The License That Rules the Web Just Got a Major Update

The new version of Creative Commons is big news for writers, photographers, and anyone who uses the Internet.
(Flickr/Giulio Zannol)

A new version of the Creative Commons license came out today. It’s the fourth iteration of the legal agreement, which was first released in 2002 and has since become nearly ubiquitous on the web among digital-friendly photographers, writers, and artists.

Two college professors and a copyright activist founded the non-profit organization Creative Commons in 2001 to solve a problem. Digital distribution was confounding traditional copyright strictures, and amateur content-producers had trouble both retaining long-term control of their work while allowing others on the web to use it.

The Creative Commons license was meant to make that much easier. Now, if a photographer wants to let other people (but not companies) use her images, she can choose to license them under a Creative Commons Atrribution-NonCommercial agreement. If she’s okay with anyone using them, but want those users to “give back to the commons,” too, she can choose to license the photograph under a “Share Alike” license.

The Creative Commons license (CC), in other words, is a contract, freely available to anyone online, that allows a work to be used in ways that copyright protections would normally prohibit. CC licenses come in both necessary legalese and a “human-readable” summary. An artist using a CC license retains copyright over her work; she just also makes it very clear how others can freely share in those copyright benefits. 

In the past couple years, though, licensors discovered problems with the existing CC licenses. Under the third version of the agreement, if someone using content under a CC license violated the terms of the license, they lost the ability to use that content irrevocably and forever—even if the violation was accidental.

The third version of the CC license also failed to cover a legal quirk we rarely hear about in the U.S.: database rights. 

In the European Union and other states, if someone compiles a database, they have rights over its copying and usage that work similarly to copyright protections but which only last 15 years. (In the EU, too, if a database is modified, the timer on those 15 years restarts.) Database rights aren’t codified by law in America, so databases that aren’t creative in some way aren’t covered by copyright protections here. That’s because facts can’t be copyrighted in the U.S., and databases—especially non-creative ones—are just collections of facts.

Because the license failed to cover them, anyone using CC-licensed work in the EU or elsewhere might find their project violating someone’s database rights. The new version of the CC license—the one released today—alleviates those concerns, addressing how the CC contract interacts with database rights law. It also solves the previous problem, granting users who were previously violating CC terms a way to use CC-lisenced work again.

Even if you don’t produce digital content, you’re sure to see the new CC license around the web: There are over 250 million CC-licensed images on the photo-sharing site Flickr. There’s even one at the top of this post. 

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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