How-to: Creative Commons

A guide to “copyleft” and using Creative Commons licenses to both protect and share your work in the digital age

Back of a head shaved except for letters

Image: CC-AT Flickr: creativecommoners (Creative Commons)

Have you heard of Creative Commons (CC)? Well, you’ve almost certainly benefited from it.

When was the last time you read something on Wikipedia? The vast majority of content on Wikipedia is under a Creative Commons license, which is what makes it legal for you to use the material, copy it, distribute it, build on it, and do pretty much whatever else you can think of with it – within certain guidelines. 

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organisation with an incredibly ambitious and inspiring vision: “Realizing the full potential of the Internet – universal access to research, education, full participation in culture, and driving a new era of development, growth, and productivity.”

It describes its activities as “developing, supporting, and stewarding legal and technical infrastructure that maximises digital creativity, sharing and innovation.”

The philosophy at the root of CC is simple: our culture and our creativity do not exist in isolation from the past, or from our contemporaries. Every time we create something, we stand on the shoulders of giants who have gone before us. Culture is a conversation, not a monologue, and in order for us to create, we need to have access to creations from the past. We need to be able to use them, copy them, remix them. This is not just true in the arts – it applies just as much to the sciences, to education, to any form of human creativity.

Think of your favourite book: chances are, somewhere in it is a reference or a quote from another work, be it a song, a movie, or another book. Think of scientific discoveries: they don’t happen in a vacuum - scientists constantly build on each other’s work. Think of composers who set texts to music; of being inspired by a picture to write a poem; of the constant conversation that is social media and the blogosphere.

Now imagine a world where to use anything that another person has created, you need their permission. It’s not a world that different from ours actually. And certainly before Creative Commons was established, creators didn’t have much of a choice: they could release their work into the public domain or they could retain full copyright (all rights reserved). But what if you were okay with people doing certain things with your work but not others? For instance, you didn’t mind them passing it on to their friends, but you’d really rather they didn’t change bits of it around. Well, tough – your best bet was retaining full copyright and then granting people permission on a case-by-case basis. Just the fact that they have to ask puts most people off in the first place, and even so, you probably wouldn’t be able to cope with all the admin.

The Creative Commons legal framework enables you to fine-tune what rights over your work you wish to reserve and what rights you want to waive – or give away. By answering a few simple questions, you can get yourself a CC license to use. If you want to go ahead and do that, here are some of the things you might want to think about:

  • Are you happy for people to share and reproduce your work?
  • Are you happy for people to build on your work (create derivatives)? This could include anything from performing it to remixing it and adding bits of their own to it.
  • Are you happy for people to make money from your work?
  • And finally, do you want people to “share alike” – pass on the work they’ve created which is based on yours only the same manner under a CC license?

Once you’ve put some thought into the above, you can go to the Creative Commons website and choose your license. Simple.

So what funky things do people do with CC licenses? Well, Wikipedia is the obvious answer. But writers, artists and musicians are also increasingly making use of CC licensing. Science fiction author Cory Doctorow publishes all of his fiction under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license This means you can copy and share the work and creative derivatives, but you can’t make money out of it without asking Doctorow, and you need to share on the same terms. This means a lot more people get to enjoy Doctorow's work: fans and other artists have created audio-books, plays, podcasts, and even translated his work into languages in which official translations have not been published. Yet, Doctorow still makes money from selling hardcover books, official ebooks and official audiobooks. Indeed, it is plausible to assume that by making his work available for free under the CC license, he increases his exposure so much that he actually boosts sales.

Flickr also enables users to publish their photos under a CC license. For amateur photographers like myself, it’s a great means for exposure. I’ve had a couple of my pictures used in various things – the pinnacle being a LOLcat someone made out of a picture of my cat. Not only is it flattering that someone likes your photograph enough to want to use it, but, on the flipside, whenever you’re in need of an image, you can use Flickr. The site allows you to restrict the search function to only give you CC-licensed content, which saves you the hassle of having to find the rightsholder and ask for permission. Having said that, if you do use CC-licensed content, remember to always attribute it – and it’s always a nice gesture to drop a note to the author and let them know.

Some musicians release entire albums under CC licenses – the Nine Inch Nails’ album The Slip, for instance. Composers may also choose a CC license for their work, which enables musicians to perform it a lot more easily. The Magnatune record label also uses a CC license for its music, and users are actively encouraged to share up to three copies of music they've downloaded from Magnatune with their friends.

There are loads of other things available under the Creative Commons licenses – Wikipedia has a non-exhaustive list here, and it's always worth visiting the CC website itself and having a browse, or using the CC search engine.

Personally, I use the Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike license for pretty much everything I release. I don't particularly want other people making money out of my work without at least asking – hence the noncommercial part. And I love the viral, slightly subversive quality of the ShareAlike condition; it lets me spread the joy of Creative Commons even further. So without further ado, go pick a license and start sharing!


Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She blogs at and tweets as @elmyra


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Comments (1)

  1. justpassinthru:
    Jan 24, 2011 at 11:19 PM

    Thank you, useful info... best wishes

This thread has been closed from taking new comments.

By Milena Popova on Jan 21, 2011

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