How to protect your artistic works with a Creative Commons license

These alternative licenses improve on existing copyright law by enabling content owners to promote the sharing of their work

Your business revolves around producing creative works, and you use the Internet to market those works. Considering how quickly and easily such material can be disseminated around the world without your knowledge or permission, how do you go about protecting your rights to those works? A Creative Commons license might be the most realistic solution.

Although international law holds that a traditional copyright is automatically granted the moment you produce a creative work, such a restrictive right is difficult to enforce in the real world, and it doesn't provide artists with as many tangible benefits as you might think.

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Creative Commons licenses protect your works in a manner that helps you reach a much larger audience much faster than you would under the conventional “all rights reserved” approach.

Here's a brief overview of how Creative Commons works, and how it differs from traditional copyright.

What Is Creative Commons Licensing?

It's a common misconception that the philosophy of Creative Commons licensing is somehow opposed to copyright; in reality, Creative Commons depends on that precedent as its starting point.

“Creative Commons licenses provide an easy way to manage the copyright terms that attach automatically to all creative works under copyright,” explains the Creative Commons organization that created them. “Our licenses allow those works to be shared and re-used under terms that are flexible and legally sound.”

The group, which dates back to 2001, aims to offer more flexible alternatives to the traditional “all rights reserved” scenario created by copyright law. Specifically, six different Creative Commons licenses “give everyone from individual creators to large companies and institutions a simple, standardized way to keep their copyright while allowing certain uses of their work,” the group explains.

Each Creative Commons license, then, allows the content owner to relax control over very narrowly specified parts of the traditional “all rights reserved” copyright so as to promote certain types of sharing.

Put another way, every content owner gets full copyright ownership over his or her work, no matter what. Those owners who elect to use a Creative Commons license opt to loosen a very specific subset of those copyright restrictions so as to encourage the use and sharing of their work.

Why Would You Use Creative Commons Licensing?

Traditional copyright “worked very well in the analog world, because in order to disseminate material you had to go through a third party” such as a publisher, Creative Commons communications manager Jane Park told me recently.

In today's Internet-powered world, however, “anyone can publish a Web page, upload a video, et cetera,” Park points out.

That, in turn, requires more flexibility so that content owners have a way to balance protections for their work while enabling it to be shared.

Say you're an independent musician. You likely want as many people as possible to hear your songs; but without a major record label to promote your recordings through the traditional channels (and sucking up all the profits in return), you might choose a Creative Commons license that allows you to give away some of your music for free, while reserving the right to sell your music commercially. You might even want to allow other musicians to produce remixes, as long as they credit your contribution.

Creative Commons licensing also helps end users understand exactly what they can and can't do with your work, thus resolving a major point of confusion. In fact, most users tend to fall into one of two camps, Park says: They're either afraid to do anything at all with your work, or they do what they want with it but assume that they're breaking the law.

“Creative Commons licensing makes it really clear to your audience,” she explains.

Then, too, there's the fact that Creative Commons licenses are ready-made and more or less free.

“Before, you would have had to engage an attorney and have them craft a license for you,” says Anderson Duff, an associate at Wolf, Greenfield & Sacks.

Now--assuming there's a license to fit your needs--you can avoid that expense.

The Basics of Creative Commons Licenses

Though multiple Creative Commons licenses are available, they all share several key features. Each helps creators retain copyright while allowing other parties to copy, distribute, and make some use of the work--at least noncommercially.

Each one also ensures that licensors receive credit for their work, and the licenses are valid all around the world and last as long as applicable copyright lasts.

Next Page: The Six Types of Creative Commons Licenses

Six Types of Creative Commons Licenses

Following are the six Creative Commons licenses that you can use to protect your creative works, ranging from least restrictive to most restrictive. Each one ensures that you are recognized as the owner of your work and describes how other people can use it in plain, easy-to-understand language.

1. Attribution (CC BY)

As the least restrictive of all Creative Commons licenses, the Attribution license lets other parties distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. If you want to encourage maximum dissemination and use of your content, this is probably the best license for you.

2. Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)

Similar to the basic Attribution license, this one lets other people remix, tweak, and build upon your work--even for commercial purposes. Under this license, however, they must not only credit you but also license their new creations to others under the identical terms, so that all new works based on yours will carry the same license. The Attribution-ShareAlike license is often compared to “copyleft” free and open-source software licenses; it's also the one Wikipedia uses.

3. Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND)

Under this license, users of your work may redistribute it commercially or noncommercially so long as they pass it along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you. No derivative works are allowed, in other words.

4. Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC)

This license permits other parties to remix, tweak, and build upon your work noncommercially. While their new works must both acknowledge you and be noncommercial, they don’t have to be licensed under the same terms.

5. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA)

Much like the Attribution-NonCommerical license, this version adds the requirement that those who remix, tweak, or build upon your work noncommercially must not only credit you but also license their new creations under the identical terms.

6. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)

Last but not least, the most restrictive among the Creative Commons licenses allows other parties to download your works and share them while crediting you; they can’t, however, change your works in any way or use them commercially.

How Do You Apply a Creative Commons License?

Before you even settle on a Creative Commons license, you need to make sure that the work you want to protect is copyrightable, and that you have the authority to place a license on it. The Creative Commons website outlines other factors that you should understand before proceeding.

Next, assuming that you've met the prerequisites, you need to select a Creative Commons license to use, based on the degree of control you want to retain. You'll find a handy guide to help you through that process on the Creative Commons site.

Once you've done that, you need only indicate alongside the material in question which license you've chosen, and potential users are bound to abide by its stipulations. The Creative Commons site provides HTML code for online material, as well as suggestions for how to indicate a license in offline works.

Using a Creative Commons license doesn't mean that you need to register with that group or any other agency.

Do These Licenses Have Legal 'Teeth'?

Any obligations specified under a given license are enforceable provisions, says Jim Burger, a partner and copyright attorney with Dow Lohnes.

Not only that, but “there are a number of cases where they have been enforced,” he says--not just in the United States, but around the globe.

The Creative Commons website, in fact, lists several such cases.

“Throughout the world, courts are saying this is like any other license when there are obligations,” Burger explains.

Is There Any Risk in Giving Away Some of Your Rights?

“If you're creating your own content, and you're willing to accept the risks of putting something online, they're no greater because you're using a Creative Commons license,” says Wolf, Greenfield & Sacks's Duff. In fact, “the biggest risk is putting it out there to begin with.”

After all, Creative Commons licenses are not a radical departure from copyright, Duff stresses. Rather, “they depend on copyright to exist.”

Essentially they “encourage the free flow of ideas without saying we don't want copyright protection to happen automatically,” he adds.

Next Page: Dealing With Infringement

How Do You Deal With Infringement?

A Creative Commons license terminates automatically when its conditions are violated. So, “if a user of a work distributed under a Creative Commons license fails to attribute the creator as required, then the user no longer has the right to continue using the work and may be liable for copyright infringement,” the group explains.

Content owners, meanwhile, can choose from a variety of approaches to remedy the situation, ranging from a simple request to legal action.

Which route to take will depend on the specifics of the chosen license and the type of infringement, but in general, “when you find someone that's misusing your material, the most important thing is to start a dialogue,” Duff advises.

Don't get angry or emotional in demanding the immediate enforcement of your rights, he recommends.

“It can be really hard not to take [violations] personally," Duff explains, "especially when you're a small-business owner and this is something you've worked really hard on.”

More often than not, however, the infringing party isn't aware of what they've done. If you're polite, they're more likely to respect your rights, so keep your temper in check and make contact, Duff advises.

The Benefits of Using a Creative Commons License

Numerous high-profile authors (including futurist Cory Doctorow), artists, musicians (such as the rock band Nine Inch Nails), and even government agencies and entities (including the White House) use Creative Commons licenses. You'll find many more case studies on the Creative Commons site.

UK-based landscape photographer Steve Gill believes in making art freely available for personal use, and he uses Creative Commons licensing because he believes it supports that philosophy.

“Most people are honest and are not in the habit of illegally downloading images,” Gill told me. “If they do, they probably just want it for their desktop or personal blog anyway. So long as they are not going to profit by using my image, then I have no problem in them using it.”

Gill hasn't seen evidence of any drawbacks associated with using Creative Commons licensing, he says, but he has identified many benefits.

"The attribution which is required for sharing the image provides a free direct link back to my main image store; the more links back, the wider the audience,” he explains.

Gill sees little value in using watermarks to deter theft. "If someone is going to steal your images, they will steal it with or without a watermark. Additionally, placing a watermark across the middle of the image will, quite frankly, detract from the image anyway. Who wants to view an image with a watermark across the middle? Placing a small watermark across one of the sides of the image merely allows the unscrupulous to do a simple crop, and the image is theirs," Gill says. "Showing that I am happy for people to download my images gives them more download appeal! By providing a free copy for these purposes, it spreads my art further, which is what most artists want anyway."

You'll find additional details of how Gill uses Creative Commons licensing on his website.

Be Successful

Traditional copyright law worked well for artists who succeeded in gaining the attention of major commercial publishers and distributors. But all too often, the artists paid a steep price for that success, losing control of their destiny.

The democratic power of the Internet has stolen the keys from the gatekeepers. These days you can put your own work in front of a worldwide audience, with ease. Using a Creative Commons license will not only protect your work, but also help disseminate it. That alone is no guarantee of financial success, but it does knock down one of the barriers.

This story, "How to protect your artistic works with a Creative Commons license" was originally published by PCWorld.

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