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License Stewardship

The CC license suite was foundational to the creation of Creative Commons. To this day, the stewardship of CC licenses and public domain tools remains one of the core functions of the organization. 

At the milestone of the 20th anniversary of Creative Commons in 2021, we embarked on a public consultation about CC’s stewardship. Specifically, we sought to collectively define the principles and responsibilities that CC should and will uphold in its role as stewards of the CC legal tools. The result of those efforts is documented here. As Creative Commons sets out into its third decade of work, we will use this as a signpost to help ensure we effectively sustain and nurture our existing tools.


Stewardship Values & Principles

CC commits to upholding the following principles in our role as license steward. 

Public interest as first priority

As a license steward, Creative Commons will always serve the public interest first and foremost. To the extent there is a tension, CC will always seek to balance the needs and wishes of the reusing public with those of authors and creators. 

Creative Commons will not make decisions about its licenses based on organizational self-interest at the expense of the public interest. Accordingly, CC will not promote use of its licenses and legal tools in situations where doing so would not serve the public interest. 

Commitment to excellence 

Creative Commons will maintain legal accuracy and diligence as a bedrock of its function as license steward. To that end, CC will not let its corresponding commitment to simplicity and usability override its commitment to working within the appropriate legal systems. 

CC will strive to only take on activities as steward when the organization can follow through in a manner that meets high standards of excellence. When resource constraints are a barrier, CC will therefore opt to step back rather than accepting a stewardship responsibility it cannot uphold with confidence.

Inclusivity through accessibility 

Creative Commons will continuously work to make the licenses and related materials as clear and user friendly as possible, while maintaining its commitment to legal robustness. Following through on this commitment includes making language translation a priority so the tools and related resources are available to people in their preferred languages.  

Inclusivity through consultation

Creative Commons strives to steward public legal infrastructure that serves a global population. Therefore, it is critical that the organization maintains relationships and open channels of communication with stakeholders around the world. CC will not make major decisions about existing licenses and legal tools without public consultation and proactive outreach to key stakeholders. 

Transparency in decision making

Creative Commons will make its processes for stewardship decision making explicit and clear, both because doing so enables people to know how and when to contribute and because it helps ensure accountability. This commitment includes being transparent about how key stewardship decisions will be made and publicly documenting the rationale, considerations, and inherent tradeoffs once such decisions are made.

Stewardship Responsibilities

CC commits to meeting the following responsibilities in our role as license steward. 

Resource availability

CC will ensure that published license texts are always available. The most basic stewardship function CC fulfills is as keeper of the license texts (also known as “legal code”) . When CC publishes a license, the legal code for that license should always be available on the CC site. Even when a license has been deprecated, works released under that license remain under that license, so the legal code of any published license or license version is important to maintain indefinitely. However, both because of the technical resources necessary to maintain the licenses online and in order to encourage use of updated versions, CC may reduce the level of technical infrastructure supporting prior license versions. 

CC will ensure that its resources are available in accessible form. The legal code for all published licenses should be in open, non-proprietary formats, available without cost, and accessible to users reading via alternative means such as screen readers or text-to-speech. CC will strive to meet appropriate accessibility standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

CC will ensure that license text URIs remain accessible indefinitely. The URI to the license text should remain useful so that references to it across the web continue to lead to the intended text. Part of compliance with the license is including the appropriate URI, and it is unreasonable and not practically possible to ask reusers to update these references in the future. Any change in organization of resources should direct users looking in the old location to the new location of the resource. 

CC will not change published license text (aka “legal code”). Once published, a license text should be unchanging under that version number. The utmost care should be taken to correct errors before a license is finalized. Errors identified after publication will not be corrected but should be publicly documented as errata. Preliminary versions should be clearly marked as drafts unsuitable for use so that creators do not mistakenly apply them to works. 

CC will support making licenses and deeds available in as many languages as possible. CC has a formal process for generating and approving “official translations” of license text. Once published, official license translations are legal equivalents to the original English text. License deeds are generated more informally through a community-led process.

Ideally, this translation work is a community-led process, both to ensure the translation is faithful to local nuances in language and to help generate a sense of shared ownership in the translations. Wherever there is an interested community of volunteers committed to helping with a particular translation, CC will be available to work with and support those translation teams. CC may use professional translators where volunteer translators are not available or need additional resources to complete their work, but no legal code translations will be officially released until CC feels confident that they accurately represent their community.

CC will actively maintain the technical infrastructure behind the licenses and legal tools. The technical infrastructure behind the licenses and legal tools requires proactive, ongoing technical maintenance in order to ensure that bugs are identified and resolved quickly, security is protected, and standard updates are made. This requires both front-end and back-end developer support on a consistent and ongoing basis, and it is made easier and more effective when there is an active open source community around the resources. 

Keeper of the official interpretation

CC will produce and maintain explanatory material that clarifies ambiguous or disputed points to the extent possible. CC strives to make the legal terms and conditions as clear and understandable as possible, but it is inevitable that there are aspects of them that give rise to confusion and/or dispute, particularly in light of complex and evolving laws, technologies, and applications. CC seeks to function as a trusted source of clarification, interpretation, and explanation about its legal tools in order to help maintain confidence in the tools and promote a shared interpretation and understanding of how they operate. 

In addition to weighing in when particular concerns or areas of policy or legal uncertainty arise, CC will maintain up-to-date explanatory materials on frequently-researched and/or commonly misunderstood topics that are accessible and in sufficient detail to be the first source users seek out with questions. Explanatory material should be dated, and it should be both practical and accurate about when and how to use the legal tools and reuse works made available under their terms. 

CC will maintain publicly available version history about the legal tools. Users of the license should be able to see an explanation of what has changed between versions without doing the comparison and analysis of the texts. Documentation about the versioning processes should be maintained and publicly available, even after the legal tools are retired. 

CC will preserve institutional knowledge about license history and policy decisions. Information and reasoning behind key decisions should be preserved, publicly whenever possible (for example, in mailing list archives, a wiki, or an explanatory document), and in CC-internal documentation if it is sensitive and cannot be shared publicly. Key information should not be held in resources that will be inaccessible if any given person is no longer available. (For example, if a particular wording choice was made because of the requirements of a particular jurisdiction, this knowledge should be preserved for the benefit of others who may be considering changing it. Other such decisions may include versioning decisions, policy choices, translation choices, license deprecation, etc.)

CC will make and publish compatibility determinations for copyleft licenses. Only CC as the license steward may determine compatibility for the ShareAlike licenses. Making these determinations is critical because it affects the rights of users who licensed their works under the SA licenses; those licensors are trusting CC to make decisions that will uphold their intentions and not commit them to agree to things they would not have agreed to. 

CC may also express opinions on compatibility for non-copyleft licenses, but for a copyleft license this is the core mechanism of the license and only CC is empowered to make an official determination as it is the maintainer of the compatible license list. For other licenses, anyone may opine on license compatibility; compatibility depends on analysis of legal obligations but does not require anyone to take action to maintain an approved list.

Authorship of text 

CC will have final responsibility for authorship of all of its legal tools. CC is responsible for making sure that the final text of all legal tools is in line with all of CC’s standards of accuracy, quality, and service to the public interest. In most cases, CC will author the original text in-house, but may contract out this work where CC lacks the internal capacity to author a tool but wishes to be responsible for its ongoing stewardship.

CC will author and revise licenses and legal tools through a public process. We believe that a public process with open participation from current and potential license users is essential to the development of widely-used public licenses, especially where future decisions of the license steward will affect the expectations of current licensors. Creative Commons is committed to continuing to develop its licenses in public, with input from the community of license users and other stakeholders.

CC will make decisions about whether to create new versions of existing legal tools according to a transparent decision making framework. New versions of existing tools necessarily increase complexity of the licensing ecosystem and should not be created without a clear and compelling need. CC will publicly explain its rationale for versioning in order to promote accountability and preserve institutional knowledge. 

CC will make decisions about creating or adopting new legal tools for stewardship according to a transparent decision making framework. Legal tools in addition to the core license suite may be desirable to further organizational goals. CC’s role should be to consider whether a tool is necessary (or whether some other method of problem solving would be better), and whether CC is the right organization to have stewardship of the tool. 

CC will make decisions about deprecating legal tools according to a transparent decision making framework. CC legal tools have often been widely adopted, which means many people rely upon their ongoing availability and maintenance. However, maintaining legal tools in perpetuity requires resources, and therefore must be balanced against resource constraints.

Maintenance and promotion of the Creative Commons name

CC will work to protect the Creative Commons name, license icons, and other signature elements connoting the legal tools. The popular recognition of the Creative Commons name and branding has been critical to the success of the CC legal tools throughout the organization’s history. Many people around the world have come to associate the CC name with values around access to knowledge and culture, and CC will work to maintain this positive association by maintaining its trademark assets and leveraging them when appropriate. 

CC will discourage use of the CC name and trademarks for improper modifications of the legal tools. Part of the fundamental design of CC licenses hinges upon standardized legal terms and conditions, which are the output of careful, community-centric creation and versioning processes. The idea is that when a user sees that a particular CC license applied to a work, they can understand the license terms and conditions based on their knowledge of how that particular CC license is used on other works, and they can trust that the legal terms were a product of the rigorous public process that is a hallmark of CC’s approach. This emphasis on standardization reflects a value judgment—that the benefit of upholding publicly agreed-upon legal terms outweighs the corresponding cost of preventing customization for particular needs. 

However, in order to realize the benefits of standardization, it is important to police uses of the CC name and trademarks. When a CC license is improperly modified: for example, offering CC-licensed material but imposing contractual terms that negate some of the rights the license is intended to convey, the value of the licenses is lessened, because users are not able to trust that “CC licensed means” the things it is intended to mean. CC will discourage usage of the Creative Commons name and trademarks in situations where the legal terms have been modified in ways that undermine their intent and effect.  

CC will represent the licenses in official processes. There are some certification and other official processes where the licenses may be the duty of the license steward to supply any relevant information requested. The license steward should also seek opportunities that further the goals of the license (approval processes, inclusion on various lists, compatibility determinations) and turn down those that do not. 

CC will advocate for adoption of CC legal tools when it is in the public interest. All other work on the CC licenses is wasted if no one is putting them to their intended use. Good stewardship should involve driving adoption and building a community of advocates and knowledgeable interpreters. Wide usage also justifies putting more resources into maintaining and improving the tools and resources. CC should encourage the adoption of CC licensing as a standard for communities and types of information where it is in the public interest to do so. Relatedly, CC will not promote use of its legal tools for situations that would not further the public interest, for example using CC licenses on uncopyrightable material. 

Role as stewards

CC will engage in systematic reflection of its record as a license steward and make adjustments to its commitments accordingly. This License Stewardship Commitment is designed as a living document so that it accurately reflects the role of Creative Commons as steward based on current resource constraints. CC regularly will review, update, and renew this document in connection with public consultation in order to ensure that the organization can meet its stewardship commitments.