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An exercise in clarity: Explain the Creative Commons

21 Oct 2004 by Jason Fried

I dig what the Creative Commons is doing, but I still have a hard time explaining it to other people. I’ve tried the line from the top of their site — “Creative Commons is a nonprofit that offers a flexible copyright for creative work” — but I still get blank stares. I’ve also tried “We have built upon the ‘all rights reserved’ of traditional copyright to create a voluntary ‘some rights reserved’ copyright.” Same response.

I do think that the line “Our licenses help you keep your copyright while inviting certain uses of your work” on this page is the closest to an “ah ha” line, but people still keep saying “so what?”

So, I usually ask people to explain things in 10 words or less, but let’s try to explain the Creative Commons in 20 words or less. Extra points if you can do it in 10. Who’s the audience? Well, let’s say it’s the target they’re going after: authors and artists — especially ones who don’t know anything about Creative Commons, but have heard a thing or two about “how copyright is broken.” Make the sale.

62 comments so far (Post a Comment)

21 Oct 2004 | A. Casalena said...

A license to both protect creativity and encourage it.

21 Oct 2004 | Dave S. said...

To encourage creative sharing, without giving too much away.

21 Oct 2004 | Michael Moncur said...

I developed a stock response after getting questions every time I wore my Creative Commons t-shirt. Here's the closest I've come to a 20-word version:

"A service that helps with the legalities of releasing free content without giving up all of your rights to it."

21 Oct 2004 | Michael Moncur said...

A 10-word try:

"Legally share your work without losing copyright protection."

21 Oct 2004 | Ryan Mahoney said...

Free legal service for intellectual property creators looking to share.

21 Oct 2004 | Alex said...

Share your cake and keep it too

21 Oct 2004 | Lorrin Nelson said...

Props to Alex and his cake. Nice!

21 Oct 2004 | missha said...

my vote for Michael Moncur 10 words proposal:

"Legally share your work without losing copyright protection."

21 Oct 2004 | Paul said...

Alternative to traditional copyrights that allows authors and artists to share their work and still protect the specific rights important to them.

(hmm... 22 words?)

21 Oct 2004 | Abhay S. Kushwaha said...

My explanation of CC to those who'll even listen, condensed to 10 words becomes:

Easy, legal way to share your work; keeping your ownership.


Easily show and share your work maintaining your legal rights.

21 Oct 2004 | David Orban said...

A friendly and colorful spectrum of copyright solutions for what was before a black and white world of opposing alternatives.

21 Oct 2004 | Patrick Costello said...

I don't think there is a single line that works for everybody. The reasoning for using CC is going to change depending on the medium and what the person who holds the rights is looking to accomplish.

For example, I've released to complete books on playing the guitar and banjo online under CC licenses. Both books were already on the market and selling pretty well so when I decided to put them online people were a little weirded out. "Why give something away if it's making you money?"

My answer was simple. "Nobody owns folk music."

The techniques and song that I teach in the books are our shared heritage. I can borrow it for a while, but in the long run I have an obligation to release this stuff back into the wild.

That kind of answer isn't going to work for everybody, but it's less than ten words and the folks I was talking to got it.

The funny thing is, once the books were freely available sales of the printed versions increased by about 80% . . . so another short answer might be: "Because eyeballs equal money."

21 Oct 2004 | Chris Campbell said...

Change the world by sharing your rights and starting conversations.

21 Oct 2004 | David said...

CC lets a work's creator expand "fair use" to make it, well, a little more fair.

21 Oct 2004 | dave said...

Legal boilerplate to let others use things you create without giving up ownership under copyright law.

21 Oct 2004 | shayne said...


Last week, we released our We Media paper jointly with The Media Center at The American Press Institute under a Creative Commons license.

Weíve had several questions (and blank stares too!) about what this means and why we would do such a thing. For those interested in repurposing We Media or creating derivative works, here are a few helpful answers to your questions.

It's not the short, clarity answer you asked for, but this is what we did. Hope it helps.

21 Oct 2004 | Veljko said...

Work is protected, use is free

21 Oct 2004 | James Governor said...

gives author, not lawyers or publishers, control of licensing


takes the means of distribution out of Big Media's hands

21 Oct 2004 | Nelson said...

Grant permission ahead of time for uses of your work under certain conditions (e.g. as long as they don't make money off of it, or that they give others the same freedoms you gave them by using the same license)

21 Oct 2004 | Daphne said...

The first praiseworthy and sensible answer or alternative for creators who tend to cling to their works far too convulsively.

21 Oct 2004 | Jim Rea said...

Your stuff. Our site. Still your stuff.

21 Oct 2004 | Brian Merrikin said...

"A licensing scheme that balances artistís rights with individualís fair-use rights. What Copyright law was intended to be."

Word Count: 19

21 Oct 2004 | randall said...

creative commons is a reasonable form of intellectual ownership that encourages creativity and free distribution over suppression and intimidation

21 Oct 2004 | Justin J. Clark said...

Licenses that protect your copyrights while letting others use your work.

21 Oct 2004 | Andre Kloss said...

Share your work. Keep your rights.

21 Oct 2004 | Dave Munger said...

A way to build new creative works upon the creations of others, without losing copyright, but without copyright's restrictions.

Whew! 19 words!

21 Oct 2004 | Mariangela said...

I would like share with you my 10-20 words ... but Andree Klos did say it first =)

I vote for his 6 word-phrase. Is perfect!


21 Oct 2004 | why said...

I have a section in the third chapter of a technical manual I'm writing which explains the book's license. I allow any distribution of the book, including commercial publication.

My line is basically: "I trust my readers with the important task of ripping me off."

But that line works for me, because I'm excited to write a book that makes no revenue for me. I have no delusions of grandeur. I like my daytime employ. Also: I like writing my book. Why complicate things?

21 Oct 2004 | Halvard Halvorsen said...

Dare to share, retain your rights.

21 Oct 2004 | Jonny Roader said...

"License work for free use while retaining intellectual property rights."

Paraphrasing Michael's words there really!

21 Oct 2004 | Andre Brocatus said...


Allow distribution of your work retaining specific rights you choose.


Allow usage of your work within certain restrictions you set.


You can use my work if you mention my name.


21 Oct 2004 | Leena Kamat said...

Creative Commons allows you to customize your copyright so others can use, copy, and share your work as you indicate.

(If more words are allowed... :)) For people seeking to use others' creative works, this alternative paradigm removes the hassle of consulting the artist for permission.

21 Oct 2004 | Michael Moncur said...

The new Creative Commons site was just launched, and I noticed they've been looking for a 10-word explanation too. At the top of the page:

"Creative Commons is a nonprofit that offers a flexible copyright for creative work."

13 words, not bad.

21 Oct 2004 | cainmark said...

I was also going to write this one,

"Share your work. Keep your rights."

but two others already beat me to it. It's concise and gets across the meaning of the licensing without being too legalese. Easier to go into a lengthier explanation from that phrase, too.

21 Oct 2004 | cainmark said...

I was also going to write this one,

"Share your work. Keep your rights."

but two others (Andre Klos and Mariangela) already beat me to it. It's concise and gets across the meaning of the licensing without being too legalese. Easier to go into a lengthier explanation from that phrase, too.

21 Oct 2004 | Neil K said...

"Share your work. Keep your rights." is just about optimal. But here are mine:

Art the way artists want it to work, not the lawyers.

Legal and technical tools for artists to collaborate.

Join a worldwide party remixing ideas.

Let your artworks be fruitful, and multiply -- Creative Commons will keep them faithful.

Free your art without losing control.

21 Oct 2004 | Doug Cadmus said...

3 words:

Licensed to share.

21 Oct 2004 | Steve Andersen said...

Great stuff so far. More on the tag-line end of the spectrum:

"Set the rules for sharing your work."


"CC: A legal framework for a creative society"


"Loosening Mickey's death-grip on Copyright since 2002."

21 Oct 2004 | pb said...

"CC enables the ability to offer usage rights not currently granted by US copyright law."

22 Oct 2004 | Spiff said...

"Give others more freedom to share and use your works, while still reserving the rights that really matter to you."

22 Oct 2004 | WorldMaker said...

I feel that the line "Some Rights Reserved." says a lot. Most everyone has seen the "All Rights Reserved." in various places throughout the corporate world. Of course, you'd have to explain which rights were reserved and which weren't and why, but it is a good starting place.

22 Oct 2004 | Nathan Jones said...

Before release, ask "do I really need full copyright for this?".
Visit Creative Commons for a less draconian alternative.

22 Oct 2004 | Thomas said...

Creative Commons is a nonprofit that offers a flexible copyright for creative work.

(From the new site)

22 Oct 2004 | vic said...

DIY Copyright

22 Oct 2004 | Josh said...

Creative Commons Haiku:

Copyright +
Creative Commons:
More Freedom.

22 Oct 2004 | Kyle Hamilton said...

Do-it-yourself creative-market copyright licensing without management headache.
(7 words, or 10, depending on if you count the hyphenation.)

Let others use your stuff for free, but keep commercial rights.
(11 words)

Can I create with this? With CC, the answer is yes.
(10 words)

Take it. Use it. Have fun. The (CC) means permission.
(10 words)

The way to immortality is reference -- CC is permission to reference me.
(11 words)

I create. Why should I want to litigate?
(8 words)

Just my humble $0.02.

22 Oct 2004 | Percy said...

DIY creativity protection - share without a care.

22 Oct 2004 | indi said...

If you love your art, set it free. CC means your creation won't forget its creator.

22 Oct 2004 | Guile said...

"Samples your copyrights."
"Copyright community."
"Remix your rights."
"Sample your rights."
"Sharing rights"
"Copy and Paste Rights"

22 Oct 2004 | Guile said...

And why not going staight to "Pasterights" on opposition to "copyrights" but that keep the idea of rights incoporated in the concept and off course everybody will have understand the copy/paste allusion.

22 Oct 2004 | Ish said...

Remixing Guile's suggestion:

cut and paste copyright - license it your way


Your work, your rights, license it on your terms

Help others create, watch your works evolve, get some credit

The last slogan probably applies more to the attribution licence than the others...

23 Oct 2004 | george said...

Despite copyright, you decide how you work is shared.

23 Oct 2004 | james said...

Create. Share. Enjoy. Use.
Respect for your rights.

24 Oct 2004 | Colin Mutchler said...

So far, I think the strongest are:
1. Share your work. Keep your rights. (Andre Klos, Mariangela, etc.)
2. Cut and paste copyright - license it your way (Ian via Guile)

Definitely depends who you're talking to. I say stay away from any legal words unless you're talking to lawyers.

What about:
Full motion copyright. Keeps culture moving. Helps artists get credit and money.

25 Oct 2004 | Dave Munger said...

Most of these suggestions suffer from the same problem. Why would an artist want to share? Isn't the the point to sell and make profit from your works? How do you explain that in 20 words? And yes, I support CC, I just think any explanation needs to address this objection.

25 Oct 2004 | Leena Kamat said...

I agree with Dave- I think CC needs to grab people as providing a revolutionary benefit, and resolving a problem that exists in traditional copyright. I think the 20 words should also include that the copyright is free and easy to set up. "Create a free and hassle-free copyright on your own terms..."

25 Oct 2004 | Joe said...

Great explanation on BoingBoing today of the ShareAlike license, but I didn't follow the link back to get the original attribution:

"It not only lets people feel safe to use your work without having to phone you and a team of lawyers, but it prevents someone else getting their own team of lawyers and turning your work into a big commercial franchise that everyone else has to pay to use."

Wonderfully clear.

25 Oct 2004 | One of several Steves said...

It strikes me that they're doing nothing new in terms of what you can do with your copyright. As the copyright holder, you already have the right to decide how your work is used and under what terms, and that's been true long before Creative Commons came along.

The problem isn't what you can do with your copyright. It's how to enforce it and protect it. What it looks like CC are doing is creating boilerplate legal copy to cover the range of rights copyright owners may wish to offer while meeting general legal requirements to enforce their rights should it come to that.

So, the quick description would be: Provides legal cover for selective copyright enforcment without needing to pay the expense of an intellectual property attorney.

26 Oct 2004 | Phil Wilson said...

Rights for the creator, fair use freedom for all.

27 Oct 2004 | Smythe said...

Protecting your rights, while allowing limited use of your works.

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