Why I use Creative Commons and not public domain

Creative Commons In the comments of Michael Sauers recent post about adding creative commons works to their library catalog, Dewi Morgan said:


I think this is great… but.

But like all copyright mechanisms, CC licences are only a means to an end, and that end is to restrict the rights of the consumer and purchaser. Some CC licenses are unarguably vastly better than most commercial licenses. But CC is not public domain.

Every time I see a government or a library getting “into” CC, I have to ask: as opposed to what?

If the alternative is Public Domain, then moving to CC is a giant leap backwards. If you are going to spend money promoting a rights mechanism, and preserving works released under that mechanism, and putting your weight and support behind that mechanism, then let that mechanism be the Public Domain, not some “watered-down Copyright that is still undeniably Copyright”.

I can’t speak as a government or library, but I can say why I myself post my work under creative commons and not public domain.

I have been trained as an artist. In school, I heard a LOT about not giving yourself away, about protecting your copyright, your “brand,” even about legal ramifications both of using others work and others using your work. I remember that the whole thing seemed weird. There was no way then, at least not that I knew, to release my work under a license that said “please use this, please share it” and allowed me to find other artists whose work was remixable. Artists have a tenuous relationship with copyright. Those that make art by remixing know, or at least should know, the copyright law as it applies to derivative works and fair use. Most artists, rather then spend a lot of time wrestling with legal definitions, will either use public domain source material, or try to use nothing at all (which can be stifling for many people.)

In general, if you release something into the public domain, that means anyone can do anything they want with it. There are limitations of course, but you wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on if you released something in the public domain and then someone else put it in a gallery show without attribution. Of course, there is nothing to stop someone from putting a CC:By work in an art show either, but if they are following the terms of the license, at least you’ll have your name attached. It may not seem like a big deal – after all, you aren’t making money off your work either way, right? But in the art world, as most other circles, name recognition is *really* important. So if you give enough away under CC:By that people know your name, that’s social capital.

In an ideal world, Creative Commons wouldn’t be necessary- people would be polite and cite their sources. CC is a way of reminding people that yes, you can use this, but don’t pretend you made it, ok? Attribute back.

What creative commons license you use will depend on your purpose: I attribute almost everything CC:By because the important thing to me right now is name recognition. I’m building my brand, so to speak. Even if I was selling artwork, though, I’d probably stick with the CC:By SA license, because I don’t mind people making money off the work, as long as they help the cause by releasing their work into the commons as well. The brilliance of CC:By SA is that it is self perpetuating- you are free to use my content, but you have to let other people use your content. I personally don’t believe in, and will never use the Noncommercial version of the license, because it stifles other’s ability to make money as an artist (if they so choose) and is too incompatible with the other licenses. I don’t begrudge others decision to put that restriction on their content, however, I try not to use noncommercial licenses in case I want to sell something based on another work* later on. (* I added “based on another work” to try to clarify what I was saying re: Mark’s comment below. My full reply to his comment is in the comments)

As a creator, I don’t believe it is wrong to assert some rights over my work. I believe in intellectual property- I just think that as a society, we need to be able to build upon things or we will stagnate. The only problem I see with creative commons as it is is the time span- my work goes into the public domain following the same schedule as copyright law which would be 70 years after I die – that is, unless I go back and manually change the licenses of older content. Ideally, I could set a limit of my CC license, after which point it passes into the public domain. I think 10 years is reasonable. As it is now, I’ll just have to do a reevaluation of old work and release it into public domain where appropriate.

The reason I think 10 years is a reasonable term is that artists don’t live by resting on our laurels. We don’t make one really great painting or book and go “well, guess I can retire now!” – We create, we keep creating, and we keep changing. What I made 10 years ago doesn’t matter near as much as what I will create tomorrow. I think 10 years is a reasonable term for me to monetize what I can. That may be just me. I think terms up to 30ish years or until death (whichever comes first) are reasonable- but not this 70 years after death stuff.

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3 Responses to Why I use Creative Commons and not public domain

  1. Mark says:

    Nice thoughts on the topic and I appreciate your (more than me anyway) artist-based views on the topic.

    I generally use non-commercial for a couple of reasons that may or may not be applicable in regards to your reasoning, but I may need to rethink this in some cases. Much of my output (artistic?) is text, although I do put a lot of pictures in Flickr. Rarely do my photos approach the level of art, imo.

    But several of them have been used, non-commercially and with attribution. Some folks have asked in advance–especially the free newspapers and travel guides, some have just linked. I adore this!

    But I have a question about what you said here: “I don’t begrudge others decision to put that restriction on their content, however, I try not to use noncommercial licenses in case I want to sell something later on.”

    Not sure if this was poor phrasing on your part or if one of us misunderstands the NC clause. My understanding is that these are default rights that you are granting others. And while it would be real hard to “toughen” your license on previously licensed work (say, going from By to By-NC-SA) the creator always has the right to loosen their restrictions and for individual cases. Thus, you could always sell your own work, no matter what you licensed it. And if you had used NC you could still authorize any particular person/corporate body to sell your work under whatever conditions you can negotiate.

    Just like people with regular copyright can grant someone the right to use that which they control, with or without payment.

    Maybe I am wrong, but my understanding that if anyone wanted to use one of my “works” in a commercial manner that all they have to do is ask and I get to decide whether or not to license the use in that case.

    Is this different than what you believe it to say?

  2. karin says:

    Mark, you are right that if I use a CC:NC work as a base for something I do and then want to sell it, usually it is just a matter of contacting the author. But the point of creative commons is allowing for a free flow of ideas, and I believe that free flow includes moves into the commercial market. If everyone has to stop and ask permission to monetize, we end up back where we are. My other problem is that “noncommercial” is a very loose term- if I decide to put ads on my blog, is that commercial? Probably depends on who you ask. The license says you may not use the work for anything “that is primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation.” It would have to probably go to court to really flesh out what this means-I’m not interested in being a guinea pig in any case.

    When I said I don’t use CC:NC works, I am mainly refferring to anyhting I might later monetize on. I try not to use them in slides, because I reuse slides, and it’s not outside the realm of possibilty that I could get paid for a talk (Actually, I just did my first paid talk this last Tuesday.) Also, if I put a lot of stuff out there, I might not know which works I can monetize on later. If something covered by a non commercial license becomes something I can monetize on, I have to track down permission. But, if I can’t find the original author, or if they don’t want to let me use it for a commercial purpose, then I am out of luck. Easier all around to stick to licenses that don’t have that restriction – then all I have to keep in regards to the image is the original authors name and a link, and I’ve upheld my part of the agreement.

    This brings up another interesting point, though- if an artist is a prolific user of CC images, it can get damn hard to keep track of all the people you have to credit. I have started keeping this kind of information in a jpeg’s EXIF data, so I am fairly sure it will not become detached from the image. With physical artworks, I might just write the proper attributions on the back or something. It would be interesting to see how people use the CC licenses and keep track of them.

    Also, just as an aside- I have not been making much in the way of art lately (unless you call my snapshots and doodles art.) So a lot of this, for me, is academic. After I am done with school, I may sell artwork again, and I reserve the right to review the terms I have set for myself. :)

    (OK, that brings up ANOTHER interesting possibility- what if a creator changes or revokes a license later on? Do you have to adhere to the new license? Hmm.)

  3. royce says:

    followed you over here from the twitterverse

    Nice post. as an artist myself, I have a slightly different viewpoint. I place no barriers on my work in terms of copyright, How else is the world to learn what true art is? And if people copy my stuff, then the world can only get better. ;)

    Have fun in library school, I have about 5 months left….and the headache grows exponentially every day.