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License Enforcement

The Creative Commons licenses are a set of legal tools that allow creators to share their works freely under some simple conditions. These licenses are intended to allow the flourishing of artistic, educational, scholarly, and expressive culture, and so the conditions on use of CC-licensed material are minimal. Someone who uses a CC license wants to share, and asks very little in return. For CC BY, credit for their work and acknowledgement of the license; for the other licenses, only a few conditions on how the work may be reused.

However, the simplicity of what is required to use a CC-licensed work should not be confused with unimportance. 

A CC license on a published work is intended to be both an easily-followed guide to reuse *and* a sign of an author’s intentions. The health and sustainability of the commons depend on these intentions being respected. We believe it is important that reusers make their best efforts to comply with the terms and conditions of the license, and we support enforcement of the licenses when CC-licensed materials are being used without regard to those simple terms. Great care was taken by hundreds of legal experts around the world to ensure that the CC licenses are legally enforceable internationally, and we believe this robust legal backbone is central to the power and success of the CC license framework. At the same time, we are pleased that there has been such limited litigation around CC licensing over two decades of their use. Most disputes around compliance have been resolved outside of court, and we view this as a sign of a well-functioning commons. 

In recent years, however, there has been an increase in threatened and actual litigation involving CC licensed works. A recent academic study of this phenomenon found that a single creator filed more than 40 lawsuits in U.S. courts claiming license violations in 2019-2020. One reason for the uptake in litigation likely relates to the proliferation of subscription services like Pixsy, which use automated tools to scour the web for instances of non-compliance to help creators enforce their copyrights. License enforcement can be lucrative because of the hefty penalties afforded by copyright law. 

“License-enforcement-as-business model” is a perversion of the founding ideals of Creative Commons, which was intended to mitigate draconian copyright laws and penalties. Just as significant, aggressive enforcement of the licenses is harmful to the overall CC licensing endeavor. It lessens trust in CC licensed content by the reusing public, and it can result in problematic case law around the licenses as courts become increasingly frustrated by overly litigious licensors. In other words, aggressive license enforcement poses a threat to the commons.

In response, Creative Commons is releasing a collection of new resources designed to increase understanding of and compliance with the licenses, to establish community principles around license enforcement, and to help support both creators and reusers involved in licensing disputes. We view this as a first step in a wider, long-term effort to address what we see as the crux of this issue—making it easier to understand and comply with CC licenses. Everyone wins when more licensors want to license their works under CC licenses because they don’t feel it puts them at a disadvantage, and when more of the public feel safe using CC and that they won’t be unfairly penalized for mistakes.

The new resources will include: 

We release these new materials with the hope and expectation that you will help us adapt and improve them over time. What would make the licenses more understandable to you? Are there actions you think CC or CC licensors could take to make it easier to comply with the license conditions? When do you think enforcement of the licenses in court is appropriate? We look forward to hearing your input and to working together to ensure that enforcement of the licenses is fair to both licensors and licensees, and reinforces the commons rather than threatens it.