Creative Commons

Listen to the Computerworld TechCast: Creative Commons

If data is the fundamental currency of the Information Age, then the concept of intellectual property is the wallet that protects it from theft or misappropriation. Ensuring that protection -- safeguarding the rights of content creators -- is the purpose of copyright and patent laws, but in practice, their implementations can leave much to be desired.



Copyright law is so convoluted that it's sometimes hard to understand. In brief, copyright means that a work can't be used without the explicit permission -- or license -- of the copyright owner, with certain defined exceptions. After a specified period of time after creation or publication, a copyright expires and the work enters the public domain, meaning it is available to everyone to do with as they wish.

Under most countries' current copyright laws, almost anything written, photographed or drawn is automatically copyrighted simply by being created, unless the creator has given those rights to someone else, created it as a "work for hire" or released it into the public domain. This copyright applies to rights for reuse, sale, adaptation, display, performance, remixing and publication in other media, although the development of new types of media unforeseen in the language of current laws has created opportunities for disseminating information but problems in protecting it.

Copyright protection has been widely, even wildly, extended in response to a world in which even proprietary information moves fairly freely. In an effort to improve copyright protection, Congress has made U.S. copyright law preemptive and very restrictive.

Some Rights Reserved

Copyright gives such blanket protection that virtually any subsequent legal use by someone else requires specific permission from the copyright holder. While authors or artists are free to grant rights as they see fit, doing so on a case-by-case basis may be impractical or undesirable. In any event, a license is a legal document that is likely to require drafting or review by a lawyer if the protection is to be enforceable in a court of law.

One response to this situation is Creative Commons (CC), a set of boilerplate templates in the form of identifiable and readable license statements that make it easy for a creator to release particular rights under clearly specified conditions. This allows a creator to protect his basic rights while notifying potential users of what they can and can't do with the author's intellectual property. Depending on the conditions -- allowing unlimited use for noncommercial purposes, for example - a third party may be able to legally use the work without having to contact the owner for permission each time.

How CC Works

To use the online Creative Commons system (, creators simply select which specific restrictions, attributes or modifications they wish to assign to a creative work. The site then produces the appropriate CC license and provides it in three formats. The Commons Deed is a short document that clearly states the licensing rights in plain English and references the legal code.

The Legal Code is a much longer, complete statement that describes the licensing conditions in detail.

Digital license code is HTML that can be included in a Web site. This code also generates an accompanying "Some Rights Reserved" button and a statement clearly indicating that the work is protected under a CC license. The real advantage of the digital code is that it can be used by search engines. For example, Yahoo Inc. offers a Creative Commons search that identifies works and recognizes any licensing conditions.

If the author wishes to release all rights or give the work to the public domain, then the digital code will automatically generate a "No Rights Reserved" button. The button is designed to act as a notice to people who come in contact with the work that exclusive rights to reproduce it have been relinquished under the applicable Creative Commons license.

For off-line works, such as printed material, the creator includes a statement such as "This work is licensed under the Creative Commons [insert description] License." Off-line works obviously do not include the metadata, and search engines can't identify their CC status automatically.

Expanding Acceptance

Not surprisingly, since the idea for Creative Commons came from a Stanford University law professor, the first CC licenses were created with U.S. law in mind and might be unenforceable in other legal systems. The iCommons (International Commons) project is adapting CC legal wording to meet the requirements of other countries. As of November 2005, 46 countries and regions had joined that initiative and the group had completed licenses for 26 countries.

The first legal test of CC occurred in the Netherlands earlier this year, according to legal Web site MTV personality Adam Curry had posted photos of his daughter on the photo- sharing site A Dutch gossip magazine published the photos without authorization, even though they were covered by Flickr's Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share-Alike 2.0 license. Curry sued for copyright infringement, and the Dutch court ruled that a CC license is binding.

In 2004, the British Broadcasting Corp. decided to base its Creative Archive usage license on the CC model. The license covers all of the BBC's vast archive of radio and television programs.

Creative Conditions
CC licenses were inspired largely by the Free Software Foundation's GNU General Public License. Whereas the GNU GPL was designed for software, CC licenses are for other kinds of creative works, including Web sites, music, film, photography, literature and courseware.

CC licenses specify four basic conditions under which others can copy, distribute, display or perform the work. The Creative Commons organization has created graphic icons for each.

Creative Conditions

Kay is a Computerworld contributing writer in Worcester, Mass. You can contact him at

Are there technologies or issues you'd like to learn about in QuickStudy? Send your ideas to

To find a complete archive of our QuickStudies, go online to

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

It’s time to break the ChatGPT habit
Shop Tech Products at Amazon