The free and non-free Creative Commons licenses

  • Some Creative Commons licenses are ‘free’ in the sense that open source software is free.
  • Other Creative Commons licenses are ‘not free’ in the sense that they restrict use of the material in ways that is counter to ‘freedom’ as defined by the Free Software Foundation or the Open Source Initiative, to draw a parallel with software licenses.

In this article I just wanted to clarify the difference for those using a CC license, so that they are not inadvertently preventing others from using their work with an unnecessarily restrictive license.

Thankfully, the website now has a useful “Approved for Free Cultural Works” icon and colour scheme, to help you tell them apart.  For example:

Defining freedom has chosen to adopt the meaning of ‘freedom’ as defined by, a definition which is basically equivalent to that used for open source software.  It states that for a work to be considered a free cultural work, it must have the following four freedoms:

  • The freedom to use the work and enjoy the benefits of using it
  • The freedom to study the work and to apply knowledge acquired from it
  • The freedom to make and redistribute copies, in whole or in part, of the information or expression
  • The freedom to make changes and improvements, and to distribute derivative works

Freedom applies to everyone

For these freedoms to be valid, they must  be unconditional and apply to everyone, regardless of who they are or what they intend to use the work for.  This means that any license with a non-commercial clause is not free in the sense that any business wanting to use the work commercially would have to make a separate arrangement with the author.  One of the basic rules of open source software is that businesses are allowed to use it in order to profit from it; if what they could do with it was restricted, open source software would be avoided by commercial enterprises.  Companies wouldn’t be installing Linux on their clients’ systems, for example.

The same applies to non-software cultural works: allowing anyone the freedom to use the work, regardless of whether they intend to profit, enables businesses to assist the proliferation of the work.

Freedom includes freedom to make changes

These freedoms also include the freedom to make changes and improvements.  If a license does not allow derivative works, it is another example of restricting users’ ability to do whatever they like with the work.  The ability to modify the work is seen as advantageous for the community because it allows the work to be improved by others, without a separate arrangement being made with the original author.  To draw a comparison with open source software again, if businesses were not allowed to modify Linux and provide their own version of it, many businesses would not be able to exist, and the behaviour of Linux would be entirely under the control of a single entity.  Allowing others to modify your work allows businesses to exist that support the work through improving it.

Some restrictions are still acceptable

Requiring copyright notices to be preserved, or requiring any derivative works to be given the same license (a share-alike clause) are still considered acceptable restrictions by the free software movement and free cultural works.  It’s just that any restrictions beyond this, such as preventing commercial uses and preventing any modifications, are not.

Quick guide to choosing a Creative Commons license

There is nothing wrong with choosing a non-free license for your work: It is the creator’s right not to license their work, or to apply any restrictions they desire.  If you are considering releasing something under a Creative Commons license, you should consider which rights you want to retain.  One reason for retaining a right would be if you want to make money from it.

So, here’s a quick guide on how to choose between the licenses:

  • Including a non-commercial clause allows you to retain the sole right to make money from distributing the work.  If allowing others freedom to use the work is more important to you than making money, then don’t include a non-commercial clause.
  • Not allowing derivative works allows you to retain the sole right to alter the work, which allows you to reserve the right to charge money for or prevent alterations.  If allowing others to use and improve the work is more important to you that making money from or preventing alterations, then make sure you allow derivative works.
  • If you do not care about money, or controlling who is allowed to do what with the work (save put a copyright notice on it), but you do care that the work is free for all to use and modify how they see fit, then make sure the Creative Commons license you choose is a green one, with the ‘Approved for Free Cultural Works’ icon.  This will ensure that your work receives the best chance of being re-used and shared by as many people as possible.

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