Creative Commons Launches Study of “Noncommercial Use”

Eric Steuer

Today, Creative Commons announced the launch of a research study that will explore differences between commercial and noncommercial uses of content. The study will explore how the definitions of “commercial use” and “noncommercial use” are understood among various communities and in connection with a wide variety of content.

“The study has direct relevance to Creative Commons’ mission of providing free, flexible copyright licenses that are easy to understand and simple to use,” said Creative Commons CEO Joi Ito. “The NC term is a popular option for creators choosing a Creative Commons license, and that tells us the term meets a need. However, as exponentially increasing numbers of works are made available under CC licenses, we want to provide additional information for creators about the contexts in which the NC term may further or impede their intentions with respect to the works they choose to share, and we want to make sure that users clearly understand those intentions. We expect the study findings will help us do a better job of explaining the licenses and to improve them, where possible. We also hope the findings, which will be made publicly available, will contribute to better understanding of some of the complexities of digital distribution of content.”

You can read more about this news in the press release CC issued this morning.

Thank you to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for its generous support of this study.

29 thoughts on “Creative Commons Launches Study of “Noncommercial Use””

  1. I am considering translating my website into Russian. Is there any possibility that you will be coming to an arrangement with Russia in the near future? If so when?
    Thanks Edward Murray

  2. I represent an organisation in Norway that hopes to make “free culture” more attractive than “permission culture”. In order to do that, a user should be able to find and consume free culture just as easy as permission culture.

    If we set up a system that allows anyone to access all kinds of content, which distributors are allowed to distribute content with a CC based NC licence? One example is a Norwegian Telecom actor who genuinely wants to help. They want to distribute public domain and CC content right next to regular, commercial content.

    Public domain content is free and can be distributed by anyone. Commercial content can be distributed if licence conditions are met, usually by paying a fee per sold copy of the content. CC NC content however is abit fussy.

    Even if the Telco in question allows you to search, find and download CC content for free, is that commercial use? The Telco has commercial gains in form of driving fixed and mobile data traffic.

    This is a difficult question: One can argue that all internet based distribution of CC NC content is a violation, since there will be a Telco making money from the traffic. Is that different if the traffic is mobile? Is this considered commercial use, since the Telco indirectly makes money from the traffic?

    I believe that one *has* to look between the fingers on this topic for two reasons:
    – Without doing so, CC NC licenced content cannot be distributed freely, through mechanisms such as mobile phones, TV’s – even internet…
    – Without doing so, CC NC licenced content can never be available in any form of commercial venue where conventional Copyrighted content is, and can thus not properly compete with permission culture

    We will first make available public domain content, then CC commercial content – but hopefully also CC NC content as that is “the way to go” =)

  3. Øystein,

    I don’t know the answers to your questions, but starting with PD and CC licensed content that permits commercial use is a great place to start. It is where many valuable projects (e.g., Wikimedia Commons) end, so keep in mind that CC NC content is not necessarily “the way to go” for everyone regardless of the answers regarding NC.

    We can all agree that free culture should be just as easy to find, consume, and use as permission culture. Good luck with your organisation!

  4. The survey at asks about the “principles” of “open source.” My perception is that the open source movement is about exploring the hypothesis that access to source and broad permissions governing its use and distribution lead to more economic activity. This is not a moral or scientific principle, in contrast to the basis of the free software movement. After I completed the open source question and arrived at the end of the survey, I realized that you might not have meant to distinguish between open source and free software, but I can’t be sure.

    Anyway, I think you should try to avoid creating this sort of doubt in the future.

  5. @Sean principles are not limited to science and morality…

    However, we definitely did not want to distinguish between open source and free software. We should have used some wording to capture both, a la FLOSS or FOSS, and maybe not used the word principle.

    Thanks for the feedback!

  6. I think this is great.. I mean.. as a for instance.. if you have a blog or a podcast and you have an addsense thing on your site.. idk that that should make it a commercial site.. if you’re just trying to pay the cost of hosting and what not.. the line seems so blurry

  7. I’d like to differ with Lan Bui, and say the best practice would be to allow all other use but directly benefiting from the sales of the works.

  8. Hi,

    I co-chaired an executive education course in an Ivy League School and selected Benkler’s “A Wealth of Networks” as one of the course texts (CC-licensed). It was clearly a “for-profit” course, but our lawyer told us that universities are covered under non-commercial use. I am not sure where I would come down on this… so thank you for doing the focus groups!

  9. CC seeking participants for “Noncommercial” Study Focus Groups

    26 January 2009 at 20:14

    There will also be a limited number of online focus groups taking place over the course of three days, from Wednesday, February 18 through Friday, February 20. The time commitment for all groups is approximately 2 hours.

    Has the Online component for noncommercial groups been maxed out.
    Our Group Disability PC Tech fills a void by assisting Persons with Disabilities with free technical computing support. Our Team Leaders all have some forms of disabilities. So we use our expertise to help others.
    We specialize in free easy to use software and accessible devices recommendations. We even have Doctors and Health/Fitness experts willing to assist members. We are a completely voluntary group with no financial business framework.

    Anyways, I’d be very interested if an opening does become available. I’m the founding creator and Co-Owner.

    Rocky Lichtenwald
    Chief Exec. Technology Officer
    Disability PC Tech Support Solutions

  10. I teach at a Private University that is for profit. Does showing content to my students that has a Creative Commons License constitute “commercial use”?

  11. can some one tell me if Noncommercial product i can use it for a contest that i win something?

  12. There is a “knee-jerk” reaction against “anything commercial” that assumes that any activity that accepts money is inherently evil, or at the least should be automatically excluded from being part of the community that uses CC NC resources.

    Lan Bui suggests that “anyone or any website that directly or indirectly promotes someone or something for sale or for hire.” should be excluded, but it’s a very small universe that excludes “for sale or hire”. Even the Girl Scouts have things for sale, so is it a question of the overall operation being “non-profit”?

    And, wouldn’t “non-profit” mean that the University of Phoenix would be prohibited from using any CC NC materials?

    Philipp Mueller mentions a case where “It was clearly a “for-profit” course, but our lawyer told us that universities are covered under non-commercial use.” but what constitutes a “university”, or even “school” for that matter? Is accreditation required? Is a neighborhood day-care center that puts up a CC NC picture of a koala violating the terms of the CC NC license?

    Nike is a prominent partner on the Creative Commons, yet as a corporation, every activity that they undertake has to be demonstrable to the shareholders as furthering their corporate profit interest. Does this mean that Nike should be prohibited from using any CC NC material in any way? What if they wanted to establish a website with links to CC NC resources?

    I think it’s better to start out without assuming that for sale, for hire, or even for profit is inherently bad. Rather, look at the core concern, which is more along the lines of avoiding the regret of seeing someone else sell your donation to the CC universe for its own intrinsic value.

    Dover Publications, which assembled very good collections of “copyright free clip-art” many years ago approached the issue by saying, in effect, “Use this for anything you wish, just don’t resell our artwork as though it was your own collection and where our art is the only real value of what you’re selling.”

    Even a non-profit or educational institution has to pay the rent and the electric bill (thus necessitating taking in money, perhaps by selling a calendar that could include some CC NC clip-art), and not all good causes have 501(c) status. Using the presence of money as the only only measure of warranting exclusion from the CC community will greatly diminish the many positive opportunities for partnerships and strong support of the Creative Commons ideals and objectives.

  13. On the case of the telco:
    Here the reason why a physical person or entity would decide licensing content in the Non-Commercial-use clause needs to be thoroughly thought of. This clause obligues the user, when his purposes are commercial (either direct or indirectly) to contact this author in order to get to an arrangement, which may be a share on the benefit commercially obtained from the content.
    Telco as a commercial user is a particular case which may obtain profit from multimedia data traffic, sponsors, advertising and similar sources. Thus, the commercial user should in advance contact the author (or license owner, if different) and negotiate a proportional compensation for the intended use of the content. This negotiation will be guided by factors like the broadness of the audience, the revenue to be obtained from the broadcasting, the probability and risk to make profit from it, the broadcaster hosting costs and the license owner’s interest for its content to get to a wider audience.
    So I would not say that CC NC licensed content can never be distributed freely because the author/license owner can always decide to give it away for free (discounting forementioned hosting costs and the like) after this due dilligence takes actual place.

  14. Way back in the 80s when software was distributed on diskettes, shareware authors usually allowed something akin to noncommercial distribution, i.e. it was understood that distributors could charge a moderate amount for the diskettes and the copying effort, but not “sell” the software as a product.

    The situation is basically still the same, distributors want to cover their cost and make a moderate profit; and if there was a way to make a huge profit. The distinction is between selling the distribution service and the content itself.

    With commercial content, this is all rolled into one. With NC content, does this mean that distribution has to be noncommercial as well? That would mean only registered non-profits or private persons could distribute NC content. This strict reading is easy to enforce.

    If distribution is allowed to be commercial, a clear distinction needs to be found. If your business is selling “content”, that’s not allowed; if it is distributing “data”, it would be. If the latter is the case, the pricing structure must reflect this. With the aforementioned diskette services, that was clearly the case: you selected your software, and paid by the amount of diskettes that needed to be copied, regardless of how good the programs were that were on it.

  15. I have a much broader perception of “Commercial Use” that does not necessarily involve directly making money, and this is reflected in the license I created for my website and its artwork. While selling/renting my work would definitely come under the head of commercial use, I would also consider the following actions to be commercial uses of my work:

    1) Requiring people to a) “register”, b) provide contact information, c) click sponsor ads, or d) install other software, in order to be able to access my work.

    2) Using my work in any form of advertising or promotion – not only for commercial products, but also when promoting religious, political or charitable causes as well.

    In the first case, requiring the actions listed in 1) above constitutes commercial use because in a) and b) the information collected has monetary value, and such information is invariably used to push advertising on to people. c) is an obvious commercial benefit; forcing people to click on ads makes the operator money. d) usually involves information-collecting spyware or adware, with the same purpose as a) and b).

    The second case is one of context. I don’t want my work becoming associated in the public mind with other products or causes, that I may not like or agree with. For example, if PETA were to use one of my pictures of animals to push one of their animal-rights campaigns, I would consider that commercial use even though PETA is a non-profit, because they stand to gain for their political cause by using my artwork; and too many political causes these days involve controlling or taking rights away from people. Religious use is the same – if a religious group decides that one of my works reminds them of some aspect of their beliefs, their using it as such would cause that work to become associated with that belief in the eyes of many people, and could be seen as an endorsement of that religion by myself. And even charitable causes usually have some political or religious connotation, and I might not necessarily support them, no matter how noble they might be at first glance.

    Consequently my license explicitly prohibits such uses of my work, as well as the more generic commercial uses that involve making money. It’s not so much that I don’t want people to profit from my work, but that I don’t want it to be viewed out of context, or to be associated with something other than the message or emotion I intended the work to convey. Also, I want anyone to be able to see my work, no matter how rich or poor they are. So not wanting my work to be sold for profit comes more from my ideal of being accessible to everyone, not because I might want a piece of any profits people might make. Why should someone be excluded from enjoyment of my work merely because they can’t afford it?

    Roger Wagner above says that “There is a “knee-jerk” reaction against “anything commercial” that assumes that any activity that accepts money is inherently evil”. The reason such a reaction exists, Roger, is because of corporate greed. Corporations make “art” not to express a contextual message or emotion, but only to make money. An artist might make a picture of, or a song about, a couple making love to express the feeling or emotion of what it is to be in love. A company would make such a picture or song only because sex sells and it would make them some money – and the emotion most people associate with that goal is greed, not love. In these times when human happiness, dignity and rights are subsumed in the race for the almighty dollar, it’s not surprising that so many dislike the profit motive.

    Real artists perform and create for the love of their work, not because they want to be the next mega-rich superstar. As an artist myself, I feel it a far greater reward that someone should say to me, “I love your work, that short story you wrote really made me think about the mistakes I made in my own life”, than that I should sell a thousand copies of said story. With that in mind, it should be self-evident that context would be more important to such an artist than any money he/she or anyone else might make.

  16. I believe that as long as there is profit involved, then it considered commercial. This is not limited to only financial means. I am talking about promotion and stuff like that.

  17. I believe that our descendants will look at the idea of intellectual property as a barbaric concept that held back human development in the fields of art and engineering and perhaps other areas as well.

    The idea is predicated on an concept of the self as an independent being, unsupported by the larger, collective consciousness or culture of ideas. The assumption behind intellectual property relies on a model of consciousness that is based on the Cartesian theater, not one rooted in modern cognitive science. The mind is an ecosystem of ideas, not one’s personal factory. We must embrace our true nature and release ourselves from the bondage of intellectual property.

    Is a kid on YouTube strumming a Rolling Stones song doing something “wrong”, or is he participating validly in his own cultural heritage? Where is folk music, where songs are learned, modified, and passed on to others, now that intellectual property has destroyed it? Where has our culture-as-mind gone, now that it cannot communicate freely with itself?

    Further, people only make money in one of two ways: labor or ownership. I think it’s perfectly valid to make money from one’s labor, but making money from ownership is really just like a landlord making a living off of other people’s labor, just because the law says he can. If the law wasn’t there, no one would pay rent. Maintaining a building would become a service, where a person would make money from labor. The analogy can easily be made with software.

    For these reasons, I hope the Creative Commons community will favor the most narrow of definitions for noncommercial use, and push forward toward freedom of information and ideas.

  18. Clearly, there are many definitions of “commercial use”. We thus need a variety of commercial license options.

    As a minimum, I’d like a CC license that can exclude any of the following uses:

    advertising use
    editorial use by a media organization
    non-profit promotional use

    This seems easy to implement and use, in turn for a lot more control.

    Down the road, I hope CC will integrate with the very fine license control developed for PLUS (the Picture Licensing Universal System, This would give visual media makers heaps more freedom and comfort in sharing and protecting their work.

  19. Roger Wager & Bill Fisher raise interesting questions, above. Is intellectual property, or any private property, inherently evil and barbaric? In principle, I argue, they are not. It is *greed* that is evil and barbaric. And IP law is the only thing checking that greed on behalf of artists and media content creators. Is IP law abused? Yes, but this is a symptom of a larger disease — corporate giants buying our legislature and jamming our courts with overpaid lawyers. Lets direct our battle cries in that direction!

  20. Since my last post in this thread a group of people have formed a NPO named FriBit, with the purpose of maximising public access to knowledge and culture.

    Im asking for the Creative Commons to help us define a commercial license, named the Genero license. The idea is that a licensor can state conditions for commercial use, and any distributor can use his work for commercial use, as long as he adheres to the stated business terms. We are also building a commercial ecosystem, with a registry, payment solutions and more. A video and a presentation describing the project in English the project is found here: (two links at the bottom)

    The Genero licence text can be found here:

    It should be noted that the project has been nominated for the NUUG award (Norwegian Unix User Groups) by the leader of Electronic Frontier Norway, and that several notable “Copyleft” people has expressed interest in the project, including Matt Mason, Cory Doctorow and Brett Gaylor. I hope that you will assist us in our endeavours to promote free culture.

    Anyone can register at project site and start editing.

    To those that have mentioned exclusions from a free licence the freedom to make commercials and promotional use, we have done so. However for non-commercial promotional use, we cannot exclude these freedoms as they are part of the CC-NC rights. I also believe such a restriction would turn alot of people, such as our own NPO, into criminals as they use song snippets in small videos and one has to be careful.

    The licence and the provided ecosystem should provide sufficient incentive to employ the Genero license, but not more. It is not about equity, it is about maximising access and promoting derivative works.

  21. There has been a big push in the UK for places where music can be heard by the public to pay royalties to the PRS.
    Roger Wagner raises the point that distribution channels should not be regarded as “wrong” and the situation above provides a good test for a distribution channel.
    If playing music in my business gives me an advantage over a rival business who does not play music should I have to pay for that advantage?

    In my own experience I want to make a film, I want to make it NC-Attribution and I want to use a piece of music by a NC-Attribution composer because I’m a fan of his work and want to promote it through my work. Now the best way to promote my film is to distribute it through regular channels who will seek to make a profit on my work – I can accept this as it draws attention to my work and encourages people to source it through NC distribution channels, but legally am I allowed to given that it includes the NC-Attribution licence which I know will be broken by someone further down the distribution chain and should I be the one responsible for that breaking?

  22. I would like to use some images (very few, just a couple) of Digital Deutsch, published by the AATG and the Goethe-Institut, on an unsophisticated website that I will be trying to build myself (no experience) to inform that I am a private teacher and translator of German. I would give full attribution. Is this permitted?
    Thank you

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