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How Creative Commons drives collaboration

The platform makes it possible for creators to share their work like never before — and with legal protection. Here’s how it works.

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The internet makes it possible to share creative work, discoveries, and innovations in a more expansive way than ever before. And that concept of the open internet has spurred on users who want to build upon and repurpose the work of others — for example, a coder who wants to use groundbreaking computer code and repurpose it, or a filmmaker who wants to explore archival holdings and make documentaries with that footage. But there’s one crucial component to open access on the internet: legal protection.

Although traditional copyright protects creators from others redistributing or repurposing their works entirely, it also restricts access, for both viewers and makers. Either an artist retains full rights, or they give away the house and the kitchen sink. Which is why in 2001, a computer scientist, a legal expert, and a public domain advocate came together to create a new form of permissions on the internet: Creative Commons.

Creative Commons’ ensuing endeavor was to create a series of blanket copyright licenses, which any maker of anything on the internet can easily affix to their work. The licenses don’t replace traditional copyright, but instead act as a layer on top of it. With this additional element, makers and institutions can choose how their work can be seen and used. For example, they can choose to let their work be used freely, but only for non-commercial purposes or with proper credits given. On the other hand, they can choose the Creative Commons Zero license, which allows anyone to re-use and re-mix the work freely. Consider it to be a buffet of copyrights for the choosing.

With these new licenses in place, Creative Commons suddenly opened millions of creative works to the public. The organization even created CC Search, a search tool that makes it possible to find more than 300 million images that can be used freely and legally. Creative Commons’ sophisticated code marks the works so that everyone — lawyers, regular users, and even machines — can understand the terms and follow them. Striving for a more open internet, Creative Commons has made use of both the brainpower of its community and team, and the technology they have helped to pioneer. Who knows what the future of open collaboration might hold.