Academic Digital Rights: A Walk on the Creative Commons
In the face of ever longer and stronger copyright laws, Creative Commons
has launched a suite of licenses—its first project of many—to help
recreate a healthy public domain.
In principle, copyright is a spectrum. It grants authors an array of discrete,
fine-grained powers: the rights to copy, redistribute, commercially exploit,
or build upon an authored work, among others. Each right can be exercised individually
and enforced more or less than any other, depending on the author's preferences.
In practice, however, copyright tends toward monochrome: It applies automatically
and fully to all works the moment they're made, regardless of the author's aims.
To deviate from this "all rights reserved" default usually requires the help
of skilled (and often expensive) lawyers.
For many large media companies—for and by whom copyright law is largely written—this
automatic, full-bore copyright default might make sense. But for the rest of
us, who author the great bulk of our society's culture, it can be a clumsy,
even counterintuitive tool. In academia, in particular, the timeless ethos of
collaboration has been electrified by the Internet in recent years, and scholarly
authors have long recognized that enforcing every last one of their rights to
the hilt may in fact impede their main aim: the spread of information.
Preferring to Share
Creative Commons is a nonprofit corporation founded on this notion—that some
people prefer to share their works on more generous terms than standard copyright
provides. Our goal is to offer such authors an easy and clear way to announce
these preferences. And, in time, to cultivate a large body of material, whether
owned or public domain, that is free for certain uses—and clearly marked as
such, so that the world knows its status up front. The idea is to expand access
to high-quality content online while reducing the legal friction and doubt of
living with copyright every day.
Our first project toward this end is our suite of Creative Commons licenses,
launched in December 2002. Each license allows an author to retain his or her
copyright while allowing certain uses of his or her work—on certain conditions—to
declare "some rights reserved." The licenses, which are available
at no charge, allow the world to copy or redistribute covered works provided
certain terms of the author's choosing are met. Authors can come to our site
and, from an intuitive menu, choose the combination of conditions that best
reflects their preferences (see "Some Rights Reserved").
The licensing project is, in many respects, modest in aim. Creative Commons
d'es not seek to change the current laws or reform the copyright system, and
in no sense are the licenses a panacea for the complex problems facing authors
and publishers in the online world. Rather, we simply want to provide authors
tools that will help them live a little better under that system as it stands
today. Our approach is strictly voluntary and depends to a great degree on the
participation of our community of users. And our fundamental mission is simply
to help crystallize the norms for sharing already thriving in many online communities.
A Three-Layer Approach
Why bother with a Creative Commons license, if some healthy exchange is already
happening? The answers to this question begin to reveal the licensing project's
more ambitious side. First, Creative Commons licenses are top-notch form legal
documents. With the pro bono assistance of the Silicon Valley firms Cooley Godward
and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, the legal and technical expertise of our
board of directors, and a rigorous and open peer-review process, we spent several
months chiseling the licenses into their current form. Second, the Creative
Commons Web interface lets you mix-and-match the conditions and permissions
you'd like to express, providing a degree of flexibility contemplated by copyright
law, but today exercised only by those with access to copyright experts.
Third, every Creative Commons license comes expressed in three distinct ways,
each with its own advantages. There is the human-readable version ("Commons
Deed"): a simple summary of the license terms in plain language and intuitive
icons. The lawyer-readable version ("Legal Code"): the legal nitty-gritty written
in the parlance of courts and their officers. And the machine-readable version
("Digital Code"): a translation of the key license terms into a "metadata" language
that browsers and other computer applications can use to search for and sort
ease-of-use, legitimacy, and practical utility that is very tough to achieve
Finally, as the licenses grow in popularity (licensors now number in the tens
of thousands), they will grow in value. Like any kind of standard, the licenses'
benefits will build as the community of users grows, as our language of rights
and permissions gains currency, and as our metadata becomes a technical lingua
franca. This standardization is particularly appealing in light of the growing
number of distance learning and online education projects blooming every day.
Creative Commons licenses and metadata, once widely adopted, will allow these
otherwise separate communities to harmonize their copyright policies and thus
encourage the sharing of information across specific contexts or cohorts.
Though standardization is a core Creative Commons goal, we don't plan to reach
it by being control freaks. We actively solicit feedback on ways to improve
the licenses and metadata and plan to incorporate these suggestions into future
versions of our tools. In this sense, the open source and free software movements
have been our inspiration in both substance and form—we articulate open principles
through open means.
It was just this spirit of community—as well as the practical desire to simplify
the clearance of rights—that led Rice University's Connexions Project and MIT's
OpenCourseWare to become early Creative Commons adopters. The two programs'
experiences with the licenses thus far also hint at the ways institutions and
authors alike might benefit from the Creative Commons approach. With OpenCourseWare,
MIT holds the copyright in its published course materials, which it makes available
to the world on its Web site under a Creative Commons license (
The Connexions project requires contributors to its educational repository to
release their materials with a Creative Commons license, and those contributors
themselves retain the copyrights. The licenses then serve as a type of legal
lubricant for Connexions' course composer, a tool that allows educators to build
teaching materials from the repository—without the hassle of clearing rights
every step of the way, because the rights have been cleared in advance. In addition
to these institutional and quasi-institutional uses, the licenses should prove
particularly helpful for self-submitted collections and independent, faculty-run
publications with limited legal budgets.
All of these practical considerations aside, Creative Commons licenses are
also powerful tools of civic expression. They are one of the very few ways for
an ordinary citizen of the Web to take some sort of action in the realm of copyright
policy. Taking one's grievances to Congress and the courts can be a long, expensive
road. Using a Creative Commons license is not only a way to opt into a system
of more moderate copyright, it's also a way of raising your hand and saying,
"I believe in another way," then taking action. There are almost no other outlets
for such creative civil obedience in the world of copyright today.
Releasing the Full Spectrum
The licensing project is just the first of Creative Commons' many projects to
help recreate a healthy public domain in the face of ever longer and stronger
copyright laws. This winter also saw the launch of the Founders' Copyright,
under which publishers and copyright holders can choose to dedicate their works
to the public domain after a 14-year period with an option of renewing for another
14 years—just as America's first copyright law, in 1790, would have had it.
(O'Reilly and Associates, a popular commercial publisher of software handbooks
and commentary, became the first Founders' Copyright adopter in December 2002.)
In the works is the Creative Commons Conservancy, a sort of land trust for intellectual
works, where we will make copyrights of particular public value (software protocols
and standards, for example) widely available on liberal terms while protecting
against exploitative or "polluting" uses.
Through these various projects runs a common(s) theme that further hints at
the organization's larger aspirations. Creative Commons aims to use tools of
private law and business—contracts and copyright—to help create a public good:
a system of reasonable, flexible copyright that works in parallel and in harmony
with full, commercial copyright. We want to be the prism that releases the full
spectrum of copyright to the people it was originally intended to help: authors
and the citizens they enlighten.
Creative Commons is the collaborative effort of practitioners and theorists
of law and technology to bridge the world of copyright and the public
domain. The nonprofit corporation is supported by grants from The Center
for the Public Domain and The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
It is housed at Stanford Law School, where it shares space, staff, and
inspiration with the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society.
For more information, to find out how to obtain licenses, or to view
a short video about Creative Commons, visit: http://creativecommons.org.
Board of Directors:
Hal Abelson, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer
James Boyle, Professor of Law, Duke
Michael Carroll, Assistant Professor of Law, Villanova
Eric Eldred, Publisher of Eldritch Press (www.eldritchpress.org)
Lawrence Lessig (Chairman), Professor of Law, Stanford
Eric Saltzman, Attorney, Documentary Filmmaker, and Fellow, Berkman
Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School
Molly Shaffer Van Houweling, Assistant Professor of Law, Michigan