In defence of Creative Commons

Guidant les contributeurs

It is hard to imagine nowadays, but for a few years during the last decade Creative Commons was relentlessly attacked by some content owners, copyright maximalists, and collective societies (see here and here for a couple of examples). I say that it is difficult to imagine these attacks because CC has become the de facto standard in open licensing for content, from Wikipedia to open access journals, the licences are prevalent in most projects that share creative works.

However, I have noticed a resurgence in criticism of Creative Commons. These are composed of a combination of old criticism, old myths, and sometimes new complains. I recently attended a meeting where some representatives from copyright owners expressed some of these criticisms. Chatham House Rules apply, so I have not named those making these arguments, but I will tackle one by one.

CC licences are irrevocable

This used to be one of the most common criticism of CC licences back in the day, and it is still repeated. Yes, it is true that CC licences are irrevocable, but there is a good reason for it, and that is licensee security. Think of a situation in which you are using a CC-licensed work in good faith, and then the author revokes the licence and decides to sue you. By making the licence irrevocable, licensees are assured that they will not suffer in case of author remorse.

However, it is true that content owners should think very hard about their works, and how they want them to be used and reused. CC should only be adopted after the licensor has thought well about it, and if there is any doubt then maybe CC is not for them. CC is not for everyone, it should be used with a clear decision to do so, knowing quite well which consequences the licence has.

CC licences are cascading

I used to hear another version of this statement by people complaining that they are viral, that once you release a work to the public using CC others will re-adopt it and use it, creating an infinite chain of re-use that devalues the original. This seems to ignore the way in which works are used in reality. There is research indicating that most CC-licensed work is not remixed, and that if it is, those remixes tend to stop at one generation. The myth of the fabled virality of content is just that, a myth.

You cannot make money from CC works

It is surprising just how common this myth remains. The idea is that if there is a free version of something online, nobody will pay for other versions, and while this may be the case in some instances, it is not universal by far. The fact that various authors release their commercial books under a CC licence (including Yours Truly), should finally put this story to rest. The Power of Open highlights case studies of people who use CC as a viable business model.

Creative Commons affects moral rights

This is a new complaint, and I am still trying to find out a case where a copyright holder’s moral rights have been adversely affected. On the contrary, the right of attribution is present in all of the licences. Moreover, the license specifically says that the right of integrity and other personality rights are is not licensed, but to the extend possible by law they are waived. This is of course not possible in most jurisdictions.

Vague definition of non commercial

There is a lengthy paper by Creative Commons precisely defining the non commercial element.

Creators are being forced to use CC licences

This is another new complaint, and it is the only one that I partially agree with. As part of the open access movement, many funding bodies have made it a requirement that in order to receive public money, the author has to licence any resulting works to the public (see this from the European Commission). The spirit of this requirement is one of fairness, if you are going to receive public funds, then the fruits of that funding should be made available to the public.

Some funding bodies have gone one step further, and make it a requirement that in order to get funding, the resulting work has to be published under a CC licence specifically (see the RCUK requirement for gold open access). While I agree with the spirit, making it a requirement to specifically use open access may prove to be detrimental in the long run, as it might create a hostile environment towards CC. I strongly believe that CC works better when people adopt it of their own volition, it is after all a bottom-up system. While I agree that it is the best licence to use in some circumstances, some people may have good reasons not to use it.


Creative Commons has been extremely successful since its creation, and we must welcome debate and input about things that can be improved. At some point CC was seen as anti-establishment, a direct attack on copyright from clueless academics and pirates. After the open access movement gained traction, an interesting transition occurred, CC became a part of the establishment. That has meant that a new wave of criticism tends to attack that it is being imposed on them, which has emboldened traditional critics to voice their concerns again. As evidenced above, these range from legitimate issues to a repetition of old myths. Those interested in continuing to propose CC as a valuable licensing tool must continue to make the case in its favour.

Comments 4

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