Skip to Main Content

Creative Commons

Introduction to Creative Commons and applying, using, and sharing Creative Commons-licensed work.

The Story of Creative Commons

Copyright iconIn the beginning, there was copyright.

Copyright regulates and protects tangible works, such as poems, music, art, essays, and books, to prevent unauthorized copies and adaptations of those created works for a limited time.

Icon of laptop imageThen came the internet.

In 1991, the Internet became available to the public, providing the technological ability to share, adapt, and collaborate creatively across the globe. Many creators wanted to retain the rights to their work AND allow others to share, adapt, and remix their creations.

Something needed to change.

Tension began to build between the global copyright laws that restrict copying and sharing and the creators that wanted others to copy and share their works.

Along came Sonny and Larry.

The tension came to a head in 1998 with the enactment of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), which extended copyright on creative works from the life of the creator plus 50 years to the life of the creator plus 70 years - that’s an additional 20 years!

Image of Lawrence LessigLawrence Lessig, a Stanford Law Professor, believed that constitutionally, copyright terms are intended to be limited so that creative works can eventually become public domain and be used, shared, and adapted in the creation of new works. The new law had gone too far.

Larry Lessig giving #ccsummit2011 keynote" by DTKindler Photo is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Creative Commons Logo

A solution was found: Creative Commons.

Eldred v. Ashcroft: In 2002, Lessig represented web publisher Eric Eldred in challenging the constitutionality of the Copyright Term Extension Act. They hoped they could make it easier to share creative works online. The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but ultimately lost in 2003.

Creative Commons: Inspired by the online communities hindered by restrictive copyright laws, Lessig, Eldred, and MIT Professor Hal Abelson, with support from the Center for the Public Domain, founded the non-profit organization Creative Commons in 2001. The Creative Commons licenses followed in 2002.

Creative Commons licenses gave creators more flexibility.

  • CC Licenses gave creators choices and an alternative between traditional copyright and public domain.
  • CC licenses allow creators to reserve their rights and direct how others can use their work, with a range of options to choose from:
    • Attribution - give credit to the creator
    • Share Alike - share adaptations under the same terms
    • No Derivatives - no adaptations or changes to the work
    • Noncommercial - the work may not be used commercially
  • Creative Commons offers a helpful Creative Commons License Chooser to help creators decide which license is the right fit.

Creative Commons created a way to share culture and knowledge on a greater scale.

Photo of MoMAOver the next 20 years, 2.5 billion works were with released with Creative Commons licenses.

Creators have shared their work across 9 million websites and range from user-generated content on YouTube and Flickr, to non-profit creations like Wikipedia, Open Educational Resources like OpenStax textbooks, and even formal collections like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"MoMA signage, NY" by Chris Beckett is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0, via Flickr

The impact was global in three different ways.

  • CC Licenses: The legal tools that allow creators to reserve some rights, but also have the flexibility to determine how people use and share their work.
  • CC Movement: Activists working on copyright reform, collaboration, and open sharing around the world, including the CC Global Network (CCGN).
  • CC Organization: Staff located all over the world and providing stewardship of the CC legal tools, while actively working on advocacy, innovation, and capacity building in the interest of equity, open knowledge, and accessible cultural heritage assets for the public good.

This is not the end of the story.

The work of Creative Commons continues and the next chapter includes you!

Creative Commons Story Slides

A presentation version of the Creative Commons story is available below. Click through the slides to learn more about the story of Creative Commons and why it came to be. Full screen option available in the bottom right corner.

What is Creative Commons? by Molly Ledermann is licensed under CC BY 4.0



Guide License:

"Creative Commons" by Molly Ledermann, Washtenaw Community College, is licensed under CC BY 4.0