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Copyright and Create-Common Licenses

NOTE: I am not a lawyer. This explanation is my personal understanding of the copyright/licensing situtation.
This is a layperson’s explanation by a layperson.
Corrections and suggestions are welcomed.

A friend asked: “Your blog states that all content is copy-righted and CC-BY-NC-SA. isn’t it an oxymoron?”


The short answer is “no” - these are not contradictory.

  1. The statement “Copyright YEAR NAME” tells who owns the copyright
  2. The statement “CC-BY-NC-SA” (or other like it) tells what is allowed to do with the creation.

The copyright statement is usually stated like this:


This asserts who owns the legal rights to the material. It is commonly the author itself (as in: I wrote the blog post, I own the copyright), but in more commercial environments, the copyright holder and the author are different:

  • With music, the record label can hold the copyright, not the singer/artists.
  • With books, the publishing house holds the copyright, not the author.
  • In commercial software, the company holds the copyright, not the programmer.
  • In scientfic publications (depending on the journal), the journal might have the rights, not the scientists (which is changing with “open access” journals).

1. When writing code, it is common to add “(C)” after the word ‘copyright’.
2. When writing other documents which support the copyright symbol natively (e.g. © in HTML), the symbol can appear after the word ‘copyright’.
3. The word ‘copyright’ should appear in English.

After you’ve asserted the copyright holder, you can declare what is the allowed usage of the created work (the license).

Usage License

The usage license tells the consumers/users of the creation what they are allowed to do with it.

Note that for technical legal reasons (the copyright laws are tricky), there should be a known copyright holder in order to be able to apply a license to any creation - which is why the copyright statement is needed.

The most common (and most restrictive) usage license is “All Rights Reserved” - meaning you’re practically not allowed to do anything with the creation, except view it when legally allowed (e.g. renting a movie or listening to the music).

Art (“Creative”) licenses

For “art” (or more technically: created work which is not software code) there’s “Creative Commons” (CC). The are several CC licenses with varying degrees of usage freedom:

  • CC0 (http://creativecommons.org/about/cc0) - also known as “No Rights Reserved” - allows anything to be done with your creation, including modifying it, incorporating it in commercial work, including not giving you credit.

  • CC-BY (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) - (“Attribution”) - anything is allowed, as long as proper credit is given to you.

  • CC-BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/) - (“Attribution + Share Alike”) - anything is allowed, as long as proper credit is given AND the shared/modified work is shared under the same license.

  • CC-BY-ND (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/4.0/) - (“Attribution + No Derivative”) - sharing is OK as long as proper credit is given. Modifying or adapting the work is not allowed (i.e. it must be shared exactly as you’ve published it). Such license is usuful when publishing an opinion or a statement - you want it to be shared verbatim, never modified.

  • XX-NC - (“Non Commercial”) - to the three licenses, above, you can add a “Non-Commercial” limitation, which prohibits commercial use of your work (in addition to other limitation, such as “share alike” or “no derivatives”).

The Creative Commons website (http://creativecommons.org/) has a page to help you choose the license: http://creativecommons.org/choose/

Software Licenses

Software licenses is a tricky subject, full of flamewars and ideaology (and recently: multi-million-dollar lawsuits).

Part of the problem is that software is used in different way than “art”: A program can be compiled, distributed as binary, shared over a server, etc. It can also be covered by patents (which are not the same as copyright).

I won’t go into details, but will give few pointers.
NOTE: All these websites are biased toward their own agenda, which is fine as long as you’re aware of it.

Public domain

“Public Domain” is actually more complicated than it seems, because it does have some legal complications, and is not always recognized legally in all jurisdictions.

A short write-up is here: http://creativecommons.org/about/pdm

For “art”, it’s better to use “CC0” instead of public domain.

For code, use the GNU “All Permissive License” (http://www.gnu.org/prep/maintain/html_node/License-Notices-for-Other-Files.html) Or something similar.

Not sure about this one.

To the best of my understanding, if there is no explicit copyright because the author was lazy, but it is implicitly understandable who is the author - then if push comes to shove, the court would likely assert who is the author.

It is best to avoid questionable works which have no clear copyright holder.

if there’s no license

To the best of my understanding, if there is no explicit license, courts would generally assume “All rights reserved” (if the matter becomes a law-suit).

Critically, this means that a random piece of code you found on the internet IS NOT FREE (as in freedom) to use if it doesn’t have a clear license.

License are tricky

To be legally binding, usage licenses must be carefully phrased.

You’ll notice that the “Creative-Commons” licenses are already at version 4.
The GNU GPL is at version 3, after years of deliberations and improvements.
Even the simple BSD license has gone through several iterations.

More so, the “Human Readable” version of each CC license (e.g. CC-BY) is short and sweet, but the legally binding version is full of legalese (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode). Read more about these issues here: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/.

It is really best to choose an existing, valid, well-established license than to invent your own.

Some people are tired of the license mess, and think they can “stick it to the man” by inventing their own funny license,
e.g. The “Do what the F* you want license” (http://www.wtfpl.net/txt/copying/).

In reality, it’s not helping, because as it became abundantly clear in recently lawsuits, copyright and licensing is an important business. It’s also a matter of principle: what do you want to allow users of your creation to do: If you want to allow anything, use a well-worded license like “CC0”.

Interesting Trivia

Further Reading

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