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Creative Commons - a new direction for copyright?

When you write a song, you automatically own the copyright. Or you could give all your rights away. But is there a useful middle ground?


Creative Commons is a new approach to copyright developed by US lawyer, Lawrence Lessig. The idea is to provide simple means to license creative works, including music.

Traditionally there have been two opposite poles of copyright. All rights reserved, means that you, as a copyright owner, give no permissions. This is the default condition that applies immediately a new work is created.

On the other hand, you can explicitly state that your work (probably a single work, not the whole body of your output) has been placed in the public domain. This means you have given up all of your rights. Your work is as free for anyone to use, for no payment, as the works of long-dead William Shakespeare.

There is plenty of middle ground between these extremes - you can agree licences to use your work in various ways, but mostly these licences are made on an ad hoc basis - each new type of licence and each new licensee requires a new agreement.

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Creative Commons attempts to define this middle ground so that it is easy to place a work somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between all rights reserved and public domain.

Creative Commons provides four 'conditions' that you can apply to your work...

  • Attribution: You allow free redistribution of your works, including redistribution where someone else makes money but you don't, in return for nothing more than being identified as being the author of the work.
  • Non-commercial: Anyone can use your work non-commercially, but for-profit use is not allowed unless by further agreement.
  • No derivative works: You allow free redistribution for no money, but prohibit your works being modified or incorporated in derivative works.
  • Share Alike: This requires anyone who transforms or builds on your work to allow other people to do this same with what they have done under a similar licence.

These four conditions are not exclusive - they can be combined to build up the appropriate 'bouquet' of rights for your needs.

If this sounds like a simplification of the existing system, well it is compared to writing an individual licence for each individual use of your work - but there are still no fewer than eleven possible allowable combinations of Creative Commons conditions (which implies that there are thirteen combinations that are not allowable).

Also, Creative Commons licences focus on non-commercial use and freedom of distribution. This is not in the interest of creative people who want to profit from their work, which they are of course fully entitled to do.

Some commentators consider that there might be a legal minefield ahead. Since Creative Commons licenses are permanent for the full duration of the copyright in your work, there is no going back.

Creative Commons might be a pointer towards a simpler framework for the licensing of copyright works in the future. But for now it would pay to tread carefully.

By David Mellor Sunday February 26, 2006