Creative Commons: What Every Self-Publisher Ought to Know

POSTED ON Jun 11, 2010

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

Home > Blog > Legal Issues, Self-Publishing, Writing > Creative Commons: What Every Self-Publisher Ought to Know

Licensing of rights is at the center of the publishing business. Publishing contracts are rights licenses, nothing more or less. People who work in publishing, and who supply the publishing industry with its raw materials—the authors—become used to dealing with the expressions of creativity as valuable products with inherent rights.

Opposed to the whole rights-as-property side of the equation is the public domain. This abstract territory is where we keep the fruits of the creators of earlier eras. The best or most durable works of our time will, in turn, join the great trove of works that forms the underpinning of our culture. Because this material is owned by the public, it is freely available to all.

Each of these opposing forces—strict licenses of intellectual property to enable monetezation, and the need for culture to have the fruits of its history available to build upon—has a role to play. The trick is in getting the balance right.

A New Idea in Rights for the Twenty-First Century

In 2002 Duke University founded its Center for the Study of the Public Domain. Here’s a statement from their website:

Both the incentives provided by intellectual property and the freedom provided by the public domain are crucial to the balance. But most contemporary attention has gone to the realm of the protected.

Through the support of Duke’s Center, Creative Commons was formed soon thereafter. What exactly is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons is a nonprofit corporation dedicated to making it easier for people to share and build upon the work of others, consistent with the rules of copyright. We provide free licenses and other legal tools to mark creative work with the freedom the creator wants it to carry, so others can share, remix, use commercially, or any combination thereof.

Creative Commons is run as a collaborative non-profit with a large board and an evolving series of rights licenses that they describe and make available for content creators.

Explosive Growth

It’s obvious there was a real need for a more flexible way to deal with licensing creative works in the everything-is-reachable-by-a-Google-search era. Rights had been very cumbersome to negotiate and police. What Creative Commons aimed to do was put the control of the rights back in the hands of the people originating the works.

At the same time, it made it much easier for publishers to get access to content because the artist could state which version of the Creative Commons license they choose to apply to their work. It both stimulates commerce and protects the artists.

The growth of Creative Commons-licensed works has exploded. For the last year I’ve seen statistice for, 2008, over 130 million individual works were covered by Creative Commons licenses, and I’m sure the number is much higher now. Wikipedia, for example, uses Creative Commons licenses for all of its content.

And can search its collection of millions of images based on their Creative Commons licensing, a real boon to web-based publishers (like bloggers).

Creative Commons isn’t perfect, and some people have made reasonable arguments against its system. However, it still seems the most balanced, easiest to use approach generally accepted in the market, and it does leave the artist in control of deciding which rights to hold and which rights to grant. This seems far better than the “all rights reserved” method in which contracts have to be drawn for each case, dividing rights and licensing them.

Understanding Creative Commons Licenses

Under the current 3.0 version of Creative Commons, there are four conditions from which creators can choose. This is how they are explained, with their corresponding symbols

creative commons, self-publishing

Click to enlarge

By combining these conditions, you arrive at the six Creative Commons licenses:

  1. Creative Commons AttributionAttribution (cc by)
    This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered, in terms of what others can do with your works licensed under Attribution.
  2. Creative Commons Attribution Share-AlikeAttribution Share-Alike (cc by-sa)
    This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial reasons, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use.
  3. Creative CommonsAttribution No Derivatives (cc by-nd)
    This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.
  4. Creative Commons book design, publish a bookAttribution Non-Commercial (cc by-nc)
    This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.
  5. book design, self-publish a bookAttribution Non-Commercial Share Alike (cc by-nc-sa)
    This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. Others can download and redistribute your work just like the by-nc-nd license, but they can also translate, make remixes, and produce new stories based on your work. All new work based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also be non-commercial in nature.
  6. creative commons, book design, publish a bookAttribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives (cc by-nc-nd)
    This license is the most restrictive of the six main licenses, allowing redistribution. This license is often called the “free advertising” license because it allows others to download your works and share them with others as long as they mention you and link back to you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

3 Things to Remember About Your Rights

Remember, in the United States,

  1. Your copyright in your creation is effective as soon as you fix your creative expression in a form. Although there are various mechanisms to register your copyright, it exists when your original work is created.
  2. It’s often wise to list a copyright in your work to eliminate the ambiguity caused by not having any notice at all of rights ownership
  3. Creative Commons gives you a way to share works you’ve created in a flexible way, but it is optional. Your rights are assumed to be “all rights reserved” unless you state otherwise.

Takeaway: Creative Commons rights licenses are a flexible way for artists to share some rights while choosing which ones to withhold. It can spur creativity while allowing artists to maintain control of their work.


Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain
Wikipedia article on Creative Commons
Advanced search on
Badges and descriptive text from Creative Commons website


Joel Friedlander

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Joel Friedlander

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