Creative Commons Licenses: Copyleft or Copyright?

By August 25, 2014Art, Copyright

I was recently introduced to the world of design-based business owners when I wrote an article on copyright tips for the popular design blog Design*Sponge. What a nice bunch of folks — the comments were so kind that I’ve considered feigning artistic talent to join their circle. In response to my conservative lawyerly advice to “get a license or don’t copy!,” at least one designer asked: But what about Creative Commons licenses? “People share ideas, sometimes even to the extent of showing how they make their craft. This sharing enriches all of us. I always come back to where would Bob Dylan and all of the great folk singers be if they had not shared and built on one another’s work.”

Yikes. I’ve seen battles break out over the mere mention of the term Creative Commons as of late. Although the licenses are everywhere nowadays and obviously here to stay in some form or fashion, not everyone is biting.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, what is such a thing as a Creative Commons license? Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that allows you to publish your works and license them freely for certain uses, on certain conditions, or dedicate your works to the public domain. (I took this description from the Creative Commons website, I’m assuming under a CC license.) You can grant six main types of licenses to use your work, all with variations of the following conditions:

1. Attribution: They must credit you.

2. Share-Alike: They must license their new creations under the same terms as you.

3. Non-Commercial: They can’t use the work commercially.

4. No Derivatives: They can’t change the work.

A famous user of Creative Commons licenses is Wikipedia. In addition to encouraging creative collaboration, at least one court, in the case Jacobsen v. Katzer, has recognized that the licensor can benefit from CC licenses through increased recognition, generation of market share by providing certain components free, and quicker improvements to the end product from users’ collaboration and suggestions.

My friend Landry Butler, a visual and graphic artist and musician who just recorded a spoken-word album that he made available for free download, agrees. Here’s why:

I like the Creative Commons model of graduated licenses with varying degrees of freedom. The share-alike license is my favorite. It allows me to plan ahead for future uses and encourage collaboration while still retaining the right to make money from the work. I have licensed much of my visual and recorded art under this license, but don’t know if anyone has actually used my work under a CC license.

I like the precedent set by the Grateful Dead of allowing fans to make and trade concert recordings. I don’t know that there’s any profit in it for the band, but the practice increases goodwill among their fan base and has enhanced their popularity. I also appreciated the “Ghosts” album that Nine Inch Nails released under CC license. I’ve heard songs from this album used as bumpers on radio and in video soundtracks.

Some of the songs from my latest project, Anomalous, will be available under a share-alike license as soon as I get around to updating the website.

On the other side of this debate is my friend Stacey Schlitz, an entertainment lawyer and — lest you think she has a non-artist perspective — also a singer and musician. Stacey’s dead-set against the idea of Creative Commons:

Creative Commons is creating an expectation among would-be collaborators that all copyright holders should freely grant permission as some mythical contribution to the “greater good.” The “greater good” that is sought by Creative Commons proponents is to have a one-stop shop for a licensee to piggyback off of another person’s original creation. [CC founder] Lawrence Lessig and [“cultural rights” advocate] Bill Ivey aren’t going to stop their crusade with the humble works of fledgling creators like my good friend Landry Butler. They want Hank Williams, Van Morrison, and the Beatles to be offered up for free, too. This erodes the protection copyright law provides for copyright holders and perpetuates even more laziness on the part of the licensee.

There you have it. Know the facts, then choose a side. But the conservative lawyer in me wouldn’t be doing her job if she failed to include one warning: If you’re in the Landry camp and use works under a Creative Commons license, be careful to understand and follow the terms of the license. At least one court, again in the case Jacobsen v. Katzer, held that violating the terms of the license is more than breach of the license — it’s copyright infringement. Now then, off to create you go, with whatever tools you choose (as long as they’re properly licensed, fair use, public domain, or your original expression).