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CC in Review: Lawrence Lessig on Supporting the Commons


So today, Creative Commons launches its first fund raising campaign. Until now, we’ve lived on very generous grants from some very wise foundations. But the IRS doesn’t allow nonprofits to live such favored lives for long. To maintain our nonprofit status, the IRS says we must meet a “public support test” — which means we must demonstrate that our support comes from more than a few foundations. And thus, this campaign.

This email is a pitch, asking for your support. But it is also the first in a series of emails I will write explaining what Creative Commons is, and where we’re going with it. This is something I should have done long ago. There have been many thoughtful (even if some not so thoughtful) questions raised about who we are, and where we’re going. I’ve wanted an excuse to answer them thoughtfully before. The IRS has given me that excuse.

You’re on this list because you’ve signed up to receive information about Creative Commons or been a friend to CC in the past. If these weekly emails from me (from now until Christmas, around 500 words in length, except for this one which is a bit long) will be a bother, please unsubscribe at Alternatively, if you know others who might find these interesting, please recommend they sign up at

This first email won’t have much news to current friends of Creative Commons. You probably know all this. My aim in this initial missive is to explain what Creative Commons is, and why we launched it. There will be some bragging about what we’ve accomplished so far. Don’t worry, these emails are from me, and not a press department. There will be plenty of self-criticism later on. For the moment, let’s focus on the positive idea that got CC going.

CC: The Story

Creative Commons was conceived in a conversation I had with Eric Eldred. I was representing Eric in his case challenging the United States Congress’ Copyright Term Extension Act. Eric was enthusiastic about the case, but not optimistic about the results. Early on, he asked me whether there was a way that we could translate the energy that was building around his case into something positive. Not an attack on copyright, but a way of using copyright to support, in effect, the public domain.

I readily agreed, not so much because I had a plan, but because, naive lawyer that I was, I thought we’d win the case, and Eric would forget the dream. But nonetheless, long before the Supreme Court decided to hear Eldred’s plea, a bunch of us had put together the plan to build the Creative Commons.

We stole the basic idea from the Free Software Foundation — give away free copyright licenses. Because copyright is property, the law requires that you get permission before you “use” a copyrighted work, unless that use is a “fair use.” The particular kind of “use” that requires permission is any use within the reach of the exclusive rights that copyright grants. In the physical world, these “exclusive rights” leave lots unregulated by copyright. For example, in the real world, if you read a book, that’s not a “fair use” of the book. It is an unregulated use of the book, as reading does not produce a copy (except in the brain, but don’t tell the lawyers).

But in cyberspace, there’s no way to “use” a work without simultaneously making a “copy.” In principle, and again, subject to fair use, any use of a work in cyberspace could be said to require permission first. And it is that feature (or bug, depending upon your perspective) that was the hook we used to get Creative Commons going.

The idea (again, stolen from the FSF) was to produce copyright licenses that artists, authors, educators, and researchers could use to announce to the world the freedoms that they want their creative work to carry. If the default rule of copyright is “all rights reserved,” the express meaning of a Creative Commons license is that only “some rights [are] reserved.” For example, copyright law gives the copyright holder the exclusive right to make “copies” of his or her work. A Creative Commons license could, in effect, announce that this exclusive right was given to the public.

Which freedoms the licenses offer is determined both by us (deciding which freedoms are important to secure through CC licenses) and by the creator who selects from the options we make available on our website. The basic components have historically been four: (1) Attribution (meaning the creator requires attribution as a condition of using his or her creative work), (2) NonCommercial (meaning the creator allows only noncommercial uses of his or her work), (3) No Derivatives (meaning the creator asks that the work be used as is, and not as the basis for something else), and (4) Share Alike (meaning any derivative you make using the licensed work must also be released under a Share Alike license).

These four options — when each is an option — produce 11 possible licenses. But when we saw that 98% of our adopters chose the “attribution” requirement, we decided to drop attribution as an option. That means we now offer 6 core licenses:

  1. Attribution (use the work however you like, but give me attribution)
  2. Attribution-ShareAlike (use the work however you like, but give me attribution, and license any derivative under a Share Alike license)
  3. Attribution-NoDerivatives (use the work as is, and give me attribution)
  4. Attribution-NonCommercial (use the work for noncommercial purposes, and give me attribution)
  5. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives (use the work for noncommercial purposes, as is, and with attribution)
  6. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (use the work for noncommercial purposes, give me attribution, and license any derivative under a ShareAlike license)

(We also offer a couple of other specialty licenses that I’ll describe in a later post).

These options get added to a basic template license. That template assures that the creator (1) retains his or her copyright, (2) affirms that any fair use, first sale, or free expression rights are not affected by the CC license, and (3) so long as the adopter respects the conditions the creator has imposed, the license gives anyone in the world four freedoms: (i) to copy the work, (ii) to distribute the work, (iii) to display or publicly perform the work, and (iv) to make a digital public performance of the work (i.e., webcasting). Finally, the license also requires the adopter to (1) get permission for any uses outside of those granted, (2) keep any copyright notices intact, (3) link to the license, (4) not alter the license terms, and (5) not use technology (i.e., DRM) to restrict a licensee’s rights under the license.

The licenses give creators a simple way to mark their creativity with the freedoms they want it to carry by default. The license is an invitation to others to ask for permission for uses beyond those given by default. A “Noncommercial” license does not mean the creator would never take money for his or her creativity. It means simply, “Ask if you want to make a commercial use. No need to ask if you want to make just a noncommercial use.”

We launched Creative Commons in December, 2002. Within a year, we counted over 1,000,000 link-backs to our licenses. At a year and a half, that number was over 1,800,000. At two, the number was just about 5,000,000. At two and a half years (last June), the number was just over 12,000,000. And today — three months later — Yahoo! reports over 50,000,000 link-backs to our licenses. “Link-backs” are not really a count of how many objects are licensed under Creative Commons licenses – a single license could cover 100,000 songs in a music database for example, or a single blog might have multiple instances of the license. But the growth does measure something: The uptake of Creative Commons licenses is growing fast, and indeed, far faster than I ever dreamed.

Next week: What problems did we aim to solve and what examples from the past did we learn from.

German version: (Thanks to for translation.)

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Posted 06 October 2005