How Effective Is Creative Commons as a Copyright Tool?

How Effective is Creative Commons as a Copyright Mechanism?

Combining Copyright free images to make content
Combining images for reuse, Image: Olga Zerefos, Creative Commons and darkmoon968, some rights reserved

The rights granted to copyright owners are increasingly challenged in today’s rapidly changing media landscape. Copyright law constitutes a significant cost to the creative process, as individuals are restricted in the use and reuse of existing materials (Lessig, 2004, cited in Woods, 2008). To authorise certain use rights for those who encounter copyrighted work, Creative Commons provides copyright owners with free licences to legally share, reuse and remix their material, available for anyone to use (Loren, 2007). Creative Commons is a valuable tool that provides an effective mechanism for strategically managing copyright in an age of information access (Bledsoe et al., 2007, p.6).

Given that copyright law in the digital world has been critiqued as repressive and anti-creative (Spender, 2009, p.5), this essay examines how Creative Commons becomes important in promoting knowledge, creativity and learning. Under the conditions of Creative Commons, exploring creative industries and education institutions, will be important in determining its current use and potential.

This essay argues that Creative Commons provides copyright owners with the ability to control their creations and also provides the public with works that can be used without breaching the legal frameworks of the Copyright Act. This essay concludes that further discussion must be considered to educate individuals on the appropriate ways to reuse content in a digital age.

But first, what is Copyright?

Copyright protects the form or way an idea or information is expressed, providing creators with an incentive to create new works and a legal framework for the control of their creations (Australian Copyright Council, 2017, p.1). The digital landscape has changed the system of copyright, with issues of reproduction and ownership coming under pressure (Neville et al., 2007, p.109). The widespread distribution of content online, has enabled digital content to be shared, reused and remixed on a large scale (Fitzgerald & Hooper, 2013). Legal restrictions on the use of copyright material has obstructed the capacity of sharing and reusing content.

Source, What is Copyright?, Video: Roy Molton, some rights reserved

The emergence of Creative Commons

In an interactive and distributed internet environment, copyright owners are increasingly open to the idea of sharing their creative works and allowing others to reuse and remix copyright materials, without the risk of breaching copyright (Fitzgerald & Hooper, 2013). As a result, Lawrence Lessig (2007, cited in Woods, 2008) developed ‘Creative Commons’, to find balance with the extremes in copyright law known as full ownership, ‘all rights reserved’, and the public domain, ‘no rights reserved’. Creative Commons promote creators’ rights to distribute and modify their works with ‘some rights reserved’, where recipients must attribute the author of the work, and follow the permissions and conditions of use, specified by the copyright owner (Cobcroft, 2008).

The Creative Commons licences facilitate the dissemination, flow and use of copyright content in the digital environment, and are particularly important in achieving creativity and collaboration. The licences have become an integral part of the infrastructure of the internet, used for user-generated content across social networking sites and search engines (Fitzgerald & Hooper, 2013).

The Creative Commons licences facilitate the dissemination, flow and use of copyright content in the digital environment
Six Standard CC Licences, Image: Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, some rights reserved

To permit the use of material and administer the licences, the Creative Commons affiliate in Australia is Creative Commons Australia. Creative Commons Advisory Board member, Professor Brian Fitzgerald established the group at Queensland University of Technology in 2004. Drawing from the free software model (Fitzgerald, 2007, p.5), these licences have been widely accepted and used, serving as a rights management platform for the digital economy.

Creative Commons: a new business model

The scale of Creative Commons has provided creative industries and cultural institutions with the ability to employ a flexible copyright framework. Since the release of the first Creative Commons in December 2002, the Internet has paved the way for millions of documents, images, audio tracks, film clips and resources to be distributed under the protections of Creative Commons (Cobcroft, 2008). Musicians are navigating this dynamic, engaging in new business models, and demonstrating an interest in collaborative initiatives.

Independent signer and songwriter, Jonathan Coulton, utilises Creative Commons licences to help promote his music via free downloads. Coutlon’s (cited in Cobcroft, 2008) music is available to stream on his website, with many being free to download and albums that can be purchased. His songs are available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial licence, allowing his fans to use his work freely, acting as producers, publishers and distributors.

“I won’t make money unless I get heard, and I won’t get heard unless I give away music,” said Coulton.

Independent signer and songwriter, Jonathan Coulton, utilises Creative Commons licences to help promote his music via free downloads
Jonathon Coulton, Image: Vivan Jayant, some rights reserved

Despite Creative Commons facilitating this peer-to-peer transfer of digital media, complications arise. Musicians who engage in Creative Commons practices, and proceed to be recognised and signed by record companies, are required to enter different licensing arrangements. This means that artists must be sure when licensing their work under Creative Commons, as the revoking of their licence is almost impossible, and is unfair to subsequent creators (Arts Law Centre of Australia, 2018).

As such, Creative Commons licences are useful for artists who can afford to donate their works to the public for free, and for those who do not intend to profit from their work (Arts Law Centre of Australia, 2018). The protection of moral rights becomes more important than financial gains (Neville et al., 2007, p.110), with copyright owners seeking to communicate to users who they are, by being rightfully attributed.

While Creative Commons may enable greater sharing to the ideas of music, the extent of creativity is also questioned. Users judge what music is presented to them, and proceed by selecting, structuring and mixing the music, rather than using their imagination (Neville et al., 2007, p.110). Furthermore, respecting the wishes of content creators is not only a way to drive corporate profit but also positively benefits society – specifically those actively engaging and creating online.

Creative Commons: facilitating education

The free culture of ongoing creativity and reciprocity that is made possible by Creative Commons, has been used to facilitate aspects of learning in educational settings. Creative Commons licensing is an important tool for knowledge sharing amongst students (Liu et al., 2014, p.684), which affects their sharing self-efficacy, trust and outcome expectations.

Educational institutions facilitate collaboration and innovation implementing open access initiatives. Dialogue between primary, secondary and tertiary institutions as well as public institutions such as libraries, galleries and museums, has aimed to embed Creative Commons into curriculum and practice (Bledsoe et al., 2007, p.21).

Lui et al.’s (2014) study, investigates the way in which students engage with Creative Commons mechanisms on web 2.0 to promote motivation in social learning. In examining this, Lui et al. (2014, p.685) explore Scratch, a platform that allows children to construct and share multimedia programming works on the Internet.

The use of Scratch, encourages the use of Creative Commons licences, to determine the extent that students would like to share their work and advance knowledge on how originators and users can benefit from one another in such contexts. The sharing of works has both personal and community benefits, with students seeking personal recognition and to enrich their peers (Liu et al., 2014, p.692).

Programming in Scratch, Video: edX, some rights reserved

However, people are opposed to the streamline creativity, cooperative sharing and collaboration that Creative Commons hopes to achieve. Content can be used in a way that belittles the work of the original owner through acts of plagiarism and misusing content. According to Bailey (2015), Creative Commons has stopped living up to its promise and is becoming a tool for spammers and users to reap the benefits and take easy shortcuts, rather than creating something new.

The willingness to share knowledge also varies at different levels of education, especially in competitive schooling environments where grades become a vital component to determine one’s status, or proceed to a higher level of education (Liu et al., 2014, p.694). Furthermore, there is a need for educational providers and cultural organisations to engage in more specific research on Creative Commons and understand how to properly use Creative Commons license content. This learning can then be transferred to effectively educate students, and inform their practices.


In a digital era, the scope of increasing copyright protection of content and reach has resulted in the emergence of Creative Commons. The flexibility for creative owners to choose different Creative Commons licences to suit their needs (Bledsoe et al., 2007, p.53), highlights their ability to exercise control and the the breadth and accessibility of content in the name of culture and sharing innovation.

The potential progress for today’s society is enormous, where people are provided with content and learn to use it. However, there is a reluctance to use Creative Commons due to the lack of adequate knowledge and fear factor of misusing content. Given this, there is a call for Creative Commons Australia to work closely with sector bodies to develop further information outlining how to use the Creative Commons licensing system (Bledsoe et al., 2007, p.28). This will aim to instil faith in users to confidently and appropriately use and attribute sources.

This framework remains an important strategy in copyright management, especially in a culture that feeds off copy and paste.

Reference List

Arts Law Centre of Australia. (2006). Introducing Creative Commons. Retrieved September 28, 2018, from

Australian Copyright Council. (2017). An Introduction to Copyright in Australia. Retrieved from Australian Copyright Council website:

Bailey, J. (2015, August 12). Why I Am Backing Away from Creative Commons. PlagiarismToday. Retrieved from

Bledsoe, E., Coates, J. M., & Fitzgerald, B. F. (2007). Unlocking the Potential Through Creative Commons. Retrieved from QUT ePrints:

Cobcroft, R. (2008). Building an Australiasian Commons. Retrieved from Creative Commons Australia:

Coulton, J. (n.d.). FAQ. Retrieved from

Creative Commons. (n.d.). Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Australia. Retrieved from

Creative Commons Australia. (n.d.). About. Retrieved from

Fitzgerald, A., & Hooper, N. (2013, December 19). Explainer: Creative Commons. The Conversation. Retrieved from

Fitzgerald, B. F. (2007). Creative Commons and the Creative Industries. In B. F. Fitzgerald (Ed.), Open Content Licensing: Cultivating the Creative Commons (pp. 1-6). Sydney, Australia: Sydney University Press.

Liu, C. C., Lin, C. C., Deng, K. Y., Wu Y. T., & Tsai, C. C. (2014). Online knowledge sharing experience with Creative Commons. Online Information Review, 38(5), 680-696.

Loren, L. P. (2007). Building a Reliable Semicommons of Creative Works: Enforcement of Creative Commons Licenses and Limited Abandonment of Copyright. George Mason Law Review, 14(2), 271-328.

Neville, R., Jones, R., Hearn, G., & Conyngham, B. (2007). Creative Commons and the Creative Industries. In B. Fitzgerald (Ed.), Open Content Licensing: Cultivating the Creative Commons (pp. 93-114). Sydney, Australia: Sydney University Press.

Scratch. (n.d.). About Scratch. Retrieved from

Spender, L. (2009). Digital culture, copyright maximalism, and the challenge to copyright law (PhD Thesis, University of Western Sydney, Australia). Retrieved from

Woods, S. (2008). Creative commons: a useful development in the New Zealand copyright sphere?. Canterbury Law Review, 14(1), 31-63.

About Olga Zerefos 4 Articles
Fourth year Bachelor of Arts (Media and Communications) student, majoring in Marketing and Digital Cultures. In this tech-savvy world, I love the idea of utilising digital platforms to build online relationships, and have a powerful reach over audiences.

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