Understanding Creative Commons

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This post was created, in response to CC Certification Assignment – #1

So you have seen the circled C – the embodiment of restrictions – All Rights Reserved – the tag that accompanies CopyRight. This month, I am part of the Creative Commons Certificate Class, and I invite you, through my assignment, to discover how we got here (copyright); and how we can move on from here.

The story of Creative Commons (fondly aka CC) begins with copyright. Copyright, in law, regulates the way human creativity products are used – like books, academic research articles, music, and art. The creator, or author, gets a set of exclusive rights so that they can prevent others from copying and adapting their work (for a limited time).

This may have been okay in a world without the technological advancements of the 21st century. The internet has given us the opportunity to access, share, and collaborate on all human creations at an unprecedented rate (and scale). This instant-always-on-sharing capabilities made possible by digital technology are in tension with the sharing restrictions embedded within copyright laws around the world.

Technology makes it possible for online content to be consumed by millions of people at once, and it can be copied, shared, and remixed with speed and ease. But copyright law places limits on our ability to take advantage of these possibilities. Creative Commons was founded to help us realize the full potential of the internet.

How does one work around this real, and ever present conflict?

Some History – A copyright legislation & A Supreme Court Decision

Once upon a time, under copyright law, one would own exclusive rights to their creative work for 50 years after death. In 1998, in the US, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), was enacted and it extended the term of copyright for every work in the United States—even those already published—for an additional 20 years, so the copyright term equaled the life of the creator plus 70 years. (Some countries remain at 50 years after the creator’s death to this day.)

The end of a copyright term is important—it marks the moment the work moves into the public domain for everyone to use for any purpose without permission. Stanford Law Professor, Lawrence Lessig, believed this new law was unconstitutional. You see, all creativity and knowledge builds on what came before, and the end of a copyright term ensures that copyrighted works eventually join the pool of knowledge and creativity from which we can all draw to create new works.

The legal conundrum: How could the law, meant to create an incentive for authors to share their works by granting them a limited monopoly over them, possibly further incentivize the creation of works that already existed?

Prof. Lessig represented a web publisher, Eric Eldred, who had made a career of making works available as they passed into the public domain. Together, they challenged the constitutionality of the Act. The case, known as Eldred v. Ashcroft, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Eldred lost.

Creative Commons Takes Shape

Inspired by the value of Eldred’s goal to make more creative works freely available on the internet, and responding to a growing community of bloggers, like yours truly, who were creating, remixing and sharing content, Lessig and others came up with an idea – a nonprofit organization called Creative Commons. In 2002, they published the Creative Commons licenses—a set of free, public licenses that would allow creators to keep their copyrights while sharing their works on more flexible terms than the default “all rights reserved.”

Copyright is automatic, whether you want it or not. And while some people want to reserve all of their rights, many want to share their work with the public more freely. The idea behind CC licensing was to create an easy way for creators who wanted to share their works in ways that were consistent with copyright law.  See A Shared Culture, to get a sense for the vision behind Creative Commons.

From the start, CC licenses were intended to be used by creators all over the world. The CC founders were initially motivated by a piece of U.S. copyright legislation, but similarly restrictive copyright laws all over the world remain in place, and they restrict how our shared culture and collective knowledge could be used, even while digital technologies and the internet have opened new ways for people to participate in culture and knowledge production.

Between when CC was founded and now, much has changed in the way people share and how the internet operates. Yet, the world over, restrictions on using creative works have increased. Today, sharing, remixing and doing so in real-time are the norm. Sometimes this type of sharing and remix happen in violation of copyright law, and sometimes they happen within social media networks that do not allow those works to be shared on other parts of the web.

Have you ever considered what all this instant sharing, copying and remixing looks like in domains like textbook publishing, academic research, documentary film, and many more? We need to find a way to fix this challenge.

So What Exactly Is Creative Commons?

Today, more than 15 years later, Creative Commons licenses are used by more than 1.4 billion works online across 9 million websites. Today, the CC licenses and public domain tools have helped a global movement come together around openness, collaboration, and shared human creativity. CC the nonprofit organization, once housed within the basement of Stanford Law School, now has a staff working around the world on a host of different projects in various domains.

Creative Commons: The Licenses – CC legal tools are an alternative for creators who choose to share their works with the public under more permissive terms than the default “all rights reserved” approach under copyright. CC legal tools and their buttons express an affinity for a set of core values. CC buttons have become ubiquitous symbols for sharing, openness, and human collaboration.

CC licensing, many believe, is rooted in a fundamental belief that knowledge and creativity are building blocks of our culture rather than simple commodities from which to extract market value. The licenses reflect a belief that everyone has something to contribute, and that no one can own our shared culture.

Creative Commons: the Movement – Over the years, a global coalition of people has formed around Creative Commons and open licensing. This includes activists working on copyright reform around the globe, policymakers advancing policies mandating open access to research and data, and creators who share a core set of values. Most of the people and institutions who are part of the CC movement are not formally connected to Creative Commons.

Creative Commons: the Organization – A small nonprofit organization, of  globally distributed  staff and contractors, stewards the Creative Commons legal tools and helps power the open movement. The organizational works to support:

A – Licenses, Tools and Technology
The CC licenses and public domain tools are the core legal tools designed and stewarded by CC. While the licenses have been rigorously vetted by legal experts around the globe, there is still work to be done on the  technical infrastructure designed to make it easier to find and use content in the digital commons.

B – The movement
CC works to help people within open movements collaborate on projects and work toward similar goals. Through CC’s multiple programs, we work directly with our global community—across education, culture, science, copyright reform, government policy, and other sectors—to help train and empower open advocates around the world.

So What is Creative Commons? It a triune of a set of licenses, a movement, and a nonprofit organization. Creative Commons was created to help address the tension between creator’s ability to share digital works globally and copyright regulation.

So How Can You Get Involved?

Most people start at the values based decision – sharing, openness, and the legal stuff. I started out as a member of the Open source software Foundation for Africa – a movement for truly free and open source software tools.  The Conversation’s Explainer overview of other movements adds other examples, such as Open Innovation in the corporate world, Open Data (see the Open Data Commons) and Crowdsourcing. There is also the Open Access movement, which aims to make research widely available, the Open Science movement, and the growing movement around Open Educational Resources.

There may be a local CC chapter in your home city. This is a great way to meet other like-minded people. Most likely, you will meet people from other “open” movements.

For now, I’d like to hear from you – now that you know what CC is all about, where do you stand on the legal way to share freely?


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