Creative Commons: The Dubious Value of a Valuable Pursuit

“Creative Commons - Some rights reserved” by TilarX available at under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Creative Commons: The Dubious Value of a Valuable Pursuit

In a rapidly changing media environment, internet innovations are constantly responding to the flaws of current media culture, technology infrastructures and institutional structures. These innovations can shape the way the internet and society develops. This essay will investigate the Creative Commons license (CC), analysing how it came to be, the ideology behind it and the multifaceted and at times contradictory benefits of it.

So how did it all start?

CC’s genesis begins with a piece of copyright legislation in the United States; the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) enacted in 1998. The legislation extended the term of copyright for every work in the US by an additional 20 years, meaning the copyright term now equalled the life of a creator plus seventy years. This directly implicates the idea that creativity and knowledge build on past works, where the end of a copyright term is therefore important in that it ensures works eventually join the pool of knowledge and creativity that anyone can draw on to create new works. For this reason, Standford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig believed the CTEA was unconstitutional. In partnership with Eric Eldred, Lessig challenged the constitutionality of the Act. The loss of this challenge led Lessig and others to conceive the idea of CC. 

The images used in this graphic are “Lawrence Lessig in May 2017” by Joi Ito available at under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license and “Eric Eldred” by Joi Ito available from under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license


CC is now an internationally active non-profit organisation that provides free licenses for creators to use when making their work available to the public. The licenses allow copyright holders to grant some of their rights to the public in advance, while retaining others. There are different options for granting rights to their work including non-commercial, no derivates and share alike. It functions as both a practical tool and an idealogical step in the pursuit of, and advocation for a greater essence of “libre culture.” Practical in that a member of the public only needs to seek the creators permission when they want to use the work in a way not permitted by the license. Additionally CC provides RDF/XML Metadata that describes the license and the work that makes it easier to automatically process and locate licensed works.

“Infographic: ‘Creative Commons – What does it mean?'” by Martin Missfeldt/ available at under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

CC is rooted in Lessig’s advocation for a “libre culture.” Which is the idea that a Free Culture supports and protects creators and innovators directly by granting intellectual property rights and indirectly by limiting the reach of those rights, to guarantee that follow-on creators and innovators remain as free as possible from the control of the past. For Lessig, a free culture is in opposition with current culture which Lessig considers to be a dominant and increasingly restrictive permission culture that is dominated by traditional content distributors in order to maintain and strengthen their monopolies on cultural products (such as popular music and popular cinema). CC therefore aims to counter this culture  “where creators get to create only with the permissions of the powerful, or of creators from the past” (Lessig, 2004). It’s strategy presupposes that minimising external information costs is critical for enhancing access to creative works and seeks to reduce these costs by offering a licensing platform. It endeavours to bring about greater change by assuming it is possible to replace the common practices of producing and distributing creative works without changing the property regime. Social change, it is believed, would emerge from simply exercising these rights differently (Elkin-Koren, 2006). 

CC has been an influential part of historical trends in both communications media and information management. Berry and Moss have credited CC with generating interest in the issue of intellectual property, erosion of the “public domain” and contributing to the re-thinking of the role of “commons” in the “information age” (Berry & Moss, 2015). It has also been attributed to being at the forefront of the copyleft movement, which seeks to support the building of a richer public domain by providing an alternative to the automatic “all rights reserved” copyright (Broussard, 2007).

Who does it benefit?

CC provides a middle ground between free-market advocates and the restrictive monopoly granted by copyright legislation (Elkin-Koren, 2006, Filby, 2011). This coalition has lead to “idealogical fuzziness” (Elkin-Koren, 2006) and a lack of consensus on who actually benefits from CC. CC is intended to take the power away from the “Big Media” (Lessig, 2004) and reinstall with smaller creators as “never have fewer exercised more power over the production of culture.” (Lessig, 2004). He notes the shift from the 20th Century broadcast model to the digital, participatory era now allows the artist and consumer to share a stage has huge democratic potential (Lessig, 2004). However, it seems the new opportunities made possible by digital technology are increasingly recoiled by the massive enclosure of the public domain and the increasingly commodification of culture (Elkin-Koren, 2006).

CC is intended to directly benefit creators by giving them more access to work to build upon, facilitating an easier process in attribution and enabling works to gain more popularity as users employ them. For example, The Conversation is an independent, open, not-for-profit news source where utilising CC has been “integral to [their] success,” (Halperin, 2016). They encourage people to “steal their stories” (Halperin, 2016) under certain conditions meaning their articles are republished on average 12 times and can be found on a diverse range of media. They mention how CC simplifies this process, as they don’t need to spend time negotiating with legal departments to create separate licenses and it allows them to provide small websites quality content they wouldn’t be able to afford to create themselves. The ripple benefits of this is that The Conversation is now a strong independent news source believing that their licensing approach is an effective means to combat the spread of misinformation, benefiting society at large (Halperin, 2016). This alludes to the potential of CC’s grander effects in benefiting society at large. CC aims to resist the “restrictive permission culture” (Lessig, 2004) that poses threat to academic freedom, free speech and cultural autonomy and would ultimately compromise efficiency and stifle innovation (Elkin-Koren, 2006), creativity and prevent a rich culture (Lessig, 2004).

However there is debate surrounding if those who are intended to benefit from CC actually do. Elkin-Koren suggests that the mere reliance on property rights, in the absence of a shared sense of free access, may simply strengthen the proprietary regime in creative works, serving to reinforce the property discourse as a conceptual framework and regulatory scheme for creative works. In this sense, it is still the “big media” that benefit (Elkin-Koren, 2006).

Levine suggests the true benefiters of CC are technology companies. He claims customers, particularly younger generations have been conditioned by technology companies to value and be willing to pay for the network and hardware that delivers content but not the content itself. To increase their profit margins, technology companies have been methodically weakening copyright laws and propagating “free content”. Coinciding with this, CC is significantly funded by Google, Microsoft and eBay all of whom have a vested interest in reducing prices for content. Levines believes that instead of the artistic and creative productivity the digital era had the potential for, it has instead led to underfunded and beleaguered creators.

Levines argument is underpinned by Elkin-Koren (2006) and Broussard (2007) who have questioned the ability of CC to recognise and preserve the financial remuneration and recognition that motivate creators and authors. However as Filby suggests, these criticisms fail to consider the alternative revenue streams that new digital distribution models offer. Allowing free non-commercial distribution with attribution to take place under CC licenses can still lead to increased brand awareness, desirability and saes of associated products and services. This approach also allows for indirectly supported funding to be accumulated through advertising and subscription-based models. Essentially concluding that there are still ways in which creators can benefit economically by using CC (Filby, 2011).

From an individual creators perspective, blogger Bailey concludes CC has not benefited him. The majority of people using his work under a CC license are spammers and scrapers doing the bare minimum to meet the requirements of the license and barely contributing back to the source. This unrighteous use of Bailey’s work means it reaches no new audiences, is not used creatively and has no practical benefit. He notes he had anticipated CC would reduce time taken to handle reuse requests. However it has not due to people not understanding the license, their university/publisher/lawyer won’t let them rely on it, or that due to the rise in false CC licenses, they still need to confirm he is the original author (Bailey, 2015).


CC has been an influential step in the space of content creation and distribution. Yet it’s influence appears to come more from the conversation it has sparked around the rights of creators and relevancy of copyright in the digital era rather then a concurred wide-reaching practical benefit to creators. It is nonetheless a useful tool which as Bailey adequately stated, “there are many creators for whom Creative Commons is appropriate.” (Bailey, 2015).



Bailey, J. (2015). Why I Am Backing Away from Creative Commons. Retrieved 2 November 2020, from

Berry, D., & Moss, G. (2005). On the “Creative Commons”: a critique of the commons without commonalty. Free Software Magazine, (5). Retrieved from

Broussard, S L. (2007). The copyleft movement: creative commons licensing. Communication Research Trends.

Elkin-Koren, N. (2006). The Future of the Public Domain – Creative Commons: A Skeptical View of a Worthy Pursuit. Kluwer Law International, Leiden.

Filby, M. (2011). Regulating file sharing: open regulation for an open Internet. Journal of International Commercial Law and Technology, 6(4), 207+. Retrieved from

Halperin, J. (2016). A Conversation with the Conversation: transforming journalism with a CC license – Creative Commons. Creative Commons. Retrieved from

Lessig, L. (2004). Free culture. Penguin Books.

Levine, R. (2012). Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back. Anchor.