Protecting your content: part 2

This post is the second in a series of posts on the topic of protecting your content with an emphasis on content published online. The first part of the series took a look at South African copyright law and the impact of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act on issues such as ISP liability for copyright infringement. In this post I will take a look at Creative Commons and the licenses available under Creative Commons.

So what is Creative Commons? According to the Creative Commons site:

Creative Commons is a new system, built within current copyright law, that allows you to share your creations with others and use music, movies, images, and text online that’s been marked with a Creative Commons license.

Basically Creative Commons licenses are part of an supplementary licensing scheme whereby users may grant certain rights of use of their content that fall somewhere between reserving all rights (the usual position under copyright) and opening up the content for indiscriminate use (placing that content into the public domain). You may recall from my first post in this series that content under copyright may only be used or reproduced with the author’s or copyright holder’s consent. Creative Commons is a way to give that consent. To put it another way:

A Creative Commons license is based on copyright. So they apply to all works that are protected by copyright law. The kinds of works that are protected by copyright law are books, websites, blogs, photographs, films, videos, songs and other audio & visual recordings, for example. Software programs are also protected by copyright but, as explained below, we do not recommend that you apply a Creative Commons license to software code.

Creative Commons licenses give you the ability to dictate how others may exercise your copyright rights—such as the right of others to copy your work, make derivative works or adaptations of your work, to distribute your work and/or make money from your work. They do not give you the ability to restrict anything that is otherwise permitted by exceptions or limitations to copyright—including, importantly, fair use or fair dealing—nor do they give you the ability to control anything that is not protected by copyright law, such as facts and ideas.

Creative Commons licenses attach to the work and authorize everyone who comes in contact with the work to use it consistent with the license. This means that if Bob has a copy of your Creative Commons-licensed work, Bob can give a copy to Carol and Carol will be authorized to use the work consistent with the Creative Commons license. You then have a license agreement separately with both Bob and Carol.

There are a number of licenses to choose from and each one grants certain rights to specific uses of the content. There are six main licenses which you can read about here. The primary elements of these six licenses are attribution (you must acknowledge the source of the content), derivative uses (whether you can modify the content when you reproduce it), commercial use (whether you may use the content in a commercial application or not) and sharing the content under the same Creative Commons license. The various licenses are made up of combinations of these elements.

It is important to note that Creative Commons licenses are not protected by specific statutes. Rather they have a contractual nature in that you publish your content under a Creative Commons license and this establishes a set of terms of use of that content. If someone makes use of your content then they can be taken to be agreeing to those terms and should their use of that content exceed the parameters of the license then that user is in breach of your terms of use. Creative Commons licenses have been tested in court at least once. According to Wikipedia:

The Creative Commons was first tested in court in early 2006, when podcaster Adam Curry sued a Dutch tabloid who published photos without permission from his Flickr page. The photos were licensed under the Creative Commons NonCommercial license. While the verdict was in favour of Curry, the tabloid avoided having to pay restitution to him as long as they did not repeat the offense. An analysis of the decision states, “The Dutch Court’s decision is especially noteworthy because it confirms that the conditions of a Creative Commons license automatically apply to the content licensed under it, and bind users of such content even without expressly agreeing to, or having knowledge of, the conditions of the license.”

Take a look here and here for more information about the court case. Here is more information from the Canadian Creative Commons site:

From: P. Bernt Hugenholtz, University of Amsterdam: Institute for Information Law

Photographs made available on under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike license may not be reproduced in a weekly magazine without the author’s permission.

On March 9, 2006 the District Court of Amsterdam, judging in summary proceedings, decided the first court case in the Netherlands involving the validity of a Creative Commons license. Local media celebrity Adam Curry (see had published photo’s of his family on under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike license. The photos also carried the notice ‘This photo is public’. The Dutch weekly Weekend, a gossip magazine, had reproduced four photos in a story on Curry’s children without seeking Curry’s prior permission.

Curry sued Weekend for copyright and privacy infringement. As to the copyright claim, Weekend argued that it was misled by the notice ‘this photo is public’, and that the link to the CC license was not obvious. Audax, the publisher of Weekend, alleged that it was informed of the existence of the CC license only much later by its legal counsel. In sum, Weekend had assumed in good faith that no authorization from Curry was needed. Moreover, Curry had not incurred any damages by the publication of the photos in Weekend, since the photos were freely available to the public on flickr.

The Court rejected Weekend’s defense, and held as follows:

“All four photos that were taken from were made by Curry and posted by him on that website. In principle, Curry owns the copyright in the four photos, and the photos, by posting them on that website, are subject to the [Creative Commons] License. Therefore Audax should observe the conditions that control the use by third parties of the photos as stated in the License. The Court understands that Audax was misled by the notice ‘This photo is public’ (and therefore did not take note of the conditions of the License). However, it may be expected from a professional party like Audax that it conduct a thorough and precise examination before publishing in Weekend photos originating from the internet. Had it conducted such an investigation, Audax would have clicked on the symbol accompyinying the notice ‘some rights reserved’ and encountered the (short version of) the License. In case of doubt as to the applicability and the contents of the License, it should have requested authorization for publication from the copyright holder of the photos (Curry). Audax has failed to perform such a detailed investigation, and has assumed too easily thet publication of the photos was allowed. Audax has not observed the conditions stated in the License […]. The claim […] will therefore be allowed; defendants will be enjoined from publishing all photos that [Curry] has published on, unless this occurs in accordance with the conditions of the License.”

The Dutch Court’s decision is especially noteworthy because it confirms that the conditions of a Creative Commons license automatically apply to the content licensed under it, and bind users of such content even without expressly agreeing to, or having knowledge of, the conditions of the license.

The full text of the decision (in Dutch) is available at

One question you may be asking yourself is the relevance of a foreign initiative to supplement existing copyright law by introducing these licensing schemes. Legal systems develop in their own way and the law in one country or jurisdiction may not be applicable in another jurisdiction. To deal with these variations, local versions of the Creative Commons licenses have been developed in a number of countries, including South Africa. In fact, South Africa was one of the first countries to ‘port’ Creative Commons licenses into the South African legal framework from the original American licensing scheme.

As a content creator you have a range of options when it comes to choosing which Creative Commons license to use. Aside from the “standard” Creative Commons licenses described above, there are specific licenses which are tailored to music, software code, wikis and even video sampling. This really adds to the flexibility of the Creative Commons scheme and still gives content creators a degree of protection against unauthorised use of their content.

I don’t think that it is really possible to discuss Creative Commons without mentioning iCommons. To quote the iCommons site:

Incubated by Creative Commons, iCommons is an organisation with a broad vision to develop a united global commons front by collaborating with open content, access to knowledge, open access publishing and free culture communities around the world.

Using the annual iCommons Summit as the main driver of this vision, iCommons will feature projects that encourage collaboration across borders and communities, and promote the tools, models and practice that facilitate universal participation in the cultural and knowledge domains. The Summit will collaborate with organisations and communities from around the world to demonstrate and share best practice and discuss strategies for continuing the positive impact that “sharing” practices are having on participation in the cultural and knowledge domains.

During the year iCommons will incubate projects that cross borders and unite commons communities, acting as a platform for international collaboration towards the growth and enlivening of a global digital commons.

The blog on the iCommons site is a veritable showcase of initiatives aimed at fulfilling the iCommons goal of open collaboration and a global culture of sharing.

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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