Creative use of Creative Commons licenses

OpenBusiness has published a report by the Arts Council England titled “UK Artists – Their Approach To Copyright and Creative Commons” which makes for interesting reading.

The focus of the report is twofold:

  • to investigate how artists working in a digital environment view copyright, which structures many commercial relationships, but often prohibits sharing, copying and the easy adaptation of existing artistic works.
  • to examine why some artists use Creative Commons licences, which, in contrast, facilitate sharing, copying and, depending on the terms of the particular licence used, allow derivative use for commercial or non-commercial purposes.

The report suggests that one key reason for artists’ using CC is that they perceive standard copyright as too complex and costly. CC licences are an effective and practical tool for new media artists, who adapt existing work. Artists are also using CC to exploit network effects and to better market their creative work. CC is still used by an avant-garde of mainly rather young artists; more than 140,000 websites in the UK make use of such licences.

The survey points towards a possible confusion between evolving working practices that involve re-use and remix and an individual caution about their own work. In general it can be summarised that artists are in need of simpler and more appropriate guidelines, which might be provided not only by the law, but also through funding and policy bodies such as Arts Council England.

I have only had a chance to read the executive summary of the report and it is clear from the executive summary that the vast majority of artists interviewed for the report view copyright law as too complex and copyright itself as a barrier to creativity and to earning an income off their works. Their preference is to make use of Creative Commons licenses which many artists interviewed regard as “practical”.

An important consideration for these artists is that their work should be capable of being re-mixed and distributed across the Web. This is not to say that they want to see their work take out of its original context or freely adapted, necessarily, but more that they wish to see their work free to be distributed on the Web and, in the process, attract more attention to the artists themselves. As I mentioned before, Creative Commons licenses provide for greater flexibility when licensing content made available on a medium like the Web.

One interesting finding that emerged from the report is that artists are often not aware of how copyright works and that they regard copyright as being expensive and cumbersome.

On a similar note, I recently conducted an interview with Heather Ford, the Executive Director of iCommons, and she mentioned a pretty exciting project iCommons is involved in locally called ccMixter:sa:

ccMixterSA was launched on September 1, 2005 as a local version of – a music-sharing portal that is taking the world by storm. ccMixter was originally developed out of the success of the renowned Wired Magazine’s free CD project entitled “Rip.Sample.Mash.Share.” Artists like The Beastie Boys, Thievery Corporation, Zap Mama and Gilberto Gil were featured on the CD that accompanied the issue. All the tracks came with a licence that allowed owners of the CD to do more than just listen to the music. In fact, the licence encouraged a kind of interaction with the music that is illegal within the bounds of mainstream copyright law. Songs could be swapped, sampled, mashed up and shared – basically used as the fuel for the individual creative impulse of the listener, without the threat of copyright infringement.

The framework around this innovative approach to music production and dissemination is based on a set of copyright licence models developed by an organisation called Creative Commons. Creative Commons is a global non-profit organisation (with a local branch in Johannesburg) that aims to respond to the failure of traditional copyright law to adequately understand the possibilities of creativity in the digital age. Creative Commons is the brainchild of Stanford Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig (, and the organisation has developed a number of licence models that can be used for a range of mediums from film, text and images to music and animation.

Music on ccMixter, which includes remixes of the initial Wired CD “Fine Art of Sampling” competition, is licenced under a Creative Commons Non Commercial Sampling Plus Licence that allows two explicit permissions: 1) non-commercial file sharing and b) non-commercial sampling. This means that you can download the songs freely and legally, and that you can take pieces of the song and transform them into something new, which you can then share on the portal under your own profile. The only condition is that you don’t sell the music.

Most artists on the original Wired CD and most tracks on the international ccMixter site are covered by the more expansive Sampling Plus licence. This licence allows you to lift a snippet of an original song for use in your own composition without the commercial restrictions – which means you could use the new track in a commercial album! The only limitation: use in advertising is excluded and the new work must be very different from the original.

The ccMixter site aims to allow the open and free flow of creative ideas between musicians, producers and music lovers, where collaborations are simple and the evolution and reinterpretation of work is encouraged. The international ccMixter site, in collaboration with the renowned, recently hosted a remix competition where users of the site were given the opportunity to re-interpret and remix a choice of two tracks by the artist Lisa DeBenedictis.

The local version of ccMixter plans to do the same: with the support of YFM and the Go Open Source Campaign (Hewlett Packard, The Shuttleworth Foundation, Canonical and the Meraka Institute at the CSIR), ccMixter will encourage participants of the Mad Half Hour (Weekdays 3pm on YFM) to utilise samples and music on the ccMixter site and share their creative results with other users of the site, both in South Africa and internationally. A small and possibly lesser-known selection of South African musical samples will be basis for the remix competition and hopefully get this new and exciting music sharing platform up and running.

Contrary to certain current perceptions of music sampling and sharing, ccMixter will create a climate where this type of music sharing is well controlled and monitored and artist’s creative property well respected. It also aims to develop the creative drive and technical expertise of aspirant music producers in South Africa by encouraging an open exchange of ideas.

It is precisely this sort of initiative that helps artists find new ways to distribute their works in more creative and flexible ways and which helps to build the local industry in a very organic way.

Published by Paul Jacobson

Enthusiast, writer, Happiness Engineer at @automattic. I take photos too. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad.

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