Share, Use, Remix: An Overview of Creative Commons

To understand why Creative Commons licenses are so compelling, it is helpful to understand a little about copyright law. Simply put, and with some exceptions, under the United States Copyright Act of 1976 anyone who creates an “original work of authorship” and fixes that work in a tangible medium owns a copyright in that work under the federal statute. Owning the copyright in a work means that the creator has the exclusive right to do any of the following – to reproduce the work, to prepare new or “derivative” works based on the original work, to distribute copies, and to perform and display the works publicly. This means (again, with some exceptions) that anyone who creates an original report, painting, photograph, or film, or records an original piece of music, automatically owns the exclusive copyright in that work, even if the creator intended to release the work into the public domain.

Copyright law did not always work this way. Before the law was amended in 1976, federal statutory copyright protection was only available to works that were published and had a copyright notice attached. A creator had to take these proactive steps in order to establish their ownership of the copyright. If these steps were not taken, the work would enter the public domain. But, since 1976, all of the rights mentioned above remain exclusive to the creator for at least 70 years (and usually much longer). During that time, others can only remix or reuse the work if they have an explicit license from the work’s creator.

A copyright license can carve up those exclusive rights in a number of ways – a creator could license their work to another person for a limited time, to use in a limited geographic area, or for a limited purpose. For example, a playwright might license their play to a particular theater company to perform, with the license requiring that the company stop performing the play after 20 shows, and prohibiting the company from filming any of their performances. Or the license could be highly permissive, giving the company an indefinite right to perform the play, with permission to create derivative works based on the play, including film recordings.

A traditional copyright license requires that the creator and the licensee come together to agree on the terms of the license, which can be time-consuming and costly. This process is not well-suited to the fact that content creators can now easily make their content widely available online, and that such content can just as easily be downloaded, remixed, and shared. In fact, many creators post their work online with the expectation that it will be freely and widely shared. But, the default position under United States copyright law, that all content is entitled to full copyright protection whether or not the creator intended that his or her work be copyrighted, means that without explicit permission from the creator no one may download, remix, or share creative content posted online.

Creative Commons licenses are tools for clearing the barriers of this traditional licensing regime for content that creators want to share widely. The licenses themselves look very much like standard copyright licenses, but they make it easy for creators to attach a standard set of terms to content setting clear rules for how the content can be remixed and republished.

Creative Commons is itself a nonprofit that was founded in 2001. On its website, at, it describes its vision as “nothing less than realizing the full potential of the Internet — universal access to research and education, full participation in culture — to drive a new era of development, growth, and productivity.” It achieves this vision by making available six basic licenses that creators can apply to their work, in order to allow some uses of their work, while ultimately retaining ownership of the copyright. Creative Commons also has a public domain declaration, known as CC0, which allows creators to dedicate their works to the public domain.

Each license has three layers. The first is the Legal Code, which looks like a traditional copyright license and contains the actual legal terms under which anyone may use the work. The second is the Commons Deed, or the “human readable” summary of the Legal Code, which summarizes key terms of the Legal Code without the legalese. The last layer is the machine readable layer, which allows anyone to conduct an online search for content by license. This is one of the more powerful aspects of Creative Commons, as it allows anyone searching for content to narrow their search based on the content’s intended use. You see how this works by using the search tool on the Creative Commons website, at

Every license requires that the user give credit, or attribution, to the content creator. The most permissive license only requires attribution, but otherwise permits the content to be used, remix or shared for any purposes. Other licenses contain one or more of the following restrictions – the Sharealike licenses allow the content to be remixed or shared in any way, as long as any new work that incorporates the original is also licensed under the same license as the original content. NoDerivs licenses prohibit “derivative works,” meaning that the content can be used and shared, but may not be altered. Non-Commercial licenses prohibit use of the work for commercial purposes. When you come across content licensed under one of the Creative Commons licenses, you will generally see a symbol describing the license, accompanied by a statement such as “This website is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license,” with a link to the text of the license on the Creative Commons website.

In my session, we’ll look at case studies to understand how using a Creative Commons license can help your organization engage with supporters and spread the word about your organization’s work and mission to a wider audience. We’ll also discuss how to select the best license for your content, and discuss whether and under what circumstances nonprofits may use content that is licensed under one of the Non-Commercial licenses. We’ll also talk about some of the issues and struggles that other organizations have faced in using Creative Commons licenses and what can be learned from their experience.

My session “Share, Use, Remix: An Overview of Creative Commons,” will introduce Creative Commons and the idea of “open culture.” I’ll explain the differences in the Creative Commons suite of copyright licenses, and explain how nonprofits can best use these licenses as a means to find creative works that can be freely used and remixed, and as a tool to distribute their content to as broad an audience as possible. Don’t miss it on Saturday, March 15, 10:30am-12:00pm

Carly Leinheiser

Perlman & Perlman, LLP

Bio: Carly Leinheiser is an associate attorney with Perlman and Perlman, LLP, where she advises nonprofits and social ventures on a wide range of matters including corporate formation, tax-exempt compliance, governance, contracts, intellectual property, open licensing, and privacy issues. She is a member of the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on Non-Profit Organizations, and serves on the board of the Participatory Politics Foundation. Before moving to New York in 2006 to attend NYU School of Law, Carly worked in nonprofit fundraising in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.

Carly Leinheiser
Associate Attorney
Perlman & Perlman, LLP