Creative Commons is an alternative to traditional copyright, developed by a nonprofit organization of the same name. By default, most original works are protected by copyright, which confers specific rights regarding use and distribution. Creative Commons allows copyright owners to release some of those rights while retaining others, with the goal of increasing access to and sharing of intellectual property.
Copyright has historically been an all-or-nothing proposition: a work is either in the public domain, or its owner asserts “all rights reserved.” The term of copyright protection for most works has stretched considerably, from 14 years (in 1790, when copyright law was first enacted in the United States) to 70 years past the death of the work's creator.
Seeing the need for options besides “public domain” and “all rights reserved,” the creators of Creative Commons sought to establish a middle ground of “some rights reserved” that respects intellectual property while expanding the acceptable uses of protected material. All licenses require attribution, and the least restrictive only requires attribution. Other licenses include “No Derivatives,” “Noncommercial-No Derivatives,” and “Share Alike,” which requires derivatives to have the same license as the original. Using Creative Commons, a photographer, for example, might choose to allow anyone to reproduce her photos or make derivative works from them, as long as it is done for noncommercial purposes.
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More information about Creative Commons.