Creative Commons: From Copyright to the Right of Copying

We Love Creative commons

We love Creative Commons

Image: Steren Giannini, CC-BY


Creative Commons is an internet innovation that aims to build a more flexible creative environment for the artists as well as the general public. Before this, the copying and irregular use of resources acquired on the Internet not only pushed users to the forefront of moral issues, but also damaged the intellectual property rights of artists. In order to provide people with a freer creative environment, Creative Commons has emerged, which not only protects part of the artists’ rights, but also offers users with more creative space. In this article, the genesis of Creative Commons will be discussed, and its impetus, benefits and disadvantages in the history of digital media will also be analysed.

The Genesis of Creative Commons

“Creative Commons helps you legally share your knowledge and creativity to build a more equitable, accessible, and innovative world. We unlock the full potential of the internet to drive a new era of development, growth and productivity.”

–      Creative Commons (2018)

Creative Commons is not only a non-profit organization, but also a way of authorizing creative works. As for its goal, Creative Commons aims to provide a platform where people can freely use not only ideas, but also artistic creations including music, words, images, etc., without having to ask permission from the original owners since Creative Commons has already taken place (Broussard, 2007, p. 8). In this case, the protection of copyright is no longer limited to the two extremes (“all rights reserved” and “the public domain”), but is found in a certain balance – letting the creators retain part of their rights, while allowing a certain degree of dissemination of these works in the public sphere (“some rights reserved”).

Copyright vs. Creative Commons

Copyright vs. Creative Commons

Image: Bryan M. Mathers, CC-BY-ND

The Creative Commons regulations apply to artists and creators in the international arena. Creative Commons was founded in 2001, and the original version of its copyright licensing rules was published in 2002 in the United States. At the same time, it has also made corresponding improvements in accordance with copyright laws in different countries, and has launched versions with multiple languages. There are more than 60 countries in the world where there are 289 community members who are the Creative Commons Global Network representatives (Creative Commons, 2018).

Creative Commons Summit 2015

Creative Commons Summit 2015

Image: CC Korea, CC-BY

How the rights and interests of the creators are protected and how freely the public uses the work with CC licenses are determined by the authorization approaches chosen by the artist. When selecting the licenses applied to their works, the more specific the artists, the more protection they will gain (Broussard, 2007, p. 9). According to the official statement of Creative Commons, there are four core licensing conditions in the current 4.0 version (Creative Commons Australia, 2018): Attribution (BY), NonCommercial (NC), No Derivative Works (ND), Share Alike (SA). Under the circumstances that attribution is always needed and ND and SA don’t coexist, creators can conduct six standardized licenses that apply to their works via Creative Commons. Plus, the degree of freedom of the public to reuse works also varies with the different ways of licensing. In general, as long as the content acquired from Creative Commons is correctly attributed and reused, it is relatively more convenient for people to legally use others’ works without paying the author.

Know Your Rights: Understand CC Lisences

Know Your Rights: Understand CC Lisences

Image: CC Australia, October 8th, 2018


Significance in the history of information management

Creative Commons brings cheaper and faster ways to share and gain creative works, this further changes people’s attitude towards information transmission. As mentioned above, before the launch of Creative Commons, the protection of intellectual property rights by law, on the one hand, limited the use of creative works by the general public. For example, as Getty Images targets creative professionals, the media and corporates (Rogers, 2013), the company sells an average of $500 a photo for clients to use. As a result, although they have more than 80 million still pictures (and the number is growing), there are few images available to individual customers or small creative workers.

Getty Images, Eastcastle Street, London

Getty Images, Eastcastle Street, London

Image: Philafrenzy, CC-BY-SA

On the other hand, when a work is oriented to the public sphere, which allows viewers to reuse the work freely, there lacks of a guarantee of the rights and interests for the original author. Such acquisition mode may cause moral concerns. For instance, the work under the public domain can be taken away by the next person after modification, and declared to be their work that applies to their rules rather than the original creators. Nevertheless, with Creative Commons, creators can analyze the pros and cons as well as the risks before selecting the most appropriate license, such as “not for commercial use” and so on.

In addition, Creative Commons not only protects part of the creators’ rights, but also increases the efficiency of resource reuse. Because of its relatively relaxed copyright regulations, works using Creative Commons licensing have the opportunity to be widely spread, and the higher the frequency of knowledge being reused, the greater the value it reproduces. In particular, Creative Commons helps to showcase works to a wider audience, reduce the acquisition time (such as asking for permission), thereby increasing the efficiency and probability of knowledge reuse. For example, Creative Commons Australia works with libraries, art galleries, and educational institutions to allow materials to be shared between different schools and institutions (Creative Commons Australia, 2018), which is a new and easier way to acquire knowledge than before. Open Education Resources (OERs) makes it accessible and affordable for everyone to access to educational materials and supportive learning communities, which is both beneficial to students and faculty (Chuma-Okoro, 2013, p.1).

OER Learning

OER Learning

Image: eCampusOntario, CC-BY-NC-SA


Creative Commons as a business

Creative Commons, as a free and mass-oriented service though, has its own source of income. Created in 2001 by Lawrence Lessig, Hal Abelson, and Eric Eldred, Creative Commons is an American organization that now operates internationally, with Ryan Merkley being the current CEO. Just like the founder, Lessig, Merkley is also an advocate of open licenses who shares the view that “copyright law doesn’t work for online uses, is anti-creative and repressive” (Martin, 2018). Since Creative Commons licensing system is free, their main source of income comes from other peripheral products, such as T-shirts sold in online stores. At the same time, Creative Commons holds annual fundraising campaigns, by which they encourage people to donate, in order to maintain the operations and basic costs of the organization’s affiliates around the world (Creative Commons, 2018).

Ryan Merkley at the Creative_Commons Global Summit 2017

Ryan Merkley at the Creative Commons Global Summit 2017

Image: Sebastiaan ter Burg, CC-BY

However, being free does not mean being exploited, as a means of licensing, online open access like Creative Commons is also regulated by government departments. Many international governments choose Creative Commons to share national policies and documents. For example, three of the largest sources of Australian government data setsshare their statistics with Creative Commons by default (Creative Commons Australia, 2018). Meanwhile, when it comes to copyright conflicts, the government will also make judgments in accordance with the relevant Creative Commons regulations, combined with domestic laws. For example, with the support of organizations including Creative Commons, Diego Gómez, who was accused for sharing academic papers online three years ago, was cleared in December 2017 (Vollmer, 2018), which was a confrontation between open access and traditional copyright holders.



Image:Fundación Karisma, CC-BY-SA


Benefits and Drawbacks

The prime beneficiaries of Creative Commons are artists in the digital age, while they are also the potential ones who do not benefit from. Firstly, Creative Commons offers artists a platform to search for inspiration and raw materials. While artists license their works to Creative Commons, they also acquire works shared by others. Culturally, Creative Commons provides students and creators with more learning and referable materials, then raw materials under Creative Commons license can help “remix” artists to make better works in a shorter time compared to “original” artists. For example, digital media gives individuals the ability to create works that normally require the work by a group people. Via Creative Commons, artists can legally use raw materials created by others that cannot be completed by themselves alone (Kenlon, 2018).

In addition, as artists, it helps bring more exposure to their present works. Because of the openness of the Internet and the zero cost of CC licenses, this organization is supported and used by the general public and cooperates with a number of media companies including YouTube and Flickr. Although photos uploaded to Flickr are labelled “all rights reserved” by default, there are still more than 1.4 billion photos authorized to Creative Commons (Flickr, 2018). Consequently, it is helpful for artists to reach a wider audience when people can search by keywords and different license categories on Flickr, as well as similar searching features on Google and YouTube.

Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco

Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco

Image: Timothy Vollmer, CC-BY

However, socially speaking, there are spammers using the loophole of Creative Commons policy to make it a tool for gaining benefits, which is extremely unfavorable to the rights of artists. The spammers, known as “web-scrapers”, re-upload images and videos under Creative Commons licenses legally to attract viewers to their websites, and profit from advertising. The founder of, Jonathan Bailey (2015) mentioned that he used Creative Commons to promote his website by the spreading of his works. However, he gradually found that an increasing amount of people was using his work in an irregular way, including many spammer accounts, which neither brought him new audiences, nor creative contributions back.

I didn’t steal Jack McBrayer GIF

I didn’t steal Jack McBrayer GIF

Image: Team Coco via Giphy

In conclusion, while artists share their images, text, videos and other works online, downloaders may not know that their indiscriminate use of the works is unfair. Creative Commons was founded in the early 2000s to help creators and public to legally reuse others’ licensed works. It has changed the way people consume information online because it provides a new balance in the copyright field than simple “public domain” and “all rights reserved” before. In addition, Creative Commons is controlled by open access advocates and also fit the laws in over 60 countries in the world. With Creative Commons, artists can benefit in terms of inspiration and exposure. Whereas they are also facing problems such as “web-scraping”.



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Chuma-Okoro, H. (2013). Importance of Creative Commons Licensing and the Creative Commons Movement to Open Education Resources Initiatives in Nigeria. Retrieved 4 October 2018, from

Creative Commons. (2018, October 3). Global Affiliate Work. Creative Commons. Retrieved 3 October 2018 from

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Rogers, B. (2013). Getty Images Wants to be the Amazon of Digital Content. Retrieved 4 October 2018, from

Vollmer, T. (2018). A Thank You to Everyone Who Supported Diego and Open Access to Knowledge. Retrieved 6 October 2018, from


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