Article categories: Issue 61
January 27th, 2010

With the advent of the widespread adoption of digital technologies and the commercial phase of the Internet in the late 1990s came the empowerment of individuals to copy and redistribute content like never before.

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These technologies also make it possible for the first time to blur the line between consumer and producer – giving rise to the age of the ‘conducer’; Adobe’s Photoshop, Apple’s Garage Band and Final Cut Studio enable anyone to become lounge-room producers, reinterpreting the works of others.

However, this creative potential has given rise to two oftentimes conflicting and disturbing trends. The first being that consumers translated the logic of the analogue era into the digital era, which in turn impacted on how they used and enjoyed creative works. In the analogue world, consumers equated what they could do with music, books and movies (such as copy and change content) with what they could physically do with a product – if I can photocopy a book or make a mix tape, then similar principles can be applied to to digital content. When this logic was translated into the digital era, however, the impact was profound. Analogue copying and reuse was, by its nature, necessarily limited; analogue copies were of a lesser quality and analogue technologies permitted fewer reuses and reinterpretations by amateurs. Digital technologies, however, allowed ongoing (perfect or sufficiently near-perfect) copying of copies and greater potential to reuse and adapt, even by non-professionals in the privacy of their living room – thus,  preferable option for reinturpretaiton and use. The second trend, is the rigorous enforcement of copyright laws through litigation by content owners, such as occurred with the recent Kazaa case in Australia and the Grokster case in the US. In addition, corporate content owners have lobbied successfully for the amendment of copyright law to strengthen their rights against digital ‘piracy.’

The resultant clash between these two trends has given rise to the spectre of a world in which creators and users of creative works are not able to harness the possibilities that digital technologies offer and a world in which many users of creative works do not respect copyright laws, either in principle or in practice.

Enter Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a non-profit organisation that aims to promote balance in intellectual property regulation and to promote collaboration between creators across time and space by expanding the amount of flexibly licensed content available. Creative Commons also encourages searchability of that content and promotion of its re-use. In this manner, Creative Commons hopes to secure a realm for participatory culture where people can share, comment and build upon each other’s work, rather than simply passively receive content.

Since its inception in 2002 (in response to the polarised debate occurring between the content industries and online communities), Creative Commons has made available free legal and technical tools that enable creators to publish their content without legal repocussions, have their creative works found by others more readily, and, most importantly, have their creative works used on more flexible terms than the traditional “all rights reserved” approach of default copyright protection permits.

Licenses & Tools

Towards this end, Creative Commons released a set of standard licenses. The core licensing suite allows an author to decide what use others may make of their work: whether others may make commercial use of their work, make derivative works,  and if they may, whether those derivative works must be made available on the same licensing terms. All licenses require attribution as specified by the author.

In this way authors can structure their private rights to create public goods. Creative works are set “free” for certain uses, consistent with the author’s specific intent. Like the free software and open-source movements, our ends are cooperative and community-minded, and our means are voluntary and libertarian. We work to offer creators a best-of-both-worlds approach to protect their works while encouraging certain uses of them,  to declare “some rights reserved” – tailored to suit an individuals preferences.

Once a license is selected, the author receives their license in three formats. Firstly, human-readable format – the Commons Deed; secondly, lawyer-readable format – the Legal Code; and thirdly, machine-readable format – Resource Description Framework (RDF) metadata. The metadata enables online works, licensed under a Creative Commons license, to be searched for and identified based on their licensing terms. So, for example, I can find photographs taken by others, which I can then use commercially, build upon, or modify. To assist in the effort to identify Creative Commons-licensed content, taking the Creative Commons’ Nutch-powered search engine  ( as an example, Yahoo! launched a search engine specifically for this purpose in March 2005, which is now incorporated in its Advanced Search page ( Currently, Yahoo! is reporting over 53 million linkbacks to Creative Commons licenses. Given Yahoo! now indexes around 20 billion web pages, that means approximately 1 out of every 265 pages online are licensed on Creative Commons’ more flexible terms.

The demand for balance and moderation in intellectual property regulation that the Yahoo! results demonstrate, is unquestionably global. Volunteer teams in seventeen countries – from Brazil, to Spain, to Japan, to Croatia, and importantly, since January 2005, to Australia – have ‘ported’ the Creative Commons licenses, translating them linguistically and legally for their jurisdiction. Teams in another thirteen other countries are actively involved in the porting process and, in total, teams in 70 jurisdictions are working to establish Creative Commons licenses.

Creative Commons License Adoption

In general, individual Creative Commons license adopters tend to fall into five categories. Firstly, the pragmatists who want to get their work distributed and known to as many people as possible; secondly, the idealists who are committed to the principle of sharing knowledge; thirdly, the artists whose art form is sampling, remixing, and recontextualizing the works of others; fourthly, academics and educators for whom sharing knowledge is their profession; and finally, citizen journalists who report on the world events they witness.

One example of an individual license adopter is Black brow (, a collaborative filmmaking organisation, which consists of Peter Foley and Chris Perren. Black brow created the “CC Mayer and Beetle Animation,” an explanatory film about Creative Commons, which (of course) was itself licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.1 Australia license. It enjoyed considerable success, topping more than 5000 unique downloads from the Creative Commons Australia website and has been translated into French, German and Hebrew thanks to the CC license permitting derivative works.

“Creative Commons is like having 100,000 free publicity officers,” Foley said, “you get heaps of people watching your film because no one is scared of being arrested because of it.” Because of the film, Black brow has gained international interest including several job opportunities. “Creative Commons helped us reach markets we never considered were possible to reach for us at this early stage in our careers,” said Perren.

Several content aggregator sites have also incorporated Creative Commons licensing into their sites to enable contributors to more “freely” license their work. In the publishing world the UK-based openDemocracy, which publishes online articles on global politics and culture, and the Australian-based ( which publishes articles about current Australian social and political issues, both offer their authors the ability to apply Creative Commons licenses to their contributions. The online photo library Flickr provides Creative Commons licensing as an option to its uploaders. Currently, around 4.2 million photos are available on Flickr under a Creative Commons license, including images from recent current events including the Gaza strip withdrawal and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In addition, operated by Vibewire Youth Services Inc, now enables contributors to the site to apply Creative Commons licenses to their work. is an independent youth-run, youth-made media portal that allows young Australian people opportunities to publish articles on politics, media, arts, society and personal issues. As Tom Dawkins, National Coordinator of VibeWire Youth Services who operate explains, “By clearly indicating on the site the legal rights the author wishes to reserve and those they are happy to relinquish we are promoting the dissemination of their content and ideas, which ultimately is what we exist to do,”.

In Summary

By clearly signaling to the general public what use is permitted of their works, creators around the world are opening up a pool of content for use and reuse. Given two-thirds of the Creative Commons license adopters opt to allow derivative uses of their works, the creative potential enabled by digital technologies may be enjoyed, and open up dialogues across borders and time, similar to the “CC Mayer & Bettle Animation.”

Mia Garlick
Mia Garlick is General Counsel at Creative Commons, advising on Creative Commons legal issues. Mia has a Masters of Law from Stanford specialising in Law, Science, and Technology. Mia has presented and written frequently on issues surrounding intellectual property and technology law.

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