The case for and against Creative Commons

Creative Commons (CC) resources are all around us, and continue to multiply by the day.

You can find tons of CC texts, web pages, graphics, pictures, audio and video clips through the advanced search functions of Flickr or Google.

Barack Obama's website uses CC, showing that even the president of the USA knows what we're talking about here. That's cool, but for those of us who need enlightening, what is the Creative Commons?

Originally, the word 'commons' indicated those elements of the environment, like land, seas, rivers and air, that people owned, used and enjoyed together. Today there are also cultural commons including art and historical landmarks, service-related commons (public health, education or management of drinkable water) and scientific commons, like the knowledge collated by the Human Genome Project. A more detailed definition can be found at the Commons Institute.

The Creative Commons is an international movement started by Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig to deal with all those creative works protected by copyright law, including text, audio, pictures and video of any subject, in any format.

CC encourages authors to put their works into a commons, where they and everybody else can use, copy, remix and redistribute everything, thanks to copyright terms that are much more permissive than those loved by big the entertainment corporations.

To make this possible, Creative Commons provides several licences that authors can use to express how other people are allowed copy or redistribute those works, use them for derivative works, and make money from them without asking permission or paying royalties to the author.

A tour in CC land

There are a couple of things you need to have clear about CC. The first is that the rights granted through CC licencing can only be in addition to those already present in copyright law, like fair use or fair dealing. The second is that you can apply CC licences only to your own, original work; in other words, you can't legally incorporate somebody else's copyrighted work into your own because you want to distribute the result under a CC licence.

Is Creative Commons here to stay, or is it just another passing fad invented by internet hippies? Is it, like the world wide web in its beginnings, still restricted to the English-speaking world? Are people outside the anglosphere using CC, and if so, how?

Creative Commons: the case in favour

At first glance, the CC ecosystem is alive and flourishing. The official showcase for the project is at, but there is already more CC content than you can shake a stick at at portals such as DeviantArt, YouTube, and the online bookstore Lulu.

Mediacow is an internet video community that makes it easy for social activists to produce and share their own news reports and documentaries under CC licences. In a similar vein, Daniel Yucra, free software activist and coordinator of the community told us that CC is increasingly popular in Peru, "not only for… teaching documents or artistic works: several newspapers and news websites, like, regularly use CC licensing".

When it comes to education, there are already many teachers and experts worldwide trying to build a really open system for textbooks and other educational material. The biggest CC success in this field, at least for content in English, is probably the Connexions portal. One of its more popular authors is Catherine Schmidt-Jones, whose textbook, Basic Music Theory, has so far been viewed seven million times. Another popular portal of the same kind is

South Africa and California also have their own programmes to bring down the enormous cost of textbooks. In Italy, the Department for Innovation and Technology of the Ministry of Public Administration has recently launched a website at to explain to teachers and students how to create CC learning material and publish it inside an online open digital library.

The National University of Cordoba, Argentina, has its own OpenCourseWare initiative, which is based on Creative Commons, and the same is true for other Latin America NGOs, like or the 'Self' project of the Via Libre Foundation whose main mission is to spread free software tools and values in schools.

Creative Commons fever has spread to all types of artistic expression and design. The SomeRightsReserved shop from the UK cooperative KithKin features CC products as diverse as design projects, music and instruction manuals for those wishing to demonstrate outside the Palace of Westminster.

Gianluca Bernardo, singer and guitarist with the Italian band Rein, told us that, in order to only use CC licences, the band cancelled its subscription to the Italian royalty collection agency. Gianluca is also a member of the Popular Front for Free Music, a group of artists formed about four years ago whose guidelines are cooperation and sharing. Their main achievement so far is the CC-licensed Liberalarte! music collection which at time of writing consists of four CDs featuring dozens of musicians.

Also in a musical vein, a great amount of Brazilian contemporary music is simply produced outside the normal studio system. In the city of Belém, for example, 'tecno-brega' music parties attract thousands of people every weekend, and live recordings are burned on to CDs after each party as advertising material to promote the next one: in such a context, you don't really need to bother with CC or any other form of copyright.

CC is, instead, an important part of the Canto Livre movement, created after an idea of Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil, who is also Brazil's Minister for Culture. Canto Livre, which is Portuguese for 'free (as in free jazz) singing', is a certified P2P infrastructure that should give all Brazilian music, from tecno-brega to funk, carioca and forrò, a forum for sharing, remixing, collective creation and intellectual generosity.

But not everyone is in favour of Creative Commons...