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Why should I use a Creative Commons License?

Go to Flickr, Deviant Art, Sound Cloud, or even Wikipedia and you will see the term “Creative Commons License” peppered throughout attached to images, music files, and videos. Creative Commons licenses enable the owner of an original copyrighted work to allow use of their creative work by others without applying a full copyright. While copyright gives a creator the exclusive right to copy, distribute, perform, make derivatives of, and display their work, there is nothing in copyright law that keeps the copyright holder from giving away any of those rights.

This happens all the time when licensing a work. When fans download copies of a song from iTunes, the record company has a license to copy and distribute the song, and a license with Apple to do the same, but the artist holds the copyright. However, licensing agreements are not universal. Each agreement is tailored to the particular situation and often costly, requiring attorneys from both sides to agree on terms. 

Creative Commons provides free, easy-to-use copyright licenses that provide a simple, standardized way to give the public permission to share and use your creative work.

Therein lies the problem. Let’s say you wanted to give away your photo to anyone who wants to use it, but only for non-commercial purposes. At the same time, you want attribution; so wherever the work is being displayed, your name is shown. To do that, you would draft a license and attach a link to the details of that license into the photo’s metadata along with some watermark to let everyone know a license is available. The problem with that scenario is that every author would have different license terms, creating thousands of different scenarios for millions of photos.

Creative Commons (“CC”), set out to change all that by providing free, easy-to-use copyright licenses that provide a simple, standardized way to give the public permission to share and use your creative work.  As they state on their website, “CC licenses let you easily change your copyright terms from the default of “all rights reserved” to “some rights reserved.” Creative Commons licenses are not an alternative to copyright. They work alongside copyright and enable you to modify your copyright terms to best suit your needs.”

CC licenses come in six flavors, all of which require attribution (for details on attribution requirements, click here). 

  1. Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives: This is the most restrictive license.  It allows you to use the image in its entirety, with no changes such as cropping, and only for a non-commercial purpose
  2. Attribution Non-commercial Share Alike: with this license, you can make derivatives of the work but you must license the new work under the same CC license as the original.
  3. Attribution Non-commercial: Same as #2 above but you are not required to use the same CC license in the new work
  4. Attribution No Derivatives: You may use the works, as is, with no changes.  It can also be used commercially.
  5. Attribution Share Alike: You may alter the work and use it for a commercial purpose but you must license your new work under the identical terms of the original.
  6. Attribution: This is the most open and flexible creative commons license. You may edit it and use it commercially as long as you provide attribution.

Creative Commons took a while to take root, but with sites like Flickr making CC licensing as easy as clicking a check box, CC licensing is now becoming ubiquitous. Even more helpful are the abundance of search engines now available to search for CC Licensed works.  Here are just a few.

Many artists and musicians want to give out their work but are afraid if they make it free to everyone, one day they will see it on a commercial or major ad campaign making money for someone else instead of themselves.  A CC license is a great way to protect yourself and still maintain some rights. For more information on using a CC license for your work, go to the Creative Commons website at creativecommons.org.

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About the author

Steve Schlackman

As a photographer and Patent Attorney with a background in marketing, Steve has a unique perspective on art and law. Should you have any questions on Intellectual Property contact him at [email protected] His photography can be seen online at Fotofilosophy.com or on display at the Emmanuel Fremin Gallery in New York City.

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