crypto and public policy

Helping Out John Dvorak

Filed under: General July 20, 2005 @ 10:48 am

John Dvorak criticizes Creative Commons, calling it “one of the dumbest initiatives ever put forth by the tech community.” The thing is, just about every complaint John has about Creative Commons is based on erroneous information. Also, John seems very confused. He starts by saying that Creative Commons places more restrictions, and ends his column by saying that Creative Commons “weakens the copyrights you have coming to you.”

Since John begins his article with the question “Will someone explain to me the benefits of [this] trendy system,” sure, John, I’ll help you out and hopefully clarify a few things.

What does Creative Commons offer?

At its core, Creative Commons offers a set of licenses that copyright owners can use when distributing their works. These licenses automatically give users a certain number of rights not granted under default copyright. For example, if I want to allow anyone to redistribute this blog entry, I simply apply a Creative Commons license to it (in fact, you can see the logo at the bottom of the page). If I did nothing, other users would not have the right to redistribute my blog entry in its entirety. With a Creative Commons license, users know that they automatically have permission. There’s no need to ask.

And Creative Commons goes out of its way to make things as simple as possible. On top of the license text, Creative Commons provides a human-readable description of the license, so that mere mortals may understand what’s going on, as well as a machine-readable description of the license, so that our digital computer friends may automatically detect the extra rights that come along with a Creative-Commons-licensed work.

The only thing that’s complicated in this story is copyright law. Creative Commons simply makes ready-to-use licenses that allow copyright owners to share their works on their terms, without hiring an expensive lawyer.

But aren’t there Conditions?

The author of the work may indeed apply certain conditions to the license. For example, you can’t reprint this blog entry without giving me credit. I could have chosen a slightly different Creative Commons license that would give users these same rights, but only when the republication of my blog is for non-commercial purposes.

All of these conditions are at the discretion of the copyright owner, of course.

Ahah, so Dvorak is right: you are killing fair use!

Simply put, no.

Creative Commons is a method of licensing rights that copyright owners control to begin with. For example, fair use does not give you the right to reprint this blog entry in full. That’s why I use a Creative Commons license: to give you, the reader, more rights than fair use.

In fact, Creative Commons is crystal clear on the idea that all existing rights of users are to be respected. Every Creative Commons license deed, which is the page linked from every Creative Commons logo out there on the web, says in bold:

Your fair use and other rights are in no way affected by the above.

So, to be extra clear: if you want to write a parody of my blog, quote a small chunk of it, or otherwise exercise your fair use rights, go for it, and don’t bother giving me credit. I have zero control over that, and the Creative Commons license I use does not, in any way, give me some kind of new control.

When you see a Creative Commons logo, you know that’s giving you extra rights. It’s never something to be worried about.

So, is Creative Commons just a middleman between me and the public domain?


Licensing your work under Creative Commons is not at all the same thing as relinquishing your work to the public domain. With Creative Commons, you still own the copyright. You can continue to license your work in other ways to other people. For example, you might distribute some photos under a non-commercial Creative Commons license for the world to enjoy and share freely, but when a magazine calls you up to use your photo, you can sell them the right to use it commercially.

Creative Commons is a middleground between default copyright and the public domain.

The one thing that might be confusing is that, on the Creative Commons site, we do give people the option to put their work in the public domain. That’s not specific to Creative Commons, and we try to carefully point that out. It’s just that, while you’re at Creative Commons, you might as well be told of your other options.

So, what about all the stuff that Dvorak said?

Most if it is misinformed. Let’s go over some of his statements to summarize:

does absolutely nothing but threaten […] fair use
Completely untrue. Creative Commons could not affect fair use if it tried, and in fact licenses clearly state that they should not be construed in this way. John should have clicked through on at least one of those Creative Commons logos, as his central claim is immediately refuted on the license deed. See for yourself.

before Creative Commons, I could always ask to reuse or mirror something
That’s true, and it still is true. But in a lot of cases, why force people to ask when you can simply declare that certain rights are automatic? A host can declare that redistribution is okay thanks to Creative Commons, and then you don’t even have to ask. Creative Commons is all about lowering the barriers to collaboration. With CC, the only time you need to ask the author for permission is when it really matters to the author.

the wording will say something like “Creative Commons License: Public Domain”
In fact, that is the extremely rare exception rather than the rule. The Prelinger Archives phrases it that way mostly because it’s presenting information straight from a database, and all of their works are either CC-licensed or public-domain. Most Creative Commons logos on the web say “under a Creative Commons license,” which is in fact exactly correct. It’s surprising that John focused on such a small subset of CC-related works. It’s as if his only source was the Prelinger Archives, which are an admitted special case.

they invented Creative Commons to add some artificial paperwork and complexity to the mechanism
This couldn’t be further from the truth. If you’re looking to grant additional rights to your users in order to foster collaboration, your alternatives are Creative Commons or hiring an expensive law firm to write you a custom license. Using Creative Commons involves approximately 5 or 6 mouse clicks followed by copying and pasting some HTML into your web page. The complexity comes from copyright law. Creative Commons is here to simplify and enable sharing.

so, how did John Dvorak get so confused?
Not sure. All of this information is easily available on the Creative Commons web site. Go to Click on “Learn More.” Right there, you have text and animated clips that explain the above points.

In particular, right at the top of that Learn More page, there’s the “Get Creative” video, described as follows:

This short film covers the basics of why we formed, what we do, and how we do it.

And if movies isn’t your thing, there’s the Spectrum of Rights and How it Works comics that describe the same ideas.

John, I hope this helps.


  1. Yearh_Right_AT_MSN_DOT_COM:

    So pretty much you just said “I can tell all my users to piss off and have the right to sue them for things that would normally be concidered fair use”.

    Great. =/

  2. leif olson:

    as he’s already stressed, fair use is still completely protected. A CC licence _adds_ rights, minimizes the need for permission for commonly desired uses (reproduction and remixing), and reduces the amount of legal hoops people need to go through. Great!…


  3. Mike:

    Yearh_Right_AT_MSN_DOT_COM, you are a retard. And you cannot read.

    That is all.

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