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participating in the creative commons

Have you ever wondered what Creative Commons is all about? Have you ever applied a Creative Commons license to your artwork, or used another artist’s Creative Commons-licensed work? We wanted to better understand Creative Commons ourselves, so Chuck did some research. We’ve been mulling it over and forming some opinions about what it all means for our audience: visual artists who wish to make a living from their work. We look forward to hearing what you think. First, the facts...

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So, what is Creative Commons?
It’s a non-profit organization that developed and promotes a system intended to facilitate sharing of knowledge and creativity.

As an image creator, you can choose to apply a Creative Commons license (“CCL”) to one or many of your images. There’s no cost to do so and no registration with Creative Commons is required. You simply choose the license version you want (more on those below) and publicly state (e.g. next to your image anywhere you choose to post it) that your image carries that particular Creative Commons license.

What is a Creative Commons License?
A CCL allows you to retain the copyright in your work while transferring a portion of those rights to the public. Recall that as soon as you’ve created a work, copyright law gives you a number of rights: to reproduce, distribute, display, and make derivatives. A CCL touches on all of these rights and, to varying degrees, affects their power.

There are six different CCLs that allow you to share your work with the world while setting limits on what users can do with it. All CCLs require the original artist to be acknowledged wherever the work appears, but they vary as to other terms.

At one end of the spectrum is the “Attribution 4.0 International” license. This one’s described as the “most accommodating.” It authorizes others to “share” your work and defines “share” to include “reproduction, public display, public performance” and “distribution.” It also lets users make and share derivative works. There’s no express authorization allowing the user to sell your work and any derivatives, nor is there anything explicitly barring the user from doing so. “Accommodating” is an accurate description. This license transfers the whole enchilada in exchange for the user’s promise to credit you.

On the other end of the spectrum is “Attribution, NonCommercial, NoDerivatives 4.0 International.” This one’s described as the “most restrictive.” Users can “share” your work, meaning reproduce, distribute, display, or perform it, but they can’t make derivatives and this one expressly prohibits commercial exploitation in any form.

The other four CCL licenses offer different combinations of permissions and restrictions. We think the “most accommodating” and “most restrictive” licenses described above provide an adequate explanation of Creative Commons licenses for the purposes of this post, but if you’re interested in learning more more about those variations, they’re outlined in very user-friendly terms over on the Creative Commons site.

There are are a few additional facts about CCLs you might want to consider if you’re a working visual artist. CCLs are irrevocable. So, even under the most restrictive of the CCLs, you’re granting anyone in the world—potentially for as long as the term of copyright (your whole life plus 70 years)—the right to put your work anywhere they like, including on whatever comes after the Internet. Another thing is that even though all the CCLs are nonexclusive (meaning you retain the right to license the work on any terms you like), the practical effect may decrease the value of your work for commercial licensing purposes, since most commercial licensees want exclusivity as to the licensed use. Another thing to consider is that the non-profit organization behind CCLs disclaims all responsibility for anything that might come your way by offering your work to the world via a CCL. That would include, say, you being dragged into a dispute if a user mashes up your CCL work with someone else’s copyright protected work and ends up in a lawsuit.

So, what’s our opinion on Creative Commons licenses?
It seems that CCLs are well suited to creators who want to share their work freely while still retaining their copyright, and we really like the public benefit spirit with which Creative Commons offers its licensing system. We also believe that copyright law and the existing systems for managing copyright are in need of some serious updating, given the many benefits and pitfalls of image sharing in the Internet age. The Creative Commons seems aimed, in part, at addressing some of the shortfalls in our current copyright system. But from the perspective of a working artist, it’s worth asking how CCLs may affect the value of creative time and talent, and to think carefully about how and where to participate in this system.

Speaking of participating in the system, let’s be sure to look at it from both sides. There’s a wealth of great CCL imagery available and you might find yourself wanting to use a Creative Commons licensed image—maybe to incorporate somehow in your own artwork, or perhaps for a promotional purpose, like a banner for your Etsy shop. If you have reservations about offering CCLs for your own work, is this a system you want to support by using CCL imagery? If so, where would you draw the line?

If you’re an artist with a serious intention of making a living from your artwork, consider that your choices around valuing your own workand your choices about what the work of other artists is worth to you–have an impact on the market. We believe the cumulative effect of those choices makes it more or less viable to be a working artist.

As always, we would sure love to hear from you. What reservations do you have about copyright law in the digital age? What benefits to you see in Creative Commons licenses? Can you imagine other solutions that would support those who want to make a living as an artist, while giving all of us some breathing room to share and promote work for the public good?


Please remember: The information provided on this blog and throughout our website is intended for general educational purposes only. While some information on this site relates to the law as a topic, it's not intended as a substitute for legal advice. Only a lawyer, selected by you and fully informed of the facts relating to your particular situation, can render legal advice.