My Disappointment With Creative Commons

It was in the early months of 2003 that I first adopted a Creative Commons License. The transition was a smooth one, for almost five years before that, I had used my own copyright policy, one that closely mirrored the By-NC-ND Creative Commons License. Changing out the original code for the CC one made almost no difference in the user experience and was more of a codification than a change.

However, after half a decade of licensing virtually every word I pen under a Creative Commons License, I’ve started to look back with a sense of disappointment.

I don’t think I was ever unreasonable with my expectations for CC. I was already well-versed in copyright law and didn’t expect CC to make the plagiarists go away or cure unrelated copyright ills. I knew the bad guys would ignore CC the same as they ignored my license and I knew CC couldn’t fix other intellectual property issues.

However, I did expect Creative Commons to help out in a few ways, ways in which CC has had very little impact.

Statistical Analysis

Though I haven’t kept hard statistics for most of the past ten years, I have kept track of my work as well as technology and time would allow me. As such, consider the following statistics as educated approximations.

Before CCAfter CC
Number of attributed uses of my work per week1-21-2
Number of emails requesting use per week2-43-6
Number of uses in strict compliance of CC License00

Looking at the numbers, it is easy to feel that Creative Commons changed little. However, it is important to remember that these numbers are in the face of growing traffic, a book release and a generally larger audience. If nothing had changed, one would still expect the numbers to go up at least slightly.

Instead, the only numbers that went up were the emails I received asking permission to use my work, the exact problem that CC was supposed to resolve.

Even after adding a Creative Commons License and displaying it prominently on my site, the issue of viewers asking to use my content was so great that I kept a stock letter to send to those who did ask. The letter simply directed to them to the CC license and explained to them what the terms meant.

It is important to reiterate that these are approximations. The numbers would wax and wane heavily based upon the time of the year. They were highest when high schools and colleges were in session and lowest in the dead of summer.

At certain times, especially between Halloween and Valentine’s Day, the numbers could be several times higher.

Also, it is important to note that, both with and without Creative Commons Licensing. Between half and three-quarters of all use of my work was plagiarized.

The Problem

The problem with CC is that, even after five years of being in the limelight, most users either don’t know of or don’t understand Creative Commons.

Evidence of this can be found all over the Web. For one example, take a look at this image on Flickr that Thursday at tipped me off to.

The image clearly shows that the photo is licensed under a Crative Commons License, likely added by Flickr’s CC integration, but the comments indicate that the image is “All Rights Reserved”.

The image itself has been removed but others remain with a similar copyright duplicity.

Though it is easy to write off such situations as simple mistakes, the product of easy CC integration and boilerplate descriptions, but it is a confusion about CC licenses and their role in copyright that make such mistakes both possible and as common as they are.

If you look around the Web, you’ll see all kinds of misconceptions about CC including the notion that CC is a different kind of copyright law and that it is anti-copyright.

Though the CC Organization has battled these perceptions in some cases, it seems, over all, to be powerless to stop the swelling tide of user ignorance.

Moving Forward

The CC Organization, for its part, has moved forward with changes and additions to its licensing scheme. It’s new CC+ and CC0 aim to expand the functionality of Creative Commons deeper into the commercial world and the public domain respectively.

Though the initiatives are both necessary and very exciting, they are likely to only exasperate the existing confusion. I say this because, even as someone who studies copyright heavily and has used CC licenses for over five years, even I am hard pressed to clearly state what each of the initiatives do or how they work.

Though they are both simple ideas, they require a great deal of explanation before most people “get it”. Considering that few current users of CC licenses are likely to require either CC+ or CC0, they could wind up hurting the Commons by adding more fuel to the misconceptions.

And it is those misconceptions that are holding the CC revolution back.

Battling Misconceptions

Of course, the real issue with the misconceptions isn’t that Creative Commons is expanding, but that it is expanding without investing heavily into user support.

Currently, your average CC user visits the site, selects the license, grabs the code and walks away. Though this is very convenient, it doesn’t do much to encourage them to use the license in a correct manner.

Outside of some videos and comics that explain the broad strokes of CC, there is precious little on the nuts and bolts of using CC. No HTML code for using content on your own site, no simple guidelines for changing your mind, save in a buried link off the license page, and precious little clarification about what each of the terms mean in real-world situations.

Creative Commons can not be faulted for this because they, reasonably, expect that people will take a serious interest in the rights they surrender in their work and carefully read everything provided. However, users have been told to expect an easy and approachable form of copyright licensing. Creative Commons appeals to your average Webmaster simply because it doesn’t force them to think about these ugly issues.

In short, Creative Commons is forced to perform a balancing act between being a robust enough solution to survive a strange legal climate and being simple enough to be grasped by laypeople, many of whom are unfamiliar with even the basics of copyright law.

The CC organization struck the balance well, but in doing so created an entity that is neither simple enough for widespread use by those unfamiliar with it nor robust enough to calm fears of many who take the most interest in copyright issues.

Fixing the Commons

Unfortunately, since much of the confusion lies in the realm of copyright law itself, there may be little that CC can do to fix the current climate. However, if I were going to suggest a few ways to improve the commons, my thoughts would include the following:

  1. Improved Education: CC seems to invest heavily in new initiatives and bringing CC to new countries. It may be time to step back and focus on educating existing users. Like college professors forced to teach high school English, it may be necessary to include some remedial copyright education. Also, the effort would need to focus more on real-world situations, rather than ideals.
  2. Focus on the Web: CC tries to be all thing to all people, including those in print, movies and elsewhere. However, most CC use is taking place on the Web and a focus there makes more sense than a broad push across all media.
  3. Freeze on New Initiatives: Though the new initiatives are great, they risk injecting even more confusion into the system. If they aren’t necessary at the moment and aren’t fixing an immediate problem with the system, then they should be held off on until understanding of CC Licensing is more broad.
  4. Better Outreach: CC needs to empower volunteers to point out and help correct errors in applying CC licenses. Some do already, but often with a more hostline tone and, at times, inject new misconceptions. Official documents created by the CC organization that are easy to understand that volunteers and good citizens can reference easily would help with a lot of this.
  5. Clearly Define CC’s Limitations: Even after the Virgin Mobile case, there has been no clear push to explain what CC doesn’t do. This is only going to create more cases like that one and more disagreements on the Web.

Clearly, there are other things that could be improved, but this would be a tremendous start in clearing the air and confusion that seems to surround CC.


I want to make it clear that this is not designed to be an attack on Creative Commons, but rather, a constructive criticism. My goal is not to sway people way from the Commons, but to improve it and help it achieve its goal. I have a long history on this site of defending Creative Commons, as well as its extensions, and plan to continue doing so.

The reason is that Creative Commons was founded to solve a very serious problem and has, by in large, done a very good job at tackling it. Because of them, artists, bloggers and musicians alike can encourage reuse of their work, without surrendering all of their rights. Users, in turn, can find content for their own works and sites without fear of being sued.

But while the CC principle is the best solution available to a very large and grand problem, it is finding itself somewhat bogged down in the tactical side of the problem. The process of taking its tools and applying them to real world situations seems to be stumping both artists and users.

To work, Creative Commons needs to spend equal time addressing the practical as well as the philosophical. Simply offering the tools for free and trusting the world to use them well is no different than giving everyone in the world a hammer and expecting them to build houses.

The CC initiative is great, but more has to be done before the utopia envisioned can be even close to realized.

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