The Soaring Use of Creative Commons Licenses


Creative Commons has just issued a report documenting usage patterns of its licenses.  It’s great to learn that the number of works using CC licenses has soared since this vital (and voluntary) workaround to copyright law was introduced twelve years ago, in 2003.

According to a new report, the State of the Commons, recently released by Creative Commons, the licenses were used on an estimated 50 million works in 2006 and on 400 million works in 2010.  By 2014, that number had climbed to 882 million CC-licensed works.  Nine million websites now use CC licenses, including major sites like YouTube, Wikipedia, Flickr, Public Library of Science, Scribd and Jamendo.  The report includes a great series of infographics  that illustrate key findings.

For any latecomers, CC licenses are a free set of public licenses that let copyright holders of books, films, websites, music, photography and other creative works choose to make their works legally shareable.  The licenses are necessary because copyright law makes no provisions for sharing beyond a vaguely defined set of “fair use” principles.  Copyright law is mostly about automatically locking up all works in a strict envelope of private property rights.  This makes it complicated and costly to let others legally share and re-use works.

The CC licenses were invented as a solution, just as Web 2.0 was getting going.  It has functioned as a vital element of infrastructure for building commons of knowledge and creativity.  It did this by providing a sound legal basis for sharing digital content, helping to leverage the power of network-driven sharing.

The licenses have also helped commoners develop their own alternatives to conventional, proprietary forms of corporate culture – Hollywood, commercial television, the major record labels, the big book publishers. Instead of a system that separates producers from consumers, and privileges the power of (corporate) intermediaries in market-based culture, CC licenses have enabled commoners to collaborate among themselves, generating a bottom-up flow of mostly noncommercial creative content.

A big issue in many free culture circles is how “free” are the licenses.  Some CC licenses prohibit commercial and derivative uses of a work, which makes them “less free,” while other licenses that allow both adaptations of a work and commercial use are “free.”  (“Free as in freedom, not as in free beer,” as Richard Stallman famously put it.)  According to the new CC report, roughly 56% of the 882 million CC-licensed works out there allow for both adaptations and commercial uses of a work (“free culture licenses”).  This percentage is up from 40% in 2010.  A full 76% of works counted allow adaptations, and 58% allow commercial use.

A breakdown of license usage showed these interesting numbers:


CC BY:19%

CC BY-SA:33%





Usage of CC licenses around the world fall into these inter-continental percentages, as this infographic shows:

The international proliferation of the licenses has spurred an interest in all sorts of initiatives to make government information, scholarly journals, culture and educational curricula more accessible to people.  Fourteen countries have made formal national commitments to open education through legislation or projects that “lead to the creation, increased use, or improvement of open educational resources by requiring an open license like CC BY.  Open textbooks – i.e., CC licensed and therefore more easily shareable and inexpensively produced – have saved students over $100 million.

For years, there were CC licenses for more than 170 legal jurisdictions around the world.  This was the only way to make the licenses legally enforceable.  But as the legal terms of the licenses were gradually adapted to the laws of more than 35 countries, there has been a greater convergence of licensing terms transnationally.  To reflect this, Creative Commons in December 2014 released Version 4.0 licenses that are designed to be more useable by the global user community.

The new licenses include new provisions related to database rights, personality rights, and data mining – provisions that have already been endorsed by the European Commission for use by public sector institutions, and by the White House for federal government datasets.

The CC report concludes with a few warnings about the threats to the sharing of information and culture. These include things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a treaty that, if passed, will extend copyright terms by another 20 years beyond its current, mandatory term.  In other words, a giveaway worth billions of dollars to existing copyright holders (primarily large corporations) that will do little to serve the public.  Creative Commons also hopes to improve the technologies that will enable wider usage of its licenses.