Chapter 1: What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons is a set of legal tools, a nonprofit organisation, as well as a global network and a movement—all inspired by people’s willingness to share their creativity and knowledge, and enabled by a set of open copyright licences.

Creative Commons (CC) began in response to an outdated global copyright legal system. CC licences are built on copyright and are designed to give more options to creators who want to share. Over time, the role and value of Creative Commons has expanded. This chapter will introduce you to where CC came from and where it is headed.

This chapter has two sections:

1.1 The Story of Creative Commons

1.2 Creative Commons Today

There are also additional resources at the end of the chapter if you are interested in learning more about any of the topics covered in this chapter.

Note: Reading this book or attending CC workshops does not entitle learners to provide legal advice on copyright, fair use/fair dealing or open licensing. The content in this book is not legal advice. While you should not share legal advice to others based on this book, you will develop a high level of expertise upon reading this book and attending any associated workshops. You will learn a lot about copyright, open licensing and open practices in various communities. Upon completion, you should feel comfortable sharing the facts about copyright and open licensing, case studies and good open practices.

1.1 The Story of Creative Commons

To understand how a set of copyright licences could inspire a global movement, here is a bit about the origin of Creative Commons.

Learning Outcomes

  • retell the story of why Creative Commons was founded
  • identify the role of copyright law in the creation of Creative Commons

Big Question/Why It Matters

What were the legal and cultural reasons for the founding of Creative Commons? Why has CC grown into a global movement?

CC’s founders recognised the mismatch between what technology enables and what copyright restricts, and they provided an alternative approach for creators who want to share their work. Today that approach is used by millions of creators around the globe.

Personal Reflection/Why It Matters to You

When did you first learn about Creative Commons? Think about how you would articulate what CC is to someone who has never heard of it. To fully understand the organisation, it helps to start with a bit of history.

Acquiring Essential Knowledge

The story of Creative Commons begins with copyright. You’ll learn a lot more about copyright later in this book, but for now, it’s enough to know that copyright is an area of law that regulates the way the products of human creativity are used – like books, academic research articles, music, and art. Copyright grants a set of exclusive rights to a creator, so that the creator has the ability to prevent others from copying and adapting their work for a limited time. In other words, copyright law strictly regulates who is allowed to copy and share with whom.

The internet enables the opportunity to access, share, and collaborate on human creations (all governed by copyright) at an unprecedented scale. The sharing capabilities made possible by digital technology are in tension with the sharing restrictions embedded within copyright laws around the world.

Creative Commons was created to help address the tension between creator’s ability to share digital works globally and copyright regulation. The story begins with a particular piece of copyright legislation in the United States, called the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), that was enacted in 1998. It extended the term of copyright for every work in the United States—even those already copyrighted—for an additional 20 years, so the copyright term equalled the life of the creator plus 70 years. (This move put the US copyright term in line with some other countries, though many more countries remain at 50 years after the creator’s death.)

Fun fact: the CTEA was commonly referred to as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act because the extension came just before the original Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie, would have fallen into the public domain.

“Larry Lessig giving #ccsummit2011 keynote” by David Kindler is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Stanford Law Professor, Lawrence Lessig, believed this new law was unconstitutional. The term of copyright had been continually extended over the years. The end of a copyright term is important—it marks the moment the work moves into the public domain for everyone to use for any purpose without permission. This is a critical part of the copyright system. All creativity and knowledge builds on what came before, and the end of a copyright term ensures that copyrighted works eventually join the pool of knowledge and creativity from which we can all draw to create new works.

The new law was also hard to align with the purpose of copyright as it is written into the US Constitution—to create an incentive for authors to share their works by granting them a limited monopoly over them. How could the law possibly further incentivise the creation of works that already existed?

Lessig represented a web publisher, Eric Eldred, who had made a career of making works available as they passed into the public domain. Together, they challenged the constitutionality of the Act. The case, known as Eldred v. Ashcroft, went all the way to the US Supreme Court. Eldred lost.

Enter Creative Commons

Inspired by the value of Eldred’s goal to make more creative works freely available on the internet, and responding to a growing community of bloggers who were creating, remixing and sharing content, Lessig and others came up with an idea. They created a nonprofit organisation called Creative Commons and, in 2002, they published the Creative Commons licences—a set of free, public licences that would allow creators to keep their copyrights while sharing their works on more flexible terms than the default “all rights reserved.” Copyright is automatic, whether you want it or not. And while some people want to reserve all of their rights, many want to share their work with the public more freely. The idea behind CC licensing was to create an easy way for creators who wanted to share their works in ways that were consistent with copyright law.

From the start, Creative Commons licences were intended to be used by creators all over the world. The CC founders were initially motivated by a piece of US copyright legislation, but similarly restrictive copyright laws all over the world restricted how our shared culture and collective knowledge could be used, even while digital technologies and the internet have opened new ways for people to participate in culture and knowledge production.

Watch this short video [3:20], A shared culture, to get a sense of the vision behind Creative Commons.

Since Creative Commons was founded, much has changed in the way people share and how the internet operates. In many places around the world, the restrictions on using creative works have increased. Yet sharing and remix are the norm online. Think about your favourite video mashup or even the photos your friend posted on social media last week. Sometimes this type of sharing and remix happens in violation of copyright law, and sometimes it happens within social media networks that do not allow those works to be shared on other parts of the web.

In domains like textbook publishing, academic research, documentary film, and many more, restrictive copyright rules continue to inhibit creation, access, and remix. CC tools are helping to solve this problem. Today Creative Commons licences are used by more than 2 billion works online across 9 million websites. The grand experiment that started more than 21 years ago has been a success, including in ways unimagined by CC’s founders.

While other custom open copyright licences have been developed in the past, we recommend using Creative Commons licences because they are up to date, free-to-use, and have been broadly adopted by governments, institutions and individuals as the global standard for open copyright licences.

In the next section, you’ll learn more about what Creative Commons looks like today—the licences, the organisation, and the movement.

1.1 Final remarks

Technology makes it possible for online content to be consumed by millions of people at once, and it can be copied, shared, and remixed with speed and ease. However copyright law places limits on our ability to take advantage of these possibilities. Creative Commons was founded to help us realise the full potential of the internet.

Quiz: The Story of Creative Commons

1.2 Creative Commons Today

As a set of legal tools, a nonprofit, as well as a global network and movement, Creative Commons has evolved in many ways over the course of its history.

Learning Outcomes

  • differentiate between Creative Commons as a set of licences, a movement, and a nonprofit organisation
  • explain the role of the CC Global Network
  • describe the basic areas of work for CC as a nonprofit organisation

Big Question/Why It Matters

Now we know why Creative Commons was started. But what is Creative Commons today?

Today CC licences are prevalent across the web and are used by creators around the world for every type of content you can imagine. The open movement, which extends beyond just CC licences, is a global force of people committed to the idea that the world is better when we share and work together. Creative Commons is the nonprofit organisation that stewards the CC licences and helps support the open movement.

Personal Reflection/Why It Matters to You

When you think about “Creative Commons”, do you think about the licences? Activists seeking copyright reform? A useful tool for sharing? Symbols in circles? Something else?

Are you involved with Creative Commons as a creator, a reuser, and/or an advocate? Would you like to be?

Acquiring Essential Knowledge

Today, the CC licences and public domain tools are used on more than two billion works, from songs to YouTube videos to scientific research. The licences have helped a global movement come together around openness, collaboration, and shared human creativity. CC the nonprofit organisation, once housed within the basement of Stanford Law School, now has staff working around the world on a host of different projects in various domains.

We’ll take these aspects of Creative Commons—the licences, the movement, and the organisation—and look at each in turn.

Creative Commons: The Licences

CC legal tools are an alternative for creators who choose to share their works with the public under more permissive terms than the default “all rights reserved” approach under copyright. The legal tools are integrated into user-generated content platforms like YouTube and Flickr and they are used by nonprofit open projects like Wikipedia and OpenStax. They are used by formal institutions, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and State Library Queensland, and individual creators. For a creative take on Creative Commons and copyright, watch this song [3:17] on YouTube by Jonathan “Song-A-Day” Mann about his choice to use CC licences for his music.

In addition to giving creators more choices for how to share their work, CC legal tools serve important policy goals in fields like scholarly publishing and education. Watch the brief video below [2:27], “Why Open Education Matters“, to get a sense of the opportunities Creative Commons licences create for education.

To learn more about Open Education, see the JCU Library’s Open Education Program.

Collectively, the legal tools help create a global commons of diverse types of content—from picture storybooks to comics —that is freely available for anyone to use.

CC licences also serve a non-copyright function. They signal a set of values and a different way of operating.

For some users, this means harkening back to the economic model of the commons. As economist David Bollier describes it, “a commons arises whenever a given community decides it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with special regard for equitable access, use and sustainability.” Wikipedia is a good example of a commons-based community around CC-licensed content.

For others, the CC legal tools and their buttons express an affinity for a set of core values. CC buttons have become ubiquitous symbols for sharing, openness, and human collaboration. The CC logo and icons are now part of the permanent design collection at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.

While there is no single motivation for using CC licences, there is a basic sense that CC licensing is rooted in a fundamental belief that knowledge and creativity are building blocks of our culture rather than simple commodities from which to extract market value. The licences reflect a belief that everyone has something to contribute and that no one can own our shared culture. Fundamentally, they reflect a belief in the promise of sharing.

Creative Commons: The Movement

Over the years, a global coalition of people has formed around Creative Commons and open licensing.[1] This includes activists working on copyright reform around the globe, policymakers advancing policies mandating open access to research and data, and creators who share a core set of values. Most of the people and institutions who are part of the CC movement are not formally connected to Creative Commons.

The CC Global Network[2] is just one player in the larger open movement, which includes Wikipedians, Mozillians, open access advocates, and many more. There is a Creative Commons chapter in Australia.

Open source software is cited as the first domain where networked open sharing produced a tangible benefit as a movement that went much further than technology. The Conversation’s Explainer overview of other movements adds other examples, such as Open Innovation in the corporate world, Open Data (see the Open Data Commons) and Crowdsourcing. There is also the Open Access movement, which aims to make research widely available, the Open Science movement, and the growing movement around Open Educational Resources.

Open Access Australasia supports open research in Australia and New Zealand.

Note about Creative Commons and JCU:

The JCU Open Education Program uses CC licences in JCU Open eBooks.

The JCU Research Data Repository uses CC licences for data records.

JCU has an Open Scholarship policy.

Creative Commons: The Organisation

A small nonprofit organisation stewards the Creative Commons legal tools and helps power the open movement. CC is a distributed organisation, with CC staff and contractors working from various locations around the world.


“Creative Commons staff in February 2018” by Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

In 2016, Creative Commons embarked on a new organisational strategy based on building and sustaining a vibrant, usable commons, powered by collaboration and gratitude. This is a shift to focusing not only on the number of works out there under CC licences and available for reuse, but on the connections and collaborations that happen around that content. The video below [3:01] introduces the new strategy (optional).

Guided by that strategy, organisational work loosely falls into two main buckets:

Licences, Tools and Technology

The CC licences and public domain tools are the core legal tools designed and stewarded by CC. While the licences have been rigorously vetted by legal experts around the globe, the work is not done. The Creative Commons organisation is actively working on technical infrastructure designed to make it easier to find and use content in the digital commons. They are also thinking about ways to better adapt all of CC’s legal and technical tools for today’s web.

Supporting the Movement

CC works to help people within open movements collaborate on projects and work towards similar goals. Through CC’s multiple programs, we work directly with our global community—across education, culture, science, copyright reform, government policy, and other sectors—to help train and empower open advocates around the world.

1.2 Final remarks

Creative Commons has grown from a law school basement into a global organisation with a wide reach and a powerful name associated with a core set of shared values. It is, at the same time, a set of licences, a movement, and a nonprofit organisation.

Quiz: Creative Commons Today


Chapter 1 Additional Resources

More information about CC history
More information about CC and open licensing
More information about the Commons
  • How Does the Commons Work by The Next System Project, adapted from Commoning as a Transformative Social Paradigm. Video [2:33] explaining how a commons works, adapted from economist David Bollier’s explanation of what a commons is, and threats to the commons.
  • Enclosure  a Wikipedia article describing enclosure, which is an issue that presents itself in a commons.
  • The Political Economy of the Commons by Yochai Benkler. A brief article [PDF] explaining how common infrastructure can sustain the commons.
  • The Tragedy of the Commons by Boundless & Lumen Learning. A section of an economics course textbook that explains the economic principles underlying potential threats to the commons.
  • Debunking the Tragedy of the Commons by On the Commons. A short article describing how the tragedy of the commons can be overcome.
  • Elinor Ostrom’s 8 Principles for Managing a Commons by On the Commons. A short history of economist Elinor Ostrom and the 8 principles for managing a commons that she has established.
More information about other open movements
  • Free Culture Game by Molle Industria. A game [download] to help understand the concept of free culture.


  1. While other custom open copyright licences have been developed in the past, we recommend using Creative Commons licences because they are up to date, free to use, and have been broadly adopted by governments, institutions and individuals as the global standard for open copyright licences.
  2. The work of the CC Global Network is organised into what we call “Network Platforms,” which are areas of work. Anyone interested in working on a Platform can join and contribute as much or as little time and effort as they choose. Take a look through the list of active Platforms to see if there is an area of work that interests you. If so, please get involved!


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Creative Commons for JCU Staff Copyright © 2023 by James Cook University Library is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.