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Copyright Guide: Creative Commons licenses

Creative Commons licenses

So-called freer license conditions have become more common when licensing literary or artistic works online. The network environment has changed the users' attitude towards copyrights and their expectations regarding the availability of content. Freer license conditions are an attempt to meet the users' new expectations. Freer license conditions have already been used in software license agreements for a long time, but the same principle has slowly expanded to other types of works, such as computer programs. Nowadays, Creative Commons is the most notable project relating to freer license conditions.

Using freer license conditions does not mean waiving the principles of copyright. Freer license conditions, too, start from the assumption that the authors have the exclusive right to dispose of their work and also make its commercial exploitation subject to their permission. The idea is that the users of a product protected by copyright are granted rights that are a bit more extensive than in regular license agreements. The extent of these rights of use depends ultimately on the content of the freer license conditions selected. The idea of freer license conditions is often described as replacing "all rights reserved" with "some rights reserved". 

Creative Commons License Structure

The Creative Commons licenses (CC licenses) are based on general terms and conditions that are common to all licenses as well as a number of special terms and conditions selected by the licensor. In practice, licensing takes place through a cost-free online service, where users can select the terms and conditions they want for their licenses. In addition, licenses are available in three different forms:

  • a longer and more difficult legal text meant primarily for lawyers
  • machine language understood by computers
  • easily comprehensible and abridged text meant for users who are not interested in the legal text

General Terms and Conditions

With the general terms and conditions, the licensor grants the licensee global and free-of-charge permission to exploit the rights determined in the license that is valid throughout the life of the copyright and allows the use of non-exclusive licenses. The users are only obliged to acknowledge the author's name when exploiting the work. The key rights in the general terms and conditions of the license include the unlimited right to reproduce the work, the unlimited right to distribute, display and perform the work to the public, and the right to alter the work and make the altered work available to the public. In the latter case, it should be made clear that the original work has been altered. In addition, any adaptation made should not be defamatory to the original work or author.

The general terms and conditions also serve as a sort of basic license that out of the available CC licenses grants the users the most extensive rights. If the licensor decides not to impose any further restrictions (special conditions) on the use of his work, users are basically given unlimited freedom to exploit the work as they see fit, including commercially. The users must only acknowledge the work's original author when exploiting it. 

Special Terms and Conditions

Special terms and conditions are particular license-specific conditions that impose different restrictions on the use of the work. The idea is that the licensor can selectively combine special conditions to create a license of his liking. Ultimately it is up to the licensor to decide which restrictions he chooses in addition to the general terms and conditions of the license. The licensor can combine the following conditions to his liking: 

  • Prohibiting derivative works: the license allows copying, distributing, displaying and performing the work as long as it is not used to create a derivative work.
  • Allowing derivative works: The license allows derivative works as long as they are distributed under the same license as the original work (Share Alike).
  • Allowing commercial use: The license allows copying, distributing, displaying and performing the work commercially as well.
  • Prohibiting commercial use: The license allows the non-commercial copying, distributing, displaying and performing of the work.


Known Challenges

Exemption from Liability

Item 5 and 6 of the license contains a rather extensive disclaimer that excludes all possible errors. According to the item, the licensors are providing their work "as is" and provide no guarantee whatsoever for their work. The licensees should take this into consideration, because if it turns out that while the licensees are using the work it infringes on the copyrights or other immaterial rights of a third party, they may be held liable. On the other hand, it should be taken into consideration that the disclaimer does not necessarily apply globally. For example, it may be void in the relationship between an entrepreneur and consumer. 

Amending CC License Terms and Conditions

According to the license conditions item 7, the work can be made available for use under another license, or the licensor can stop distributing the works. However, the license does not expire or terminate with regard to those copies of the work that have already been placed on the market, and in that respect the license persists. In other words, the amended license terms and conditions apply only to new copies of the work that the licensor places on the market.

Features of the US Legal System

The Creative Commons project was initiated in the United States. It was founded by a group of professors, such as Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. While the project is global and its licenses have been translated into numerous languages, it should be taken into consideration that the principles behind the license are not necessarily fully compatible with Nordic legal tradition.  Especially with regard to contract law, the Anglo-American  tradition is becoming more and more widely used.

An example of a site that uses CC licensed content

A list of organizations and projects powered with Creative Commons licenses