Open Menu Close Menu

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 works based on their terms of use. This three-layer approach allows for a combined ease-of-use, legitimacy, and practical utility that is very tough to achieve otherwise.

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.

Open Inspiration
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

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:

Board of Directors:

Hal Abelson, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, MIT

James Boyle, Professor of Law, Duke

Michael Carroll, Assistant Professor of Law, Villanova

Eric Eldred, Publisher of Eldritch Press (

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

comments powered by Disqus