If you’re a musician, a videographer, a visual artist—an artist of any kind, really—you should know about Creative Commons licenses. Not only do these special kinds of licenses allow you to benefit from someone else’s copyrighted material in all kinds of legal ways; they also give you the opportunity to share your work with the world, sometimes with surprising results.
First, a note on copyrights.
When you create something that can be copyrighted (the ordinary things you might think of, like songs and videos and stories and poems, as well as a few surprises like architecture and boat hulls), you automatically own that copyright.
Copyright law gives you exclusive rights to copy your own painting, screen your own movie for the public, write a sequel of your own book, or record cover versions of your song: “all rights reserved.” Since copyright law says that no one else can use your work (other than certain exceptions considered fair use), no one else can do any of those things without your permission.
This is an important protection in many respects. But while many artists differ on what should and should not be acceptable use, a growing number of them are of the belief that art should be shared and collaborated on freely, and that to artificially stifle this potential for creation and innovation would be a detriment to art at large.
The solution? Creative Commons.
A Creative Commons license modifies the terms of a copyright to allow reuse.
Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the free sharing of information, media, and creativity. They’ve developed an important license (called a Creative Commons license, predictably) that anyone can put on their own work and that allows much more than is granted under a typical copyright.
From the organization’s 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.
And here are just a few of the ways the terms have been modified:
- Use my work for any purpose
- Use my work, but not for commercial purposes
- Use my work in full without altering it
- Releasing derivative works under the same license
All of these uses provide one other very important term: that the initial author is credited in the way he or she requests. But as long as the terms of the license are fulfilled, anyone in the world can use, modify, or build on any CC-licensed material, and the original author is credited.
Creative Commons brings artists together from all over the world.Why would anyone want to let just anyone use their material without permission? Some believe it fosters innovation by keeping up with the interconnectedness of our world in a way that the traditional copyright model couldn’t.
[Recommended reading: "What Is Copyright Infringement?"]
And if you use a Creative Commons license, you’d be in good company; notable users include Wikipedia, Flickr, Al Jazeera, and the Public Library of Science.
And Creative Commons has changed the face of the music industry as we know it. For example, Nine Inch Nails famously released an album under a CC license, offering fans choices ranging from $5 for the full album to a much pricier box set, a decision that turned out to be wildly successful. This pay-as-you-wish approach contributed, perhaps counterintuitively, to the album leading Amazon MP3 sales in 2008.
Creative Commons doesn’t limit your rights—it expands them.
Some people believe that Creative Commons licenses somehow limit your own rights to your work. This is, however, the case for works in the public domain—if you’ve dedicated your work to the public domain (which is where all copyrights go after they expire anyway), you no longer have any say over how people use your material.
But with a CC license, you’re still the legal owner. The license simply removes the requirement for people to contact you and ask for your permission to use it, instead preemptively allowing that use under certain conditions. (Want to see one in use? Take a closer look at the images on this page.)
It’s important to understand that once you’ve allowed someone to use your work under a CC license, you cannot retract that permission. CC licenses should not be used lightly. But it seems undeniable that, used responsibly, Creative Commons fosters creativity and innovation, and it is a flexible middle road between rigid copyright and ownerless public domain.
How have you used Creative Commons licenses in your own artistic endeavors? Let us know in the comments!