April 2008

"[W]e come from a tradition of 'free culture'--not 'free' as in 'free beer' (to borrow a phrase from the founder of the free software movement), but 'free' as in 'free speech,' 'free markets,' 'free trade,' 'free enterprise,' 'free will,' and 'free elections.'"

Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons

A recent study examined the uses of Creative Commons (CC) licenses and their potential to resolve the conflict surrounding copyright law in the digital communications era. This article summarizes the major findings of that study, originally published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.

Overview of Creative Commons Licenses

The CC provides a set of copyright licenses free for public use. A creator willing to release work under a CC license can go to the Creative Commons website and make a selection among various license options with a simple mouse-click. Meanwhile, a user who is looking for content to use under less restrictive conditions than traditional copyright law can go to the Creative Commons website and find CC-licensed works by using the provided search engines or directories.

The birth of the CC is closely related to the concern that the attempts of copyright holders to protect ownership of their copyrighted material are threatening users' freedoms. The CC aims "to build a layer of reasonable, flexible copyright in the face of increasingly restrictive default rules".

The Study Design

This study combined three different methods. First, a content analysis of CC-licensed work was conducted from January 24, 2005 through February 5, 2005, to explore the uses of CC licenses. A sample of 1,000 CC-licensed web pages was examined. Second, a web-based survey of CC licensors was conducted to explore the uses and users of CC licenses. The first invitation to the survey was sent on February 9, 2005 to 617 CC licensors whose email addresses were available from the 1,000 CC-licensed web pages. The survey was closed on March 6, 2005, achieving a response rate of 45%. Last, four in-depth interviews with non-CC users representative of major content industries were conducted on March 16 in New York City and on March 18, 2005 in Washington D.C. The interviews explored the views of the industry representatives on copyright law, as well as their thoughts about CC licenses.

Characteristics of CC Licensors

Out of 280 CC licensors, 246 (almost 90%) indicated that they own their most recent CC-licensed work as an individual. Nine indicated that they own the work as a non-profit organization and another nine were as a corporation for profit. These results suggest that individual Internet users are the primary adopters of CC licenses. The fact that almost 90% of CC licensors own the copyrighted work as individuals suggests that it is easier to use CC licenses than to draft one's own license, especially for individual creators with limited resources. It also suggests that the widespread use of CC licenses represents a grassroots movement on the Internet.

The four most common occupations among CC licensors were computer professionals (28.6% of the survey participants), students (18.2%), artists (13.6%), and educators (9.3%). That computer professional was the most common occupation is interesting, yet understandable, given that CC licenses were inspired by the Free Software Foundation's GNU license. Computer professionals can also easily utilize the technical functions of CC licenses, because they are familiar with computer technology. That the second most common occupation was student suggests that CC licenses are popular among young people, many of whom are accustomed to creating and publishing on the Internet. Also, many college students have engaged in music file sharing, which could have made them aware of the conflicts over copyright protection on the Internet and prompted them to use CC licenses to endorse the public policy vision. It is interesting that 14% of the respondents were artists, as those representing major content industries do not necessarily think that CC licenses are in the best interests of artists.

CC licensors as a whole are not a group of creators for whom financial gain from their copyrighted works is critical to their livelihood. About 73% of CC licensors said they do not make money from their copyrighted works at all. About 19% of CC licensors said income generated from their copyrighted works is a supplementary source of income, followed by about 3% of CC licensors who said it is their main source of income. Of those who said that revenue from their copyrighted works was either a supplementary or their main source of income, about 15% said that the percentage of their total income that came from their copyrighted work was more than 30%.

However, CC licensors who consider themselves professional artists were somewhat different from CC licensors as a whole. While about 47% do not make money from their copyrighted works, the rest (53%) reported that they generate financial gain from their works.About 39% of CC licensors who consider themselves professional artists indicated that revenue from their copyrighted works is a supplementary source of income, followed by 10% of CC licensors who said it was their main source of income, and 4.2% of CC licensors who said it was their only source of income. About 23% of those 35 CC licensors who consider themselves professional artists and whose income from their copyrighted income represents either a supplementary or the main source of income said the percentage of total income that came from their copyrighted work was more than 30%.

These findings suggest that the assumption that only novice creators or hobbyists license their works under CC licenses may not be correct. Although many CC licensors do not generate income from their copyrighted works, there is clear evidence that some make a living from their copyrighted works and therefore have a high degree of economic interest in these works. About 27% of CC licensors as a whole, and more than 50% of CC licensors who consider themselves professional artists, said that income generated from their copyrighted works is their supplementary, main, or only source of income.

Of the CC licensors who responded to the survey, 266 (73.6%) are men. One-hundred and six of the CC licensors (37.9%) completed graduate studies, and another 82 (29.3%) completed undergraduate degrees. In terms of income, CC licensors are a diverse group; no single category of income describes more than 20% of them. The respondents had a very high level of computer skills. On a five-point scale on which 5 means "very experienced," the CC licensors indicated their computer skill level as 4.74, on average.

Private Interests that CC Licenses

Protect What do CC licensors say about the private interests that must be protected in order for them to produce creative works? How do CC licenses serve those private interests, if at all? In the web-based survey, the CC licensors were asked several questions regarding their motivations to create and use CC licenses. First, a majority of the licensors (201, 71.8%) chose "love of creating/inner desire to create/fun/hobby" as the most important motivation for them to create, followed by 37 licensors (13.2%) who said "reputation/recognition from others." Six CC licensors (2.1%) indicated that producing creative works was part of their regular job, and five CC licensors (1.8%) said they created for financial gain. Seventeen CC licensors (6.1%) listed other reasons, such as informing the public, disseminating useful information, or a mix of reasons.

As their second most important motivation for creation, 164 CC licensors (58.6%) cited "reputation/recognition from others." Thirty-nine licensors (13.9%) chose "love of creating/inner desire to create/fun/hobby," followed by 30 (10.7%) who said they had other reasons. Among the other reasons specified, communicating and sharing ideas with others were most frequent. Eighteen CC licensors (6.4%) said financial gain was the second most important reason for their creation, followed by 10 (3.6%) who said creation was part of their regular job.

Next, the survey respondents were asked why they decided to use CC licenses. The main reason cited was belief in sharing, with 145 respondents (51.8%) selecting this response, followed by 72 (25.7%) who said they wanted to build their reputations by making their work widely available over the Internet. Twenty-five CC licensors (8.9%) used CC licenses because they expected that a wide dissemination of their work might bring future opportunities to make money. Eighteen licensors (6.4%) specified other reasons; among these, 5 indicated that all of the given choices were equally important for them, and 3 said they chose CC licenses because they did not like the current copyright protection system. Another 3 said they chose CC licenses because they wanted to keep control over their work.

CC licensors were also asked whether they were satisfied with CC licenses. The licensors indicated their satisfaction as 4.25, on average, on a five-point scale on which 1 meant "completely dissatisfied," and 5 meant "completely satisfied." A high satisfaction with CC licenses was also evident in the responses to a question about whether the respondents planned to use a CC license for their future work. Only 6 (2.1%) indicated that they did not plan to do so.

These findings suggest that CC licenses serve the private interests of CC licensors. Further, CC licenses might work for three different groups of creators. The first is those who believe in the public policy vision of copyright; using CC licenses gives them personal satisfaction in that they are contributing to an intellectual commons. The second group consists of creators who prefer a wide dissemination of their creation without expecting compensation. The private interest that CC licenses serve for them is reputation or recognition from others. The third group prefers a wide dissemination of their creation and also hopes for monetary compensation in return. This group uses CC licenses with the hope to make money from their work in the future.

Public Interests that CC Licenses Provide

How do CC licenses serve the public interest? Because of the difficulty of finding people who have used CC-licensed work to ask them about the benefits they derived from CC-licensed works, the examination of public interests was done indirectly, in two ways. The first was to examine how CC license elements have been used and what types of CC-licensed works are available and under which CC licenses. The second was to ask CC licensors two questions from which public interests can be inferred.

CC licensors were likely to allow non-commercial uses and the production of derivative works. They also asked later creators to share subsequent works under the same license. About 70% of the CC-licensed works were licensed for non-commercial uses only. Over 80% of the CC-licensed works allowed for derivative works use, by virtue of not attaching the no derivative works license element. Among those CC-licensed works from which derivative works can be made, 71% of them attached the share alike element.

Table 1 summarizes the types of CC-licensed works available as well as how many of each type. The majority of works licensed under CC licenses (82.6% of the CC-licensed works) were in a text format. Blog (text only) was most common (44.1%), followed by blog text with photos (17.3%) and website (13.3%).

Table 1: Types and Frequencies of CC-licensed Works
Types of Work: Frequency
Text: 826 (82.6%)
   Blog (text only) 441 (44.1%)
   Blog (text with photo) 173 (17.3%)
   Website 133 (13.3%)
   Other Text (book, article, essay, documentation) 74 (7.4%)
   Educational Material (lesson plans, course packets) 5 (0.5%)
Mixture of two or more work types: 81 (8.1%)
   Blog and Photo 51 (5.1%)
   Website and Photo 23 (2.3%)
   Other Multimedia Content 7 (0.7%)
Image (photo, illustration, design) 53 (5.3%)
Audio (music, speech) 20 (2.0%)
Video (movie, footage) 6 (0.6%)
Other (software, computer tool) 14 (1.4%)
Total: 1,000 (100.0%)

Public interests were also examined by asking two questions about the CC licensors' experiences: i) whether anyone has ever contacted CC licensors regarding their CC-licensed works; and ii) whether CC licensors have used others' CC-licensed works. Ninety-four respondents (33.6%) said that others had contacted them for their CC-licensed works. Of those 83 who gave reasons, 66 respondents said that others had contacted them for permission to use or republish their work elsewhere.

Eight of the licensors said they had received feedback, comments, or thank-you notes regarding their CC-licensed work; 3 said they had received questions about CC licenses; and 6 reported other reasons such as "to offer me a job," "proposals of new musical projects," and "interviewed for a book." That over 30% of the survey participants had heard from others suggests that the public has been using CC-licensed works. Moreover, the major reason that others contacted them was to request permission to re-use the CC-licensed works.

This clearly indicates that the CC has contributed to the growth of a cultural commons that the public can, and does, use. Furthermore, CC-licensed works facilitated later creations by the CC licensors surveyed. One-hundred and thirty-nine (49.6%) said they had used work issued by others under CC licenses.

Further Discussion and Conclusions

The findings suggest that CC licenses are flexible in meeting the needs of creators in the digital age. First, the CC assumes that creative works build on the past. To encourage collaborative creative activities, CC licenses were designed in a way that encourages re-uses of copyrighted work. Second, in the web-based survey, CC licensors identified diverse private interests that must be protected in order for them to produce creative works. The respondents were also highly satisfied with CC licenses that served their diverse private interests. Third, the study found that the CC has served the public interest by providing a pool of cultural works that everyone can use and which facilitates later creations.

The findings also suggest that some of the assumptions held by interviewees representing major content industries regarding CC licenses are not correct. These incorrect views can be summarized as follows: i) copyright owners would not want less protection than the law allows them to have; ii) CC licenses might be useful in certain instances, but copyright owners of commercially viable works don't use CC licenses; and iii) the ability to build one's own copyright through CC licenses has always been possible through individual contracts and licenses under copyright law.

The findings of this study contradicted these three views. First, this study found that various types of copyright owners want less than the full protection provided by traditional copyright law. They chose different CC license elements according to their different needs. For example, artists' choices of CC license elements were different from those of CC licensors with other occupations. Also, the majority of CC licensors acknowledged their intellectual debts to other authors. To them, allowing later authors to make derivative works from their original works under CC licenses was more important than exercising full control under copyright law.

Second, it is true that financial gain from copyrighted works is not critical for CC licensors as a group. Many create because of a love of creating, and many share their works because they believe in sharing. Others create to be recognized by others; they distribute their works widely under CC licenses to build reputation. However, it is not the case that CC licensors do not produce commercially viable creative works and there are those who choose CC licenses to market their works as commercially viable products.

With regard to the third point: while designing one's own copyright may always have been an option, the CC has made it easily available to everyone. Almost 90% of CC-licensed works were owned by individual creators. The widespread use of CC licenses among individuals indicates that CC licenses are grassroots legal tools for many Internet users. The CC has also enhanced the visibility of copyright options on the Internet. Now people can easily find copyrighted works that they can use under certain conditions, because the conditions are marked with standardized digital labels.

In conclusion, the CC has differentiated between kinds of creators in the digital era and provided them with various freedoms. Diverse digital creators can explore and use CC licenses according to their private interests, instead of being fearful of massive copyright infringement and instituting restrictive copyright protection mechanisms. The CC has raised public awareness about how copyright is related to creativity and freedom. It has spurred creation by dispersed creators who meet and rely upon each other. In these respects, the CC has contributed to the growth of a cultural commons from which everyone can benefit. Acknowledgments

I am grateful to the CC licensors who participated in the survey and to the institutional representatives who participated in the in-depth interviews. I also thank Trevor LaClair, Master's Candidate at Hawaii Pacific, for his helpful suggestions for this article.

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