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Creative Commons Nurtures the Public Domain
Posted On June 3, 2002
Creative Commons ( is a new nonprofit organization that develops alternative approaches to handling copyright licensing and encouraging contributions to the public domain within the framework of the current copyright system. On May 16 it made the first public announcement of its plans at O'Reilly's Emerging Technology Conference in Santa Clara, California.

Chaired by Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford intellectual property scholar, and funded in large part by a major grant from the Center for the Public Domain (, Creative Commons is supported by a coalition of noted public interest legal scholars and organizations and endowed with a $900,000 budget (the latter according to an AP report). The organization's initial thrust is to develop two Web-based tools, for which prototypes ( have already been built:

  • Contributor Application—To be available at no cost, will assist artists, authors, software developers, and other creators in legally defining acceptable uses of their work through execution of Common Deeds or "custom licenses." A custom license allows a person to retain copyright, but might grant permission for others to copy, distribute, display, or perform a work; create derivative works; or restrict usage in terms of requiring proper credit, allowing use only for noncommercial purposes or not allowing derivative works.

  • Search Application—Freely available on the Creative Commons site, this will enable the public to find works that are entirely in the public domain or available for use with some restrictions. Creative Commons will not host the works themselves.

The Contributor Application template is easy to use and consists of checklists, pull-down menus, and fill-in-the-blanks sections. No lawyers are needed to execute these legal documents, making the system free and affordable by all. The fact that a document or other work has a custom license or is in the public domain will be noted on each electronic document by a symbol linked to its digital license. The machine-readable license will indicate how a work could be used and shared with the public. Metadata containing the license provisions and generated through a Web-based application will be distributed, then recognized by search engines and digital rights management systems, thus making it clear how each work displaying them is to be used.

According to Creative Commons, teachers, scholars, scientists, writers, photographers, filmmakers, musicians, graphic designers, and Web hobbyists are among those who will want to take advantage of these new options. Many such creators, it is assumed, would welcome the exposure and even benefit financially if some of their work were easily accessible in the public domain.

Final versions of the tools are scheduled for completion by this fall. Later, the organization will also establish a conservancy to solicit donations of copyrighted material and may even purchase rights in order to keep valuable creative works freely available to the public. Immediate goals for the size and scope of the database and specifics of Creative Commons' marketing strategy are not yet determined, according to executive director Molly Shaffer Van Houweling, a Harvard-trained lawyer and fellow at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society.

The basic premise on which the organization is based, and, indeed, the open source and copyleft movements from which it has arisen, is that creative endeavor relies, in one way or another, on the work of others. (See George H. Pike's column, "What Is Right About a Copyleft?" on p. 22 of the April 2002 issue of Information Today.) "We stand on the shoulders of giants by revisiting, reusing, and transforming the ideas and works of our peers and predecessors," the organization states in its literature.

Creative Commons is responding to the following two perceived and related needs that appear to be widely felt in many kinds of creative communities:

  • The public domain must be honored and replenished, as it has been depleted over the years due to repeated extensions of the copyright law and the automatic provision of copyright since 1976.

  • There is a need for a continuum of options for creators between the two prevailing poles of complete control of one's work within copyright and placing work totally in the public domain.

In its founding statement, Creative Commons assumes that, "Some people do not want to exercise all of the intellectual property rights the law affords them." The group sees its role as "helping creators fine-tune the exercise of their rights" through the use of these kinds of legal documents. It also aims to fill a large void. Currently, there is no comprehensive clearinghouse or registry for public domain works.

Although the work of many people and organizations, Creative Commons reflects Lessig's vision for the direction in which our copyright system ought to be moving. Lessig is founder of Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society (, and author of both The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World and Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.

Known also for playing a role in such high-visibility projects as the U.S. government's case against Microsoft, Lessig will be the lead attorney on behalf of Eldred in the Eldred v. Ashcroft case, which challenges the copyright term extensions in the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, when it is heard by the U.S. Supreme Court within the coming year. (See the George H. Pike NewsBreak at

Lessig believes that recent developments in intellectual property law are moving us as a society away from freedom (especially the freedom to spread ideas that our new technologies can allow) toward greater control. He also believes that copyright holders must assert their legal rights to share as well as own their creations, as indicated in his article in the January-February 2002 issue of The American Spectator (

There is broad support within the legal, public interest, and software communities for Creative Commons. Its board of directors includes MIT's Hal Abelson, Duke's James Boyle, Villanova's Michael Carroll, Eric Eldred of the Eldritch Press, and Harvard's Eric Salzman.

Among the organization's several dozen other collaborators and supporters are a number of organizations that have been promoting the public domain. These include the Electronic Frontier Foundation (, which has developed an Open Audio License; Lulu Press (, a custom publisher that helps content creators distribute their work under their own terms; Open Content (, which has developed an Open Publication License; Public Knowledge (, an advocacy group; and The Software Conservancy (

According to several firsthand accounts, immediate response to the announcement of Creative Commons' program was enthusiastic. Tim O'Reilly, president of the technical publishing firm O'Reilly & Associates, Inc. (, said he would abide by the 1790 copyright laws and donate the copyrights his company owns to the public domain after 14 years, providing the authors also agree.

Creative Commons is an important development worth watching. For this ambitious and controversial effort to make a noticeable impact, however, it will have to undertake a massive educational campaign aimed at displacing the inertia under which the current copyright system automatically protects copyright owners.

The organization is encouraging feedback on its program and prototype tools. (Send e-mail to It also suggests that authors and publishers interested in licensing works using Creative Commons' tools check in at

Wallys W. Conhaim is strategic planner, researcher, and analyst specializing in interactive services. She is also a columnist for Link-Up.

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