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Creative Commons: An introduction for filmmakers

“Obscurity is a far greater threat to artists and authors than piracy” Tim O'Reilly

Copyright law was originally created to settle a dispute between English and Scottish publishers in the early 18th Century and has grown today into a fundamental aspect of the creative 'business'. Some would argue that the development of copyright law has been driven by the needs of distributors to protect investments in their 'products' as opposed to the needs of creative people to create, develop and distribute their work. Online where millions of people create text, photos, music and film without an investor, the priority is often to get as wide an audience as possible as opposed to making money. Not that making a profit would be a bad thing, which is where Creative Commons comes in - a set of off-the-shelf licenses for anyone involved in creating things which you want to distribute widely but don't want to be unprotected legally. In just six years since their launch by Lawrence Lessig, Creative Commons licenses have been applied to over 170 million creative works, and were recently the subject of a major report from the Arts Council of England, investigating (and supporting) their use. You decide how open you want the license on your work to be: no limits over copying, selling or re-editing the work, through to a more restrictive license for non-profit reuse.

"In theory copyright represents the ability to make a living off my work. In practice it represents the threat of myself or my children not being able to express themselves without fear of the rich and powerful invoking their copyrights to silence us."  Contributor, to Arts Council report

“If the Internet teaches us anything, it is that great value comes from leaving core resources in a commons, where they're free for people to build upon as they see fit.”

Lawrence Lessig, founder Creative Commons

While copyright aims to provide an established creative with the protection to limit distribution to those who’ve paid for it, both those at entry level or seeking the widest possible audience may not want to do anything which limits the potential audience for the work. Furthermore as novelist Jonathan Lethem illustrates very clearly in his brilliant essay The Ecstacy of Influence, the reuse of creative goods is a fundamental part of culture – from Shakespeare’s stories, the bulk of Disney’s classic films, through to Hip Hop sampling and blog and mashup culture. At the same time, however, some form of license may be useful to prevent, say, someone else changing it and claiming it’s their work, or selling copies unfairly.

Creative Commons licenses, aim to provide a ‘wired’ 21st century copyright framework for the multitude of uses which fall outside the standard restrictions of IP law. It claims to be consumer friendly in that it encourages redistribution, and for those who cannot afford an IP lawyer but want some kind of copyright protection, creators can apply a custom built license to their work, specifying aspects such as commercial use and the creation of derivative works. Some producers use Creative Commons licenses to get widespread distribution and awareness, increasing the chance of sufficient recognition to get a sale.


You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work - and derivative works based upon it - but only if they give you credit.

You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your work - and derivative works based upon it - but for noncommercial purposes only.

No Derivative Works
You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of your work, not derivative works based upon it.

Share Alike
You allow others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs your work.  

"As consumers we are all becoming used to creating our own media, and viewing it how we want. As such personally I don't want to cripple my media with bad DRM and punish viewers/users of my material." Matt Hanson

Some notable uses

Magnatunes - An entire record label built around Creative Commons, which seeks to embrace peer-to-peer as viral distribution method. Users can download and share music at a low quality for free and, using an honour system, pay for a higher quality version of the album (physical or digital) for a price the end user decides. Despite setting a minimum fee of $5, the average payment is $8. The label is also film friendly: filmmakers can download tracks to use in their films for sales and festival screening purposes for free and in the event of a sale or commercial release, a full license can be purchased. - As well as hosting the only historic snapshot of the web, Brewster Kahle’s service also offers tens of thousands of hours of CC licensed video for use including old adverts, propaganda films, news reels and stock footage.

Filckr - At writing some 32m photos were available on with some form of Creative Commons license, creating a huge pool of sometimes world class images that can be reused (and sometimes are on Netribution), often with no more stipulation than a credit.

Creative Archive - Before his departure BBC Director General Greg Dyke promised to make all of the BBC content library freely available online. While this is a long way from materialising, the Creative Archive project - in partnership with Channel 4, ITN and the Open University - offered limited amounts of archive material under a psuedo-creative commons license allowing filmmakers to use the content for most non-commercial uses in the UK.

Cory Doctorow - The science fiction writer and self-declared ‘copy fighter’ has released CC versions of all of his books available to download for free alongside the printed published versions. His publisher claims that in spite of free versions being available, commercial sales were double forecasts. The licenses have enabled people to legally translate his works into their own language, create audio books and even graphic art based on them, which otherwise would have been unlikely to have happened for a niche sci-fi novelist. In commercially licensing content that has previously appeared under a creative commons non-commercial license, Doctorow’s agent adds a clause as follows:

“The exclusive rights granted to Licensee hereunder are subject to a pre-existing Creative Commons license which grants members of the public the irrevocable and nonexclusive right to create their own adaptations of the Licensed Property. Such Creative Commons-licensed works may not be sold or distributed for profit. Licensee acknowledges that under the terms of this Creative Commons license, members of the public may create comic book [or whatever format] version of the Licensed Property for non-commercial distribution. Licensor agrees not to license the rights which are granted to Licensee hereunder to any competitor of Licensee or to any commercial enterprise intending to create adaptations of the Works for commercial distribution.”

Creative Commons films include The Swarm of Angels (interview with director Matt Hanson) and Elephants Dream (Creative Commons interview with core team).

This guide is based on a chapter from Netribution's book HOW TO  FUND YOUR FILM: FILM FINANCE HANDBOOK. Please add comments and suggestions of other areas of use for filmmakers.




0 # CC and filmsGuest 2012-09-09 04:48
Very interesting and useful, thanks for share. I need to know if you have some cases about CC used in cinematography area. A lot of thanks!!! Regards.
0 # CC filmsNic Wistreich 2012-09-10 17:15
Yes quite a few - if you do an advanced search on, you can filter the results by any of the above licenses. YouTube also has a CreativeCommons section - also has a number of features available under the license - some, like Sita Sings the Blues have had complimentary works made around them.