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Creative Commons v. Copyright

freelance writing and creative commonsRob Shaver asked some interesting questions in his comment on my Copyright Reinforced By Reinstatement of Tasini v. The NY Times post.

He’s right. We writers and other creatives need to think deeply about copyrights. One way to begin that discussion is to compare and contrast copyrights with the relatively new, and growing, creative commons licensing of creative works.


Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution established both copyright and patent law saying:

“the Congress shall have power . . . to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

Originally, the length of a copyright was set at 14 years. It’s been extended over time to, in 1998, the time a work is protected after the author’s life was upped to 75 years. In 2002 that was reduced to 70 years and the length of a copyright for works for hire was set at 95 years.

(A huge thanks to The Association Of Research Libraries and their copyright timeline for coherent, understandable information.)

These extensions mean, among other things, every generation fewer and fewer works will find their way into public domain. Public domain essentially means a work is no longer protected and anyone is free to use it.

Public Domain

Public domain is part of what’s known as the commons. The commons can be defined as those things we hold in common as a people. The National Park system is one example of the commons, so are the state parks. The interstate highway system, public libraries and public schools are part of the commons. Thom Hartmann defines the commons in this video, saying in part, the commons is “us taking care of us.”

Creative works in the public domain are also part of the commons. Think about Shakespeare or better yet, look at the top 100 books in Project Gutenberg, which is an attempt to list all the books in the public domain. I think you’ll agree the public domain is also worth protecting. What classics will be delayed entering the public domain by more than a generation because of copyright?

Is that really what we as a people want?

Creative Commons

The Creative Commons is another approach or additional approach to protecting both the rights of creators and the commons. The non-profit organization says this about itself:

Creative Commons defines the spectrum of possibilities between full copyright and the public domain. From all rights reserved to no rights reserved. Our licenses help you keep your copyright while allowing certain uses of your work — a “some rights reserved” copyright.

A Creative Commons license doesn’t replace your copyright so much as let you decide what, if any rights you’re willing to let go of.  They offer four licenses, each with a different level of protection.

For example, the Creative Commons license I’m gradually adding to my ebooks is  Attribution. Quoting the non-legalese version is defined this way:

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.

I could use Creative Commons to opt out of copyright altogether if I wanted with an official ‘no rights reserved’ option. Or, I can use other licenses based on my needs. It’s a nifty tool that gives me more options than I had before.

Creative Commons is also gaining at least some currency around the world and a Creative Commons license is free.

What do you think about copyrights and Creative Commons licenses?


Image from http://www.sxc.hu

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Hoo-boy! My first thought is that (according to some sites) I can’t publish or post my Sherlock Holmes novella and short stories in the US because A. Conan Doyle’s estate opted to extend the US copyright to ~2021. Thus use of the Great Detective’s name is barred, except in Canada and the UK and similar areas. So I’m a bit peeved. (If anyone knows different, please let me know.)

    On the other hand, it’s becoming increasingly clear that I will never recover in my lifetime the time and effort and creativity I’ve invested in my fiction. My only hope would be that my descendants may get back a little of that in the form of royalties at some time in the distant future. Over time, it might amount to something.

    Finally, though I am not an attorney, the Creative Commons notion is fraught with legal problems. It is a complexity strapped onto the existing copyright system and is itself Byzantine in the number of options and potentially conflicting contractual packages that it offers. There have already been a few lawsuits that show Creative Commons is problematic. My understanding is that court decisions will be made based on the law as it stands, first, and then on the CC contractual terms. Creative Commons was not developed via the conventional legislative process. You may say this is a good thing, but it’s early days, yet, and it may eventually play out in the courts as a total disaster, as a result.

    Under conventional copyright, you can already sell or give away whatever rights you have. Why get involved in a new, largely untested, and potentially bogus set of pseudoprotections?
    .-= jorgekafkazar´s last blog ..Tenirax, Ch V =-.

    • Anne

      Jorge (by the way I hear your name in my mind the way you mentioned awhile back), I’m noodling all this… may even do some more reading… will probably break out in a highly opinionated essay before too long… appreciate your comments.

      • Thanks, Anne. I’ve also researched the thumbnail vs copyright issue and I have some…opinions. Can’t call ’em answers. The issue is murky, but I’ll mail you something as soon as I get through with taxes. My CPA gave me homework. Argh. [I have over $3000 worth of deductions for producing my three act play last August. Know anybody who’d like to publish it?]
        .-= jorgekafkazar´s last blog ..Tenirax, Ch V =-.

        • Anne

          I had some homework for my tax guy too… now it’s on him. Wish I knew something about getting a play published… I don’t.

    • Anne

      Hmmmm… you could be right… although there does some to be some world around acceptance of the CC license.

  • Kahtleen

    Anne — Thanks for this post. I am a big fan copyrights! Even if they are a “Poor Man’s Copyright” (sending yourself a registered letter with the written material in it… no opening it, thus proving when you wrote it by the dates on the US Postal Server stamps). I did not know anything about the “Creative Commons licenses.” Thanks.

    JENN – thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree with the fact that my grandfather’s manuscript should still hold his copyright, he’s been gone for 20 years now… so we’ve got 55 more to go on this… if we are allowed to go by the copyright laws that were in affect at the time of the writing.
    I can’t see giving my rights away. Nor my heir’s rights away.
    Notably, if I produce something as work-for-hire contact I don’t hold the copyright, but it takes a while to sell manuscripts for some of us and I do not want to GIVE-A-WAY any of my copyrights. I’ve got enough people who think Freelance Writing means FREE. It’s a battle and it is one I fight.

    ROY– Just thought I would let you know… if you write… you are the author of that work – be it a blog, etc. although I see that strict definition of “author”– a person who writes a novel, poem, essay, etc.; the composer of a literary work, as distinguished from a compiler, translator, editor, or copyist. 2. the literary production or productions of a writer: to find a passage in an author. 3. the maker of anything; creator; originator: the author of a new tax plan. (www.dictionary.com)
    I think your articles and blogs fall under the “etc.” and “creator” of the definition.
    And even though you allow readers and others Free Access to what you have written … it does not mean that you want everyone to have FREE access to print, reprint and make money off of what you have written. Hence what the copyrights help protect. And you don’t want someone else steal what you have written and claim it under their own by-line and make money claiming they are the author of it.

  • I have been following the war between creative commons and copyrights and other ways to either add a specific value to the world of media, or to secure our place in the sun, in respect to our creative work.

    I am not a author (yet), and I do not write fiction. Saying that, I also understand that the aforementioned aspects can also come into play for the content on a website – which I have – or an article that is guest written by me for some other site of blog.

    Why only query is, why would I need to put my latest article or my blog articles under the Creative Commons license? My website is for free, anyone with a valid computer and a net connection can reach my website, of course, it’s provided how easy it for them to reach my content, but in principle, my content is already for free – to read and to act upon – not to use. And that’s how I’d prefer keeping it for now.
    .-= Roy Daniel D’Silva´s last blog ..Article Directories You Didn’t Know: The Content Writer’s Greatest Freelance Resource =-.

    • Anne

      Roy, you’d only do it if you wanted, for instance, to make it okay for people to copy and distribute an article of yours exactly the way you wrote it and with attribution… as a marketing effort. That’s just one example.

  • I’m a big supporter of copyright protections. Now don’t get me wrong. Creative Commons is a great thing. And if people choose to release all or some of their work that way, I can respect that choice. But what I’m not okay with is when people feel they should have the right to tell me or other creative professionals that we should or have to do the same.

    Here are some of the important points I think people sometimes overlook:

    1. Perhaps less enters the public domain each year, but I’d argue that far more is created each year with the increased ease of exposure for our work alongside our rights that allow us to monetize that work.

    2. That ease of exposure and ease of monetizing (even if in small bits residually) means that people can earn from a creative work for a longer period than they might have been able to a century ago. Rather than insisting on huge up front payments, writers in particular often count on that extended period of smaller payouts to justify the time put into constantly creating new things.

    3. The digital age also means that there’s less of a risk (not more) that people will miss out on classics just because they’re not in the public domain. While some lesser known works might be temporarily “lost,” I’d argue that anything truly classic will still find its way to the public through the copyright holder. They have more ways to make it happen now. You can have access without it being free. Personally I find the argument of some people that things should be free or “open” to the public to be more a sense of entitlement than something else. if they want great works released and free for the public, then they can sit their asses down, create them, and release them.

    4. People behind these creative works often don’t have the same type of financial security that others have. Copyright, in a way, gives them that (and their families when they’re gone). When they can no longer write a best selling novel, they can retire knowing they can still earn from their past work even though there was no employer contributing to a 401k for them over the years. They can create new versions of past works they own to adapt to new media developments and keep their income coming in. If something happens to them, their spouse and children will still have income throughout their lives to help support the family.

    5. While most creative works might not keep earning well long into the future, some will. Should those creators and their families be penalized just because they created something truly extraordinary in that sense? I don’t think so.

    While 70 years can be a debatable number (and I’d be okay personally with it being slightly lower), again… who’s to determine when that family stops valuing something? Forget about works created for strictly commercial purposes. I’m a family historian. Should I have the right to publish an ancestor’s diary 30 years or so after their death, even the contents would humiliate living relatives? Should it be a free for all just because some people want access to more commercial works for free?

    One of the biggest concerns I have with the overall copyright debate is that people often look at it strictly from a commercial standpoint rather than considering these other issues like privacy which are just as applicable. Copyright doesn’t only apply to commercial works. If the government can wait 72 years to publicly release census documents of legitimate public interest long before that point, then personally I feel similar information owned privately should be afforded similar protection. In the meantime, anyone who wants their work to “get around” more does have options to do so by releasing it under creative commons or directly into the public domain. Despite the cc buzz, none of that’s new. Creators have always had the right and ability to exercise their full rights under copyright law or grant licenses for certain uses.
    .-= Jenn Mattern´s last blog ..Freelance Writing Jobs – March 23rd, 2010 =-.

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