Creative Commons website, where a full explanation of the badge and the legal code behind it can be found.

While the use of Creative Commons licenses is not yet truly mainstream, it has grown in popularity since the early days. According to Creative Commons, the number of licenses in use increased from approximately one million in 2003 to an estimated 130 million in 2008, and the number has only continued to go up. Several major users of licenses include authors like Cory Doctorow, whose 2003 novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was the first commercially published novel to also be released under a Creative Commons license, government entities including the Obama administration, and popular websites like Google and Flickr.

Most recently, Creative Commons has introduced a new option that allows creators to renounce all rights to a work, voluntarily placing it within the public domain. This development harkens back to Creative Commons’ roots in the Supreme Court case, while simultaneously looking forward into the realm of new possibilities. After nearly a decade of work, Creative Commons is continuing to expand the boundaries of copyright into the future.

Works Cited

Boyle, James. The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Creative Commons. Creative Commons. Web. 14 March 2010.

Doctorow, Cory. “Doctorow's Project: With a Little Help.” Publishers Weekly 19 Oct. 2009. 14 March 2010

Garcelon, Marc. “An information commons? Creative Commons and public access to cultural creations.” New Media Society 11. 8 (2009): 1307-1326. 14 March 2010.