Many people have the understanding that a Copyright gives you rights to your work, but a Creative Commons license gives others the rights to your work.
This is generally true—but there’s more to it than that.
What is a Creative Commons license?
As the Creative Commons FAQ describes, “Creative Commons licenses give you the ability to dictate how others may exercise your copyright rights.” Creative Commons licenses are not intended to take the place of a copyright; they are intended to work alongside one.
Licenses range from allowing modification and commercial distribution of your work to restricting others’ usage to duplicating your work exactly with no monetary gain, but the common thread is that you maintain the credit for the work.
You may be familiar with Nine Inch Nails’ decision to release their sixth album, Ghosts I-IV, under a Creative Commons license. According to this license, you and I are able to do things such as create a video with a track from the album, with no explicit written permission from the artist, and throw it up on YouTube for all to see—as long as appropriate credit is given.
How do Creative Commons licenses work?
The main thing to keep in mind is that Creative Commons licenses work with copyrights. Anything that can be copyrighted—books, movies, photographs, etc.—can carry a creative commons license. Anything that isn’t copyrightable—ideas, methods, etc.—cannot.
The logical question, then, is: If I grant a Creative Commons license on my work but I restrict the public from using my work commercially, will I still be allowed to sell the rights to that work to someone else? The answer is yes. Creative Commons licenses are non-exclusive, and again, they work alongside your existing copyright. You hold the rights to your work, so you are able to dictate who can use them.
What if I change my mind about using a Creative Commons license?
However, Creative Commons licenses are permanent. If someone finds your work under a Creative Commons license that allows them distribution rights—even if you remove the license from your work five minutes later—they can distribute that work, for free, for perpetuity, as long as they continue to credit you.
The bottom line is this: Think through your altruism carefully—while it’s true that Creative Commons inspires creativity and innovation, you may be signing away to strangers something that could potentially earn you money. If you’d rather be in charge of who has rights to your work, register your copyright.