Creative Commons: Let’s be creative together
(Tutorials keep the original licence chosen by their respective authors, most of the time the GNU GPL)
Update (may 27, 2004): a little rewritting to adapt the article to the new features of the Creative Commons version 2.0
Since a little bit more than two years now, the Creative Commons licences have taken another approach. They try to adapt the author’s right to this new media: Internet. They want to give a legal framework to the share, on the Web, of works of mind like pictures, sounds or text. In this way, they differ from their predecessors who were designed for the software distribution.
Let’s have a look at these new kinds of licences.
Share what you want, keep what you want
The Creative Commons project was born in 2001, in the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society (Stanford University) thanks to various people. One of them, maybe the most emblematic one, being Lawrence Lessig, a well-known specialist of the law on the Net and a defender of the Web’s freedom against the multinational companies trying to take control of it .
The starting point was the free software’s philosophy initiated by Richard Stallmand, and in particular the GNU GPL . Then, Lessig and his collaborators asked themselves: 1. How to adapt this licence so that it can protect other types of media (texts, pictures, music, video, and so on), and 2. How to be certain that the authors will not be deprived of their rights when they distribute their work on the Web.
Equilibrium had to be found between the complete holding back of the copyrights and "a world in which creators enjoy a wide range of freedom but are left vulnerable to exploitation".From that thought arose the Creative Commons licences whose motto is "Share what you want, keep what you want". By being halfway between the copyleft and the copyright, they allow the authors to freely distribute their works while keeping some rights. In a word: the best of both worlds. So here is what it means
How it works
The underlying principle
The Creative Commons licences can be seen as a lego. A very simple one though, composed of only four bricks and allowing only limited combinations, the most sophisticated one being a triplet. In short, the whole combination set offers six different licences.
Let’s start with the four initial conditions, easily identified by icons:
- Attribution: this condition compels the user, who wants to distribute your work, to give you credits for the original work. The condition is now standard (but can always be disavowed)and can go with a link-back to the original work.
- No commercial: your work cannot be used commercially.
- No derivative work: if someone wants to distribute your work, it cannot be modified before hands.
- Share alike: if you agree that your work can be modified, these modifications have to be distributed under the same agreement as the original wich means under the same licence, a later version of it or its international version .
It is thus by combining these four conditions (three choices + one implied) that you can obtain six different licences, depending on the rights you want to share. This can start from the simple credit of the authors (you let the user modify your work, distribute it under any licence he wants to and use it commercially) to the absolute respect of the work that then can neither be modified nor used to obtain any benefit from it.
Simple no? But then, this architecture, adjustable at will, allows taking into account most of the cases encountered. If a novice writer is desperate as he cannot sell the thousand copies of his novel, published at his own expense, he can always put it on the Net available to download under a Creative Commons licence and will then be recognized. Or a novice graphist who enjoys collaborating with other artists will be able to put on line his pictures under a licence which then allow people surfing on his website to copy and modify them as they want. And so on. You can fill this list with other examples as the Creative Commons licences adapt to (almost) everybody’s needs.
Still more choice
As if this multiplicity was not enough, the project goes even further:
- If you want to give away all of your rights, put your work in the public domain where it can be reproduced and used without restrictions.
- You can also prefer the founder’s copyright, i.e. you sell your work’s copyright to Creative Commons for a symbolic dollar; your author’s right will remain valid for a fourteen years period, renewable. After that, your work will fall into the public domain. 
- If you prefer the GNU GPL but like the icon-type presentation of the Creative Commons, you can then think about a mix CC-GPL or CC-LGPL (for the moment only in Brazilian Portuguese).
- The Mash Me licence allows you to let other authors modify parts of your work.
- Finally, the Share Music Licence, wich adapts Creative Commons features to the specific field of music.
How to choose?
With such diversity, one may find difficult to choose his licence and put it in action. Fortunately, the website is there to guide you and simplify your job. First, it clearly and simply presents the different situations you can encounter while using the licences through a comic book. But most of all, it offers a selection form. Once you know what you want to protect and what you want to share, you only have to go to the chosen licence’s page, fill the required fields and that’s it. You get a part of HTML code that you will have to insert in your web pages to inform your visitor that their contents are under a Creative Commons licence. This licence will by the way be clarified under three different shapes to ease the comprehension (see below: higher accessibility).
Where is the innovation?
So there are the principles of the Creative Commons licences. You have noticed that some of the licences’s characteristics are already present in other Free licences, and more particularly in the first and more emblematic one: the GNU GPL. As explained by the authors, this project is not aimed to replace the existing licences but to offer another choice, which is not going to be focused on the software field. And we have to agree that the advantages on the form and the substance are very seducing.
A higher accessibility
Let’s talk first about the form. Did you ever read the Windows licences or those of any other commercial product, the well-known EUL? You know, we are talking about this windows which opens at the beginning of a software installation and which you are supposed to read until the end before being able to continue the installation, in full knowledge of the consequences of your action?! Let’s be honest: only a few of us will actually read until the end this incomprehensible text. And, to be even more honest, did you ever read in details the GNU GPL, the Mozilla Public Licence (MPL) or any other Free licences? They normally come with the free softwares as those listed here on the Framasoft web site. Even if we don’t want to be badmouthing, we must admit that they are almost as incomprehensible as the commercial’s ones. Of course, you can always find (and more specifically for the GPL) enough explanations on several websites so that everybody should understand their signification and characteristics. But anyway, the final user will only have the legal version of it and will have to make enquiries himself to clearly understand what it means.
With the Creative Commons, the work of popularisation is already done. As we saw before, three versions of the licence are available to the end-user:
- a graphical version, with the icons representing the basic conditions, explaining in a few words the rights and duties of everybody; it is this version that the user will discover when clicking on the Creative Commons link that will be added to protect the work.
- a legal version written in the classical legal jargon, barely understandable for the outsiders, but still being essential as it is the only one legally valid.
- and finally, the RDF meta data, part of the HTML code given when you fill the chosen form on the Creative Commons website and which can be read by software like Mozilla (see the Tools Annex).
Thanks to this threefold presentation, the "users" of your texts, pictures or video will have everything at hand to clearly understand the way you want to distribute your work. The disagreement or wrongdoing is no longer allowed (see below Flexibility and Sturdiness) .
The adaptation to the needs
Let’s talk now about the substance. The first advantage of the Creative Commons is clearly the choice offered. You can adapt the licence to your needs and your will, as there are eleven different choices available. And those eleven ones are made for works of mind and not for any specific format as is, for example, the GPL which was written to distribute the source code of computer programs. You will thus be able to protect sound, pictures, texts, videos, or anything else.
You will then have to be very picky not to find what you want in this choice. If at the end, it is the case, then you should ask yourself if you actually want to distribute your work under a free licence.
Flexibility and Sturdiness
The Creative Commons are characterised by flexibility and sturdiness thanks to this adjustment to the author’s needs, which ensures also a better protection of the work. But what would happen if, by putting your work under the PDL or Free Art licence (another licence derivated from the GPL and more adapted to the artistic works), you gave the rights to modify your works but that those modifications, done by somebody else, do not suit you? If your work is modified and used in a way that you can’t accept artistically, politically, or whatever? What it actually means is that you want to share your work with the others but not no matter how.
This is where the main advantages of the Creative Commons licences, explicitly stated in the basic principles "Share what you want, keep what you want", are best understood. With the PDL of the Free Art licence, the user can do almost what he wants with your work . On the other hand, with the Creative Commons licences, these rights are restricted accordingly to your will (i.e. no commercial use, no modifications, and so on). Those restrictions can of course always be lifted later on, but only when you will say so.
The sharing of tomorrow
As we can see, the Creative Commons licences are not there to compete with the other free licences. They simply enlarge the range of opportunities. This multiplicity existed already in the world of software, as in addition to the GNU GPL, you can find other Open Source licences, less restricting and which allow, for example, to incorporate an owner’s code in a so-called Open Project. The Creative Commons gives only one (several) more choice(s). They break the historical link existing between the free licences and the world of computer programming. They allow the author to say precisely what he wants to share and which rights he wants to keep.
This is apparently the first real try to adapt the author’s rights and the protection of their works to the possibilities of this new media that is Internet, as it allows the downloading, copie’s distribution, modified work’s publication, dynamic collaboration, and so on. Between the large freedom allowed by licences as the PDL and the Free Art licence and the complete restriction of the copyright, not adapted at all to the distribution on the web, the Creative Commons take a median way with a lot of different shades. They ensure the author that his work will not be modify in a way he does not want it to be, while allowing his collaboration with other people.
 to read from Lawrence Lessig:
- Articles on the net
- "The future of Ideas: The fate of Commons in a Connected World" (Random House editor, 2001)
 Lessig has by the way made an apology of Richard Stallman, “philosopher” of our generation, in the forewords of "Free Software, Free Society: The Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman"
 the founder’s copyright allows thus to shorten the copyright’s period of a work, which is actually lasting up to seventy years after the author’s death in The United States of America.
 Let’s nonetheless be careful: just as the FSF (Free Software Foundation) does not protect against theft or non-respect of the GPL, Creative Commons does not provide any service for the respect of the copyright of works put under one of its licences.
 Of course only if these modifications are done under the same licence.
- The licence form. Once you know how you want to protect your work, getting the corresponding Creative Commons licence is very easy. You need to go on the form page of the website and there, you just fill the available fields and get an HTML code that you will need to include in the web pages to protect.
- MozCC. What you get for the web pages to protect is a Creative Commons icon indicating the type of licence as well as the RDF metadatas, readable by some software. The Mozilla plugin MozCC allows you to easily read those metadatas when you surf on a web page protected by a Creative Commons licence.
Examples of works under Creative Commons licences
This short, incomplete and absolutely subjective list has only one aim: of course to demonstrate the multiplicity of the Creative Commons licences but also to make you discover some websites you should visit, even if they were not under Creative Commons licences.
- The Public Library of Science (Plos) is a non-profit-making organism whose mission is to publish, in free access, articles of scientific researches in order to share the knowledge and increase the pace of research.
- CommonText: an ongoing project to freely shared classroom texts on the web.
- Magnatune: "Open music is music that is shareable, available in "source code" form, allows derivative works and is free of cost for non-commercial use. It is the concept of “open source” computer software applied to music."
- Free for All: How Linux and the free software movement undercut the high-tech titans. By Peter Wayner. The downloadable PDF version of this book is released under a CC licence.
- CSS Zen Garden: If you want to start learning css, let’s discover the CSS Zen Garden website and its examples of page layout; the CSS files are under Creative Commons licences.
- Why tables for layout is stupid: always for web designers, go on and read this comic’s like presentation to understand why it is better to use CSS instead of a large number of tables, imbricated one into another.
- Mozillabook, documentation for Mozilla users.
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- Creative Commons BY-SA