Intellectual Property For Artists And Creative Entrepreneurs: Creative Commons

Image of scribe copying a manuscript

Creative Commons Licenses give you flexibility in choosing how you want your works to be shared, modified or remixed, and the type of use allowed.

The Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization, was founded in 2001 as a way to help you modify the terms of your copyright with a global license. The organization is known for being a leading player in what has become to be known as the “copyleft” movement.  This movement seeks to provide alternatives to the “all rights reserved” copyright license by adding the ability to easily present a “some rights reserved” type of license.  You keep your copyright but can change the rights you grant from none to all, commercial or non commercial, allow derivative works or not and set a level of attribution.

Generally your work is protected by copyright from the time it is created in a fixed form and becomes the property of the author who created the work. A copyright protects works of authorship, such as writings, music, and works of art that have been tangibly expressed. More than likely your works are already protected by copyright laws.

According to their website, “Creative Commons licenses provide simple, standardized alternatives to the “all rights reserved” paradigm of traditional copyright.” Their mission is “a nonprofit organization that develops, supports, and stewards legal and technical infrastructure that maximizes digital creativity, sharing and innovation.”  If you are looking for a more flexible way to share and protect your work then Creative Commons might be appropriate for some of your work.

Creative Commons offers many different levels of sharing, attribution, use and permission for derivatives.  From their website they list the types of licenses and their attributes.  The information provided below is from their website and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License – find out more here:

Creative Commons Licenses

Image-8-3-CC-BYAttribution CC BY
“This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation.  This is the most accommodating of licenses offered.  Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.”

Attribution-NoDerivs CC BY-ND
Image-8-4-CC-BY-ND“This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.”



Attribution-Non Commercial-ShareAlike CC BY-NC-SA
Image-8-5-CC-BY-NC-SA“This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.”


Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA
Image-8-6-CC-BY-SA“This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.  This license is often compared to “copyleft” free and open source software licenses.  All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use.  This is the license used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects.”

Attribution-NonCommercial  CC BY-NC
Image-8-7-CC-BY-NC“This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.”


Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs  CC BY-NC-ND
Image-8-8-CC-NC-ND“This license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.”

Issues with using a Creative Commons License

It is probably not a good idea to modify the traditional copyright protections of your intellectual property with a Creative Commons license unless you have a reason to do so.  A good strategy might be to use the Creative Commons license for a few pieces of your work in order to gain wider exposure and help build your brand.  Before you choose to go with a Creative Commons license do your homework!
Here are some of the issues with using a Creative Commons License that have been raised:

  • You can do everything a Creative Commons license does under existing copyright laws although this would require individual negotiations for each work placed under a Creative Commons License.
  • Creative Common Licenses fail to financially reward creators and in most cases provides little recognition to the creators of works.
  • Works placed under different (or multiple) Creative Commons Licenses it may lead to a situation where derivative works may violate the Creative Commons license terms.
  • There is no database or central repository for licensed works as there is with the US Copyright Office and copyright owners are on their own in defending their intellectual property.
  • Non commercial licenses (NC) are not accepted by many open content sites such as Wikipedia.

The bottom line(s)…

Generally your works are protected by copyright at the time your create them with an “all rights reserved” form of copyright.  Creative Commons licenses allow you to modify the general copyright in terms of attribution, sharing (remixes or derivatives), and commercial or non commercial uses.  Creative Commons may be a way for you to expand the audience for your work and build your brand.  Before you choose to use Creative Commons licenses you should be clear on why you are using them and their possible impact in the future.

If you would like to learn more about preparing your own business plan, building your art business and selling more art I invite you to check out my book – The Artist’s Business and Marketing ToolBox. Good Luck!


Neil McKenzie is the author of The Artist’s Business and Marketing ToolBox – How to Start, Run and Market a Successful Arts or Creative Business available in softcover from Barnes & Noble and Amazon and as an eBook from iTunes, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.   He has developed and teaches the course “Artrepreneurship” at the Center for Innovation at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and is also a visiting professor at University College at the University of Denver where he teaches “Marketing the Arts”.

Neil has over 30 years’ experience as a management consultant and marketing executive, working with some of the world’s top brands. Neil is a frequent lecturer to artists and arts organizations, a guest columnist for Colorado Biz Magazine, where he covers the creative sector of the economy, and the author of several articles for Americans for the Arts, a national arts organization. Follow Neil on Twitter: @neilmckenzphoto