History of Creative Commons/Printable version

History of Creative Commons

The current, editable version of this book is available in Wikibooks, the open-content textbooks collection, at

Permission is granted to copy, distribute, and/or modify this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Goals of Creative Commons

Creative Commons seeks to resolve the tension between copyright law and technologies that make it easy to share and remix materials.

The first United States copyright law was the copyright act of 1790. The first copyright laws were very limited in both scope and term; they covered only specific materials and lasted for fourteen years, with the possibility of one renewal. The copyright act has been revised repeatedly since that time, extending protection to all kinds of authored materials and extending the copyright term.[1]

By Vectorization: Clorox (diskussion), Original image: Tom Bell. - Image:(C) Term by Tom Bell.gif, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26316308

Additionally, copyright is now automatic. The creator of a work need no longer apply to the United States government in order to hold copyright in that work.[2] Because all works are automatically granted the maximum possible protection under copyright, creators who want their works to be reused, remixed, or widely distributed need to specifically take action to allow these uses!

At the same time that it has become more difficult to remix or republish creative works from a legal standpoint, digital technology in the form of the internet has made such remixing easier than ever from a technical point of view. Digital copies are very inexpensive to produce, and do not degrade, no matter how many times they are copied.[3]

Creative Commons bridges this gap by making it easy for creators to license their works for reuse and remixing. Several Creative Commons licenses are available; creators can specify whether other people can create derivative works, whether they need to make the work available under the same license, and commercial uses are allowed. By applying a Creative Commons license to their work, creators clearly signal what uses others are allowed to make of it.[4]


  1. Association of Research Libraries. "Copyright Timeline: A History of Copyright in the United States." ARL.org, Copyright & IP. http://www.arl.org/focus-areas/copyright-ip/2486-copyright-timeline#.W7iK_3tKjIV
  2. United States Copyright Office. "Copyright Basics." September 2017. https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ01.pdf
  3. Blake, David. "Why Open Education Matters." YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJWbVt2Nc-I
  4. Creative Commons. "Frequently Asked Questions." Creativecommons.org. August 29, 2018. https://creativecommons.org/faq/#what-is-creative-commons-and-what-do-you-do

Legal History

Expansion of CopyrightEdit

Copyright laws in the United States have expanded over time. While much of this expansion happened gradually, it is important to remember that the greatest expansions of copyright occurred in the twentieth century, most notably in 1909 and 1976. The 1909 revision to the copyright act broadened the scope to afford protection to all works of authorship, and music in particular. The 1976 revision, passed in anticipation of joining the Berne convention changed the basis for copyright terms. Instead of lasting for a set number of years, copyright now expired 50 years after the death of the author.[1]

As copyright terms lengthened, copyright terms were extended for some works that were previously scheduled to fall into the public domain.Thus, a work that would have fallen into the public domain in 1980 according to the law under which it was initially published may in fact still be under copyright as of this writing in 2018.[2]

Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension ActEdit

Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998. This act was named in memory of the congressman and former musician Sonny Bono, who had died in January of that year. His widow, Mary Bono, claimed that Bono believed "copyright should be forever."[3]

The act lengthened the copyright terms previously extended in 1976. Works created after the passage of the act would be protected for seventy years after the author's death, rather than the previous fifty. Works which were under copyright at the time the act was passed had their copyright term extended to ninety-five years.[4]

Several copyright holders lobbied on behalf of this act, including Disney, the Gershwin family trust, and the grandchildren of Oscar Hammerstein.[5] These copyright holders sought to prevent the copyrights they held from expiring. Disney's intervention is especially famous; they act prevented Steamboat Willy, the first appearance of Mickey Mouse, from falling into the public domain.[5] Thus, this law is popularly (and derisively) known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act.

Because it lengthened the term of copyright both for new works and for works that were protected at the time of its passage, the law effectively prevented any copyrightable works from entering the public domain between 1998 and 2019.[6]

Eldred vs. AshcroftEdit

Eldred vs. Ashcroft was a challenge to the copyright act. When the 1998 act extended copyright terms once more, Eric Eldred and other users of public domain works sued.[7] Eldred, a retired programmer, was also a hobbyist internet publisher and literacy advocate who digitized works of literature in the public domain and made them freely available. The extension of the copyright terms prevented him from digitizing the works that received extended protection.

Eldred and constitutional law professor Lawrence Lessig filed a lawsuit together in 1999, arguing that the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act was unconstitutional.[8] Their argument rested on the Progress Clause, which states that copyrights may be granted for limited times, and the First Amendment.[8] That is, continually extending the term of copyright so that new works never fall into the public domain created, in essence, perpetual copyright, which limits the ability to criticize or comment on a work while it is still current.

The district court and DC Court of Appeals refused to hear the case, but the Supreme Court took it up in 2002. However, the Court ruled 7-2 against Eldred. In oral arguments, it appeared that the precedent set by many previous copyright extensions weakened Lessig's claims.[8] To Lessig's disappointment, the ruling did not address the question of limited powers upon which much of his argument had rested. Justices Stephen Breyer and John Paul Stevens wrote dissenting opinions. Stevens dissented on the grounds of a parallel in patent law. Breyer argued that the copyright law had become so long as to be essentially unlimited. [8]

Founding of Creative CommonsEdit

Lessig, along with collaborators, founded the Creative Commons in 2002 to provide an alternative to traditional copyright.

As they were working on Eldred vs. Ashcroft, Lessig and Eldred assembled a group of people to help, including MIT professor Hal Abelson. This group was called the Copyright Commons, but Eric Saltzman suggested changing the name to Creative Commons, which stuck. Lessig explains that this was intended as a grass-roots movement to support authors who don't want or need all the rights that copyright affords. In a 2002 press release, Creative Commons declared: "The Creative Commons will provide a free set of tools to enable creators to share aspects of their copyrighted works with the public. ... We stand on the shoulders of giants by revisiting, reusing, and transforming the ideas and works of our peers and predecessors."[9]

The Creative Commons founders also believed that creating an explicit guarantee of legal protections would encourage participation in the open-source movement.[10]

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation contributed one million dollars to help begin the movement.[9]


  1. Association of Research Libraries. "Copyright Timeline: A History of Copyright in the United States." ARL.org, Copyright & IP. http://www.arl.org/focus-areas/copyright-ip/2486-copyright-timeline#.W7iK_3tKjIV
  2. Wikipedia. "Copyright Act of 1976." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_Act_of_1976
  3. Lessig, Lawrence. Free Culture. http://www.authorama.com/free-culture-18.html
  4. Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. Congress.gov, 1998. https://www.congress.gov/bill/105th-congress/senate-bill/505
  5. a b Lee, Timothy B. "15 Years Ago, Congress Kept Mickey Mouse out of the Public Domain. Will They Do It Again?" Washington Post, October 25, 2013. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2013/10/25/15-years-ago-congress-kept-mickey-mouse-out-of-the-public-domain-will-they-do-it-again/
  6. Stanford University Libraries. Copyright and Fair Use. 2015-2018. https://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/public-domain/welcome/
  7. OpenLaw: Eldred vs. Ashcroft. https://cyber.harvard.edu/openlaw/eldredvashcroft/
  8. a b c d Lessig, Lawrence. "How I Lost the Big One." Legal Affairs: The Magazine at the Intersection of Law and Life. March/April 2004.http://www.legalaffairs.org/issues/March-April-2004/story_lessig_marapr04.msp
  9. a b Geere, Duncan. "The History of Creative Commons." Wired UK. December 13, 2011. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/history-of-creative-commons
  10. Plotkin, Hal. "All Hail Creative Commons / Stanford professor and author Lawrence Lessig plans a legal insurrection." SFGate. February 11, 2002. https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/All-Hail-Creative-Commons-Stanford-professor-2874018.php

Creative Commons Organization


The name "Creative Commons" references the concept of the commons, a social system by which resources are held in common. According to David Bollier, both long-term stewardship and self-organization are essential to the commons. The commons includes both the community and the resources in question and is a set of values which render them sustainable. Bollier argues that open networks such as Wikipedia form a kind of digital commons.[1]


Lawrence Lessig was the founder and first CEO of the Creative Commons, but he stepped down in 2008 and was replaced by Joi Ito.[2] The present CEO is Ryan Merkley, who joined the organization in 2014.[3] The Creative Commons organization Includes a staff, board, and advisory council.[4]

In addition to its official staff and board, Creative Commons includes a network of affiliates known as the Creative Commons Global network, which represents Creative Commons around the world.


The mission of the Creative Commons is to "develop, support, and steward legal and technical infrastructure that maximizes digital creativity, sharing, and innovation."[5] To this end, Creative Commons sponsors four program areas: [5]

  • Licenses + Legal Tools
  • Discovery and Collaboration Tools
  • Policy + Advocacy
  • Community Building

Each of these areas includes both technical work and outreach and advocacy. Creative Commons has programs to educate potential license users, to support institutions as they unlock content, and to advocate for copyright reform.[5]

Creative Commons Global NetworkEdit

The Creative Commons Global Network includes Creative Commons representatives in over 60 countries.[6] Members of the network conduct public outreach and training and answer questions about Creative Commons.[7]

In 2017, the network underwent a community-led strategic process which resulted in a new strategy document and governance structure.[8] The main governance body is the Global Network Council.

Chapters coordinate this work geographically. Each chapter is made up of people who live in a particular area. Chapters follow the Creative Commons charter, and are vouched for by two members of the Global Network. [6]

Platforms organize the work areas of the Global Network online. There are currently four platforms, concerned with open education, copyright reform, community development, and GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums).[6]

The platforms are still under development but can be viewed on GitHub.[9]


  1. Bollier, David. "The Commons, Short and Sweet." bollier.org. July 15, 2011. http://www.bollier.org/commons-short-and-sweet
  2. Geere, Duncan. "The History of Creative Commons." Wired UK. December 13, 2011. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/history-of-creative-commons
  3. Ryan Merkley bio. Creative Commons.org https://creativecommons.org/author/ryancreativecommons-org/
  4. "Team." Creativecommons.org. https://creativecommons.org/about/team/
  5. a b c "Program Areas." Creativecommons.org. https://creativecommons.org/about/program-areas
  6. a b c "Global Affiliate Network." Creative Commons website. https://creativecommons.org/about/global-affiliate-network/
  7. "CC Affiliate Network." Creative Commons Wiki.https://wiki.creativecommons.org/wiki/CC_Affiliate_Network
  8. "Network Strategy." Creative Commons.org. n.d.https://creativecommons.org/about/global-affiliate-network/network-strategy/
  9. Creative Commons Network Platforms. GitHub. https://github.com/creativecommons/network-platforms

Creative Commons Licenses

What Licenses DoEdit

Licenses allow creators of works to specify what uses can be made of those works, without seeking permission. Authors may still grant permission for uses that fall outside the license, but the uses allowed by the license do not require permission.

Creative Commons Licenses are both human-readable and machine-readable. This means that works with Creative Commons licenses can be identified as such in their metadata, allowing search engines to identify them. For instance, Google Image Search allows users to filter works by license.


The first (1.0) Creative Commons licenses, issued in 2002, were inspired by the GNU General Public Licenses.[1] They included three parts: a plain-language summary for anyone who wanted to use them, legal code to guarantee their permissions, and a machine-readable component to make them searchable via search engines.[1]

The second iteration of the Creative Commons licenses (2.0) was released in 2004. It provided an attribution standard and made the Share-Alike licenses work internationally.[1]

Version 3.0 was released in 2007.[1] Today, 4.0 licenses are available.

Types of LicensesEdit

Authors can mix-and-match their licenses. The characteristics covered by the licenses include:

  • BY (Attribution)
    • Everyone who uses the work must provide attribution to the original author.
  • SA (Share-Alike)
    • Anyone who makes use of the work must make it available to others under the same license.
  • NC (Non-Commercial)
    • Commercial uses of the work are not allowed.
  • ND (No Derivatives)
    • The work can be reused but not remixed. Derivative works (such as translations, pastiches, etc) may not be made.

Thus, a range of possible Creative Commons licenses can exist. If a work is licensed CC BY, for instance, any uses are allowed as long as the original author is credited. If a work is licensed CC BY-NC-ND, then the work can be reused with attribution, but only in non-commercial contexts, and derivative works are not permitted.[2]

Popularity of Creative Commons LicensesEdit

The first Creative Commons licenses were issued in 2002; by 2003, one million such licenses had been granted, and by 2004, that number had reached nearly five million.[1] In 2006, 140 million works were available under CC licenses.[3]

As of 2017, over 1.4 billion works had been released under Creative Commons licenses. Millions of CC-licensed works are available on platforms including Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, DeviantArt, Europeana, the Internet Archive, Medium, and the Directory of Open Access Journals.[3]

Books, educational resources, and games have all been published under Creative Commons licenses.[4]


  1. a b c d e Geere, Duncan. "The History of Creative Commons." Wired UK. December 13, 2011. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/history-of-creative-commons
  2. Creative Commons. "Licensing Types." https://creativecommons.org/share-your-work/licensing-types-examples/
  3. a b State of the Commons. https://stateof.creativecommons.org/
  4. "List of Major Creative Commons Works." Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_major_Creative_Commons_licensed_works