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Creative Commons: Creative Commons 101

This page discusses the Creative Commons and the relationship between copyright and the Creative Commons licenses

Creative Commons Basics

Copyright is a balance of competing interests. The U.S. Constitution grants copyright as a way to encourage creator's to share their works and to create new works. The First amendment guarantees that the government will not interfere in speech, but that is precisely what copyright does when it limits sharing and re-use of creative works. There is also tension between the need for creators and their heirs to profit from works, and the need for a vibrant public domain that is rich with works that anyone can share draw on to create new works and to express ideas in new ways.


When the constitution was written, a book or a piece of sheet music could be published, become popular, fade from view and mostly be forgotten in a matter of years. Over time, it became possible for a book to inspire a play, then a film, and then a TV series, which runs, re-runs, and lives on in cable broadcasts around the world. Popular works from decades past can be re-packaged with interviews and promotional materials and put back into the market for an extended profitable life span.Technology and the internet have made it easier than ever before to share and expand on past works. This has increased the tension between the competing interests in copyright.


In 1998, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act or CTEA. It was named for a congressman and retired performer who had advocated for extending the copyright lifespan. The CTEA added 20 years to copyright protections, pushing copyright to life of the author plus 70 years, or to 95 years for works made for hire. It delayed the date when many works would enter the public domain and was also known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act.


Eric Eldred is a publisher who makes digital copies of public domain works, available online. The CTEA scooped up many works he was ready to publish, and put them out of reach for 20 more years. Larry Lessig is an attorney and constitutional scholar who questioned whether extending the copyright on old works, at the expense of the public domain, did anything to encourage creators to generate new works. He believed the CTEA was contrary to the intent of the framers of the constitution to create a limited monopoly for creative works. Lessig and Eldred launched a legal case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Along the way they launched a Creative Commons non-profit and a Creative Commons movement. The Supreme Court ruled that Congress had acted within its authority when it passed the CTEA. The case was over, but the Creative Commons lived on.


Inspired to make works freely available on the internet, Lessig and others continued to build the Creative Commons non-profit organization. In 2002, they published the Creative Commons licenses to be used by creators world wide to share their work in ways that were consistent with copyright law. There are 6 licenses that separate the bundle of rights granted by copyright into rights the creator grants to the public, and the rights that the creator wants to retain.  The Creative Commons movement continues to grow as the licenses generate creative collaboration within a set of shared values. The movement includes open source software, open data, and open innovations. In 2017, CC licenses were used by more that 1.4 billion works across 9 million websites. The licenses are discussed in greater detail on another page of this guide.



Pictorial representation of text information about Creative Commons basics

Creative Commons InfoGraphic

Creative Commons Global Network

What is Creative Commons

Additional Resources

  • “How I Lost the Big One,” by Lawrence Lessig. Lawrence Lessig describes the details of the Eldred case: http://www
  •  Excerpt from Free Culture, by Lawrence Lessig. CC BY-NC 1.0. This is an excerpt that provides more background on the Eldred vs. Ashcroft case:
  • “We Need to Talk about Sharing,” by Ryan Merkley @ Creative Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.  This is a brief discussion about the value of sharing, how sharing can improve communities, and how Creative Commons enables sharing:
  • “The Commons Short and Sweet,” by David Bollier. CC BY 3.0.This is a brief blog post explanation of a commons, some problems of a commons, and what enables a commons to occur: commons-short-and-sweet. ‚Äč
  • “The Political Economy of the Commons,” by Yochai Benkler. CC BY 3.0. This is a brief article that explains how a common infrastructure can sustain the commons: _the_commons.pdf.
  • “The Tragedy of the Commons,” by Boundless and Lumen Learning. This is a section of an economics course textbook that explains the economic principles underlying potential threats to the commons: https:// w w /economics/textbooks/ boundless -economics-textbook/market-failure-public-goods-and-common -resources-8/common-resources-62/the-tragedy-of-the-commons -235-12326.
  • “DebunkingtheTragedyoftheCommons,”byOntheCommons.CCBY-SA 3.0. This is a short article describing how the “tragedy” of the commons can be overcome: -commons.
  • “Elinor Ostrom’s 8 Principles for Managing a Commons,” by On the Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0. This is a short history of the economist Elinor Ostrom and the eight principles that she has established for managing a commons: http:// -managing-commmons.
  • Free Culture Game, by Molle Industria. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0. This is a game to help understand the concept of free culture: http://

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