Creative Commons

Content creators have to step lightly in the minefield that is copyright law, but there are safer paths.
You just finished a video and want to upload it to YouTube. Nothing important or commercial, just your kids playing at the park. But, being a media creator, you had to dress it up a bit so you included the perfect song by your favorite artist. No harm, right? You’re not making any money from the video and its audience will number in the dozens, not hundreds or thousands. According to the United States Constitution, you just violated copyright law by copying and redistributing someone else’s work. While there aren’t any legal ways around copyright for music or other copyright law, there is a system in place that works with copyright, providing content creators legal access to copyrighted materials. It’s called Creative Commons.

On Paper

Copyright law – both in the United States and around the world – is complicated stuff. If you’re the curious type, feel free to download and study the mountains of text at For the less inquisitive, we’ll try to boil it down to the essential elements.

There are about 10 categories of items that can be copyrighted. For our purposes as video creators, we’re probably only interested in text, photos, graphics, sound recordings and what the constitution calls “audiovisual works.” Once an original piece is created and fixed, or locked in place, the creator can claim it as his or her own and, by U.S. law, it is copyrighted. For further protection, the creator can file a form with the U.S. Copyright Office, including a copy of the piece, and will receive a document verifying the copyright.

So let’s say that you just finished a documentary on the history of Italian salt shakers. Everything in the video is original, from the images to the music and graphics. You make a master disc and, by law, you now own the copyright to that video. No one can use, copy, distribute or replicate it without your permission. In the process of making the video, you also wrote, performed and recorded some original music themed around sixteenth-century Italian folk music and you’d like to gift it to the world by placing it in the public domain – meaning that you are placing no music copyright restrictions on your piece. Unfortunately, you can’t do that. The act of creating and finishing the music and turning it into some form of distributable media makes it a copyrighted work. A copyright for music means that anyone using it will need a music release form or some other document. But by using Creative Commons, you can still offer your masterpiece to the world, along with descriptions of how anyone can or can not use it.

Enter Creative Commons

When you buy a CD or purchase a music track online, you don’t really own the music. The artist, songwriter and record company actually own the content. They’re just letting you use it for a fee. This is called licensing and it’s the mechanism used by Creative Commons allowing you to legally share your creations with the world.

Back in 2001, the founders of Creative Commons recognized that traditional copyright laws hadn’t kept pace with technology – specifically, the Internet. In addition, there was serious growth in the open source software movement and the GNU GPL (General Public License) was finally gaining traction. Creative Commons envisioned a way for creative types to share their output with others and their first set of licenses in 2002 did just that. Using a Creative Commons license, everyone from academics to garage bands could freely share their content with anyone while still retaining ownership through traditional copyright laws.

This type of licensing makes it easy for writers, musicians and audio/video producers to freely supply their creations to everyone. In turn, those creations may become a part of other works. For instance, one of your recordings might get sampled and transformed into a hip-hop recording. Or a photograph taken in New Zealand could become the background for a poster or video graphic in Canada. The Internet has always made it easy to do these types of things, but now it can be done legally and with full permission from the originator of the content.

CC Licenses

There are six main licenses in the Creative Commons library. Each allows a different level of control for the content creator and provides unique rights to those acquiring their materials.

1. The first license is simply called Attribution and allows anyone to use your work in any way – commercial or non-commercial – as long as they provide credit to you for your original material. In addition, the resulting creation can become a traditionally licensed work. This is a very generous license that provides maximum access to use a piece pretty much any way you want, just make sure to credit the author. Creative Commons describes the correct way to do this on its website.

2. The second license goes by the name Attribution-ShareAlike. It’s similar to the Attribution license, but adds the requirement that anyone using your material must license the new creation with the same Attribution-ShareAlike license and terms. This is especially popular for reference works and even Wikipedia uses this Creative Commons license.

3. Next, there’s Attribution-NoDerivs. This license allows commercial and non-commercial redistribution of a work, but requires that it be the complete, unmodified work. And, of course, the author of the original content gets credit.

4. The Attribution-NonCommercial license is similar to the Attribution model except it only allows non-commercial applications of the material. The user is allowed to modify and build on the original source. The author must be credited, and the new work can be licensed differently if necessary.

5. Similarly, the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license works the same way as the Attribution-NonCommercial license, but requires that the new works be licensed under the same terms.

6. Finally, the least friendly license is Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs. This allows others to download original materials and redistribute them – as long as the original author receives credit – but no modifications or commercial applications are allowed.

For the Creators

So how do you find Creative Commons materials for your productions? The first place to look is at the Creative Commons website: On the home page, you’ll find a button marked “Find CC-licensed works.” This provides access to many different sites that all contain material with Creative Commons licenses of one type or another without you needing a music release form. You’ll also find a couple of check boxes that refine your results for items that can be reworked and/or used for commercial purposes.

For music searches, try This page offers links to several music services that host CC-licensed music that you can use in audio and video projects. Of those listed, Jamendo and ccMixter currently offer the broadest selection, but other services are popping up and, with the popularity of shared music, these libraries grow daily. All the sites offer ways to narrow your search by genre, type or keywords and music players provide the previews.

The variety of music available covers pretty much everything you could imagine and you may even find multiple versions of the same song remixed for a specific feel or mood. When the music is free, it’s hard to complain about quality, but some of the tracks you’ll find are – to put it kindly – production challenged. But the variety and sheer numbers of tracks more than make up for any clunkers you’ll hear.

Start Digging

The whole point of Creative Commons licensing is to allow creative content a life beyond the confines of traditional copyright law and you don’t have to go through the hassles of trying to use copyrighted music or file a music release form. By opening permissions and giving the creator full control over the use of their content, everyone benefits. As you build original materials for your projects, consider applying a Creative Commons license and sharing them with other media types. As they say, what goes around, comes around.

Sidebar: Science Fair

Recently, it was time for my youngest daughter’s fifth grade science fair. She did an interesting project with popcorn and, for some extra credit, we decided to do a YouTube video – complete with QR code on the project display. We found some fun music on ccMixter that used a Creative Commons law license and dropped it into the video. With a simple credit for music at the end of the video, we knew we were legal (which keeps the school happy too) and the music of Grapes got a whole new audience.

Contributing Editor Hal Robertson is a digital media producer and technology consultant.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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