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Are you giving away your copyright for free?

Friday, 7 February 2014 | By Vanessa Emilio

George Costanza: Who buys an umbrella anyway? You can get them for free at the coffee shop in those metal cans.

Jerry Seinfeld: Those belong to people.

Hmmm… Just like the umbrellas belong to people, so does copyright. And just because it is there, does not mean it is free to take and use as you like. And as it belongs to you as creator, why would you give it away?


If you add a Creative Commons (CC) licence to your work, you do just that: you give general rights to the public to use the work in the manner specified, for free. And you cannot change your mind and revoke this licence.


So what is a Creative Commons licence?


Every creative work has automatic copyright protection from the moment it is actually ‘created’. Nobody can use that work without the creator’s express permission (through a licence) except where ‘fair use’ is involved.


A CC licence is one way that a creator of copyrighted works can give extra rights to other people, such as permission to use, share or modify a piece of work subject to certain conditions imposed by the creator. There are other specific licences that creators of work can grant but a CC licence is one that is given to the general public without the need to check with the creator.


The intention behind the CC licences was originally to allow certain works to be free and open to the industry to help development, research and to improve certain works for the public interest.


What is the problem?


In recent years, there has been a rise in the use of CC licences, particularly with the growth of the internet. There is also a lot of confusion and lack of understanding about whether and how they work, as well as why you would give your copyright away for free.


One of the more common problems is that designers, photographers, writers, jewellery makers and other creative people have been adding them to their website businesses without understanding what they mean. Then they find others have copied their work.


How much protection can a CC licence offer you? Does it affect the copyright in your work? Are you really giving your work away for free? You really need to know what the effect is and what they do, before you use them.


And despite the increase in popularity of CC licences, they have also attracted criticisms about their use and effect.


Why would I use a Creative Commons licence?

Some people don’t understand why you would give away your work; especially if you cannot ever take away the licence or change your mind about it.


It may seem as though a CC licence is actually more about protecting the people who have been granted the licence rather than protecting the creator and the work. The creator still retains their rights that they have decided to reserve under the CC licence, but they are giving some of these rights up intentionally.


Confused? Yes, it is not a clear concept to many yet either. Some argue that if you provide a CC licence, you cannot revoke it so why do it in the first place? Once you give the CC licence to use your work, you cannot take it back.


So what happens if you have given a right to share and copy your work and someone develops and transforms the work, acquiring their own copyright of the newly developed work? The second creator could argue that their "updated" work is substantially different, such that the initial CC licence no longer applies and they own the new work. This can lead to a lot of problems with the copyright ownership of the work.


The main point to all this is that if you own valuable copyright and if you don’t know what, why or how you may be using a CC licence, do not do so without checking with a lawyer. So do not just pop it on your website without fully understanding what it means. You may think it’s a nice idea to allow others to ‘share’ your images – until you find someone has used it to make similar designs.