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Creative Commons and Copyright

"Creative Commons"

The term "Creative Commons" is used in multiple ways in conversations about open materials, which can be confusing.

Creative Commons is

  1. An organization
  2. A set of licenses
  3. A movement 

The organization creates and maintains a set of licenses of the same name. It also helps facilitate advocacy for open and equitable information access, and those collective efforts by advocates may be referred to as a CC movement.

The History of Creative Commons

Creative Commons, the non-profit organization that creates and maintains Creative Commons Licenses, was founded in 2001. The first office was in the basement of Stanford Law, from where they published the first CC Licenses in 2002.

Stanford law professor, Lawrence Lessig, co-founded the organization with Eric Eldred and others. Lessig represented Eldred in Eldred v. Ashcroft, a 2002 case challenging the constitutionality of a new Act expanding copyright law. The 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) extended copyright terms for an additional 20 years, preventing materials like Disney's Mickey Mouse from entering into the public domain. The resulting combination of United States copyright policies keeps works from public use for the length of the creator's life plus 70 years. Works created by a corporate author are protected even longer -- 95 years after publication or 120 years from creation, whichever comes first. Lessig argued this extension conflicted with the purpose of copyright as it did not incentivize new creation. Continually extending copyright terms (as this was just the latest in a series of extensions) made copyright too powerful, to the detriment of the public good. 

The case was tried in front of the Supreme Court and lost. This motivated the Creative Commons to create easy-to-adopt licenses that allowed public use immediately. 

While Creative Commons is incredibly influential, it was not the first or last organization working on these issues. Read the article below to learn more about the history of the "open" movement.

Copyright vs. the Internet

When we find information on the internet, there is often a sense that it is ours to use as we please. However, copyright laws would disagree. This is limiting and feels counterintuitive to online users.

Many don't realize that copyright applies automatically, even when an author may not want to reserve all rights. The internet allows sharing at an unprecedented scale, but in the past, there was not an easy way to grant use rights to others.

Creative Commons sought to resolve this tension between copyright law and the capabilities of new technology with their CC Licenses. These licenses allow people to formally share permissions for the use of their work within the framework of copyright law. This helps close the gap between copyright and the open and collaborative environment enabled by the internet. It also creates wonderful opportunities for sharing, creating, learning, and innovating -- legally. 

Video by Jesse Dylan. Shared under CC BY-NC-SA


Since its founding, Creative Commons has become an essential part of efforts to democratize access to information.

Its licenses have become the default for open information and have been used on approximately 2.5 billion works. The users range from everyday people to scholars and large organizations. Wikipedia runs on CC licenses. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and other distinguished cultural institutions use CC licensing to grant unprecedented access to their digital collections. Popular platforms for sharing media, like YouTube and Flickr, have incorporated CC licensing. 

The organization continues to maintain the licenses, which have been updated throughout the years, and provide key outreach and training.

People who want to participate in the movement around CC can join the Creative Commons Global Network, one of its local chapters, or one of its platforms. For example, the Open Education Platform describes itself as "a space for open education advocates and practitioners to identify, plan and coordinate multi-national open education content, practices and policy activities to foster better sharing of knowledge." 

This page is openly licensed.

What is Creative Commons? © 2024 by Evangeline Reid is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0