Creative Commons: Alternative Licensing Schemes Come of Age

The explosive growth of the Internet in the past 10 years has brought new challenges to copyright owners wishing to protect unauthorized distribution and use of their works. However, it has also prompted the development of new licensing mechanisms for those wanting to share their works. These non-traditional mechanisms have supported the open source movement which has allowed the development of functionally competitive free alternatives to copyrighted commercial software, including operating systems such as LINUX, office suites such as OpenOffice (a free alternative to Microsoft Office) and Web browsers such as Firefox. Such open source software is distributed pursuant to licensing terms that allow it to be used and distributed at no charge, and in a way which ensures that enhancements developed by others are also shared with the community. The use of such software is growing in popularity and beginning to eat into Microsoft’s market share.

Flexible alternative licensing mechanisms are also available for non-software works such as photos, illustrations, written or musical works. A popular proponent of non-traditional licensing is a non-profit entity known as Creative Commons (creativecommons.org) which has built upon the “all rights reserved” of traditional copyright to create a voluntary “some rights reserved” copyright. Such licensing mechanisms can be very useful to a new artist, writer or musician looking for a way to more widely distribute their work and expand their reputation, or who may want to simply contribute their work to the public good, but who do not want to see others misappropriate their creative efforts.

Under a Creative Commons license, the author or creator of a work does not give up their copyright but rather can selectively give up certain rights and subject to certain conditions. For example, an author can authorize others to copy, distribute and further enhance their work, but provided that they are given attribution credit or provided such use is for non-commercial purposes. Or an author can allow others to use and distribute the work, even for commercial purposes, but prohibit any changes being made to the work or the use of the work to develop a derivative work.

Another useful tool is the “share alike” condition which permits others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs the original work. This condition allows others to further enhance the work but forces them to make such enhancements available to the public on the same basis as the underlying work if they wish to distribute such enhancements. This effectively prevents a third party from commercially exploiting a work and ensures that the public continues to benefit from any enhancement of the work.

Once the desired form of license is selected from the eleven versions that are available, Creative Commons will provide a plain-language summary (with relevant icons), the legal fine print to implement the license and special machine-readable digital code that helps search engines and other applications identify the licensing terms applicable to the work. For example, Yahoo offers a beta version of Yahoo! Search for Creative Commons (http://search.yahoo.com/cc) to make it easier to find works licensed under a Creative Commons license.

The Creative Commons approach may be just the thing for certain types of research and educational material. For example, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Rice University in Houston is developing an online library of educational material suitable for use in teaching electrical engineering, known as Connexion, that will allow instructors to pick and choose best-of-breed instructional materials. Each can develop a custom textbook containing material contributed by experts from around the world and which is tailored to the specific objectives of the course. New material they write for their own course can also be added to the collective library for others to use. Creative Commons is providing the licenses that protect Connexions authors and the Connexions repository.

Creative Commons has also been adopted by Flickr, is a new photo management application that lets people annotate photos and share them with friends and family. With Flickr, friends, family, and other contacts can be given permission to organize a member’s photos. In addition to comments, notes and tags can also be added. By using the Creative Commons approach, members are able to post their photos on the web and still express their preference as to how their work gets used.

Note: The above appeared as a Bits & Bytes article published by Law Times on May 16, 2005.