A Primer on Creative Commons

Unless you haven’t been paying attention, you’ve probably at least heard of Creative Commons or seen its licenses around on various sites.

However, there’s a great deal of misunderstanding regarding what Creative Commons Licenses actually are, how they function and what their purpose is. For a freelance writer to decide if they should license some of their work under Creative Commons, they first need to understand thse things as well as how to correctly use CC-licensed conten.

Fortunately, the big idea behind Creative Commons is fairly easy to explain and the actual application is even easier to understand. All one has to do is be willing to ty try and learn what the movemement is about.

The Big Idea

Creative Commons was designed to deal with a potential problem with copyright law and streamline a system that can at times be very slow and unwieldy.

The issue is that copyright is a permission-based system. Once you create a work and fix it into a tangible medium of expression, you have copyright protection and can prevent nearly all copying and reuse of the work.

While this is a good thing in that it protects your work from misuse, it also can interfere if you are wanting to allow others to reuse your content. Likewise, those who wish to make use of your work, including uses you would gladly approve of, have to ask permission for every use they want to make.

This creates problems for both sides of the coin. Creators who are willing to give permission can be bombarded with repetitive permission requests and potential users may not have the time or the interest to stop and ask permission for every use they want to make.

Creative Commons attempts to solve this problem by creating a blanket permission system, one where the creator says that reuse of their work, with certain caveats, is ok and users can recognize the license and act accordingly, without having to ask for permission directly.

It’s a simple idea and one that seems to have taken off in many circles but may not be right for freelance writers.

How it Works

The nuts and bolts of the Creative Commons system is its licenses. Specifically, Creative Commons is a series of six licenses with different terms chosen by the creator or copyright holder of a work. For those who are new, Creative Commons has a short, three question guide, to help a potential licensor select the terms that are right for them.

Each license comes in three different formats, a machine-readable version that is easily indexed by search engines, a human-readable format that explains the terms in plain English with clear visuals and a lawyer-readable version that puts the license terms in the legalese that would actually be used in court.

The creator, once having chosen their terms, then have to either embed the ilcense on their site or, if they are using a service such as Flickr that integrates CC into their offering, do so that way.

This then enables those who might be interested in using the work to easily locate it via special searches, such as Google’s Advance Search, and then follow through with the terms of the license.

These license terms do have several elements that are consistent. First, all CC-licensed works must be attributed and this means including the name of the author, the title of the work and the URL at which it can be located. Second, all uses of CC-licensed work must link back to the original license, so others can know the terms by which it is being used.

Then there are some elements which are different depending on what the author selects. The first is commercial use, or use primarily intended for making money, and the next is derivative works, or the creation of new works based on the original. Both can be allowed or disallowed by the creator and, with derivative works, the creator can also place a “Share Alike” stipulation that requires any new works to be licensed under the same terms.

If all goes well, the creator has clearly explained his intentions to any potential users of his work and the users will be able to easily find the content and take make use of it while staying within those wishes. In short, everyone should benefit and no one should have to ask permission.

In fact, Creative Commons lets two people make licensing deals without ever exchanging a single word, something that greatly streamlines the process.

Is Creative Commons Right for Freelancers?

Every content creator, large or small, has to make the decision if Creative Commons is a good route for them. Typically though, those that benefit the most from open licensing are those who don’t want or need any exclusivity on their work and get the most value from it when it is shared widely.

For freelancers this is rarely the case. However, clients of freelancers may wish to license the works that they are purchasing through CC or a similar licensing scheme to encourage its spread. However, that is based more upon what the client’s needs are for the work and not the writer’s.

For the most part, freelance writers need exclusivity. Whether they are protecting the marketing copy they use to promote themselves or works that they have written and may wish to sell later, giving away rights to their efforts doesn’t make a lot of sense.

However, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t room to consider CC licensing for certain works. For example, if you write “freebie” article to promote yourself you can use CC licensing to ensure that you receive proper attribution. Likewise, if write content on a blog that is only indirectly related to your freelance writing, such as a personal blog or a site aimed at other writers, CC licensing may be a good move.

All in all though it is a deeply personal decision that every creator has to make by looking at their feelings and their business model to see if Creative Commons is a good fit.

Bottom Line

In the end, there is no one right answer regarding Creative Commons, every author’s situation is different and every author has different feelings and business ideas. Creative Commons may be right for one person but completely wrong for another.

If you go into CC with open eyes, you’ll likely make the decision that’s right for you. If you don’t, you may either make a mistake or miss an opportunity, either of which can be very costly.

Your Questions

Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private. This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.


I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.





3 responses
  1. Sajib Avatar

    I’m still confused. What if I decide not to allow others to republish my contents without proper attribution but someone still publishes the content elsewhere on the web without giving proper attribution or credit or link back to the original content created by me? I mean, does CC protect my work anyway? What is the use of CC if anyone can violate the license and I can’t take any action since I declared the license using CC?


    1. Jonathan Bailey Avatar

      At that point, it becomes an ordinary copyright infringement and you can pursue it the same as if there were no license at all. In short, you can file a DMCA takedown notice and get the work removed or, if you prefer, a cease and desist to either demand removal or attribution.

  2. Shannon Craig Avatar

    I also am confused. I have recently began freelancing. I am preparing to set up several programs that will collectively generate income while establishing a presence in the field of freelance writers. It is difficult to get work when you don’t have any samples to display. So, if I am paid for a writing, the client gains ownership rights, leaving me with no sample work to claim as my own, If I use websites or blogs or other such media to produce and establish my skills and style; the site itself has Creative Commons Laws. Therefore, do I have to give attribute to the site that houses my writings even when no one paid me to produce them (at least not directly for the actual writing itself)? Am I allowed to say. . . “I wrote the article found at . . .”, wherever it might be used? How can I protect my writings without violating terms that involve the site I use to publish them when they have a creative commons law?
    I seems like I am in between a rock and a hard place, maybe I am just missing something?

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