Open up your art: Creative Commons, Music and Film

When copyright law was first introduced way back in 1710, the idea was that such a right would incentivise creative behaviour by encouraging artists and inventors. The incentive was in the fact that creators could claim ownership (for a limited period of time) over their work and then actually make money from selling, performing or displaying that work. As time went by, discussions on copyright law began to place undue emphasis on concepts like ownership, exclusivity and pricing instead of transformation and creativity. This led to some strange misconceptions among artists who were suddenly faced with the realization that they needed permissions to incorporate other people’s work, no matter how original or different their final creation. Hip-hop music producers bore the greatest brunt of this kind of copyright bullying, with many musicians having to face strong legal action because of the use of unauthorized music samples. Filmmakers and choreographers needed to pay up enormous licensing fees in order to incorporate specific musical material into their works, or deal with the legal consequences.

As it stands today, many consider the contemporary copyright regime a far cry from its humble origins, claiming that it’s actually assumed the role of discouraging creativity and free speech. Fed up with the restrictions of the copyright regime, a group of people decided to put their heads together and create an alternate licensing system – a system that protected artistic work but didn’t make it restrictive, expensive or closed. This alternate licensing system is known today as the Creative Commons or CC for short.

What are CC licenses?
If you want to use CC to protect your work then you need to understand how CC licenses work. CC licenses work differently from traditional copyrights, in that they protect your work, without making it inaccessible. Here’s a simple example – if you use a traditional copyright to protect your musical composition or your cinematographic work, then this implies that whenever someone else wants to incorporate, collaborate or share your work publicly, they will have to take your permission. At first this seems alright but what if you want others to freely use your work? With a CC license, you can make sure that your work gets shared and freely incorporated without having to (a) sanction each and every request for use and (b) worry about losing credit for your hard work.

CC licenses come in different shapes – there are different combinations of six standard licensing conditions. Each license combination carries with it a different set of conditions and obligations – it basically tells you what you can and cannot do with a particular kind of content. For instance, if a particular sound recording is marked ‘attribution, non-commercial’, then this means that you are free to use the sound recording in any other creative context so long as you (a) credit the original creator and (b) do not use the sound recording in a work that’s meant to make money. This is just one of the many combinations – here’s a simple table to help you understand the icons, conditions and implications of the various licenses.

Artistik License Logo - smallHow do CC licenses help musicians and filmmakers?
There are two ways to answer this question:
(1)  A store house of awesome resources: When Nina Paley made Sita Sings the Blues she incorporated some of Annette Hanshaw’s songs, however owing to a copyright mix-up she was asked to pay up a huge licensing fee. Unable and unwilling to pay up such a huge amount, she chose to give away the movie for free (CC-00 or a Zero license aka no conditions), thereby hoping to bypass the legal complications involved. You can read more about this here.

Sita Sings the Blues without Annette Hanshaw’s songs would have been an incomplete realization of Nina Paley’s creative vision – and we would have missed out on a wonderful cinematographic experience, all thanks to copyright.  Now let’s look at Nina Paley’s choice of license – by choosing a CC license she’s made it possible for anyone to watch, incorporate and collaborate with Sita Sings the Blues.

By opening up and sharing your work under a CC license, you contribute to a larger, global repository of content and information that can be used by anyone, anywhere at any time. So if you’re a musician looking for some digital samples, or a film maker looking for certain visual material – you can turn to repositories that contain CC licensed content without having to worry about copyright infringement or expensive licensing fees.

(2)  Getting the word out: Because CC licensing is all about open access and free sharing of content, it can be used as a wonderful way to promote your musical or cinematographic work. CC licensing your artistic work might be particularly helpful to those who are in need of exposure and are looking to connect with a wider, more diverse audience. By relaxing the restrictions on the use, performance and exhibition of your work, you might be able to spread the word about your work, while at the same time fostering a lot of good will.

But isn’t a CC license free? So how do you make money?
CC licenses are meant to facilitate easier and free sharing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all your content has to be given away for free. Here are a couple of options and ways to use CC licensing to make you money:

(1)  Partial freebies: Many of the CC licensing conditions are designed for easy sharing and so this translates into giving away your work for free. However, what you need to be clear about is what part of the content you’re licensing under a CC. So you might CC license four songs on your album and if people really like it, you can ask them to pay full price for the whole album. If you’re CC licensing a film, then you can make a particular version, extract or format available for free while putting a price on another specific kind of screening or format.

(2)  Re-negotiate the license: The thing that people often fail to remember about contracts and licenses is that the terms can be negotiated and modified to suit your interests. If you’ve made your musical or film content available under a CC license, and a television network or label has approached you for a deal, please remember that you are in a position to negotiate the commercials of this deal. Just because your content was made available under a CC license, doesn’t prevent you from negotiating a separate deal or a modified license for someone who is interested in commercially exploiting your work.

So does CC licensing really work?
Open access and CC licensing are relatively new to the scene but they are showing signs of staying. Even in India, Thermal and a Quarter released its album Plan B (online) under a licensing model akin to CC. The success or failure of alternate licensing systems, like CC depends entirely on how the content creator uses it. Since CC licenses are a type of legal documentation, it would help to get some advice from a lawyer or anyone acquainted with open access, before actually choosing which license to share your work under. A definite must-see is the Creative Commons website, which is a storehouse of information with respect to CC licenses, how they work, who uses them and whether it works for you.

CC may not be for everyone, but if you’re an artist looking for collaborations and a lot of creative freedom, then CC licensing might just be the legal protection you’re looking for.


(Banner image has been shared under the Creative Commons Attribution License and has been taken from Kalexanderson’s Flickr Photostream.)

Manojna Yeluri

Manojna Yeluri is an independent legal consultant advising artists and startups on issues related to IPR and entertainment law. She also founded and runs Artistik License – a legal education initiative for artists working in India that’s meant to empower artists through simplified legal knowledge. When she's not talking to artists, you can find her drinking tea and trying her hand at all kinds of DIY craft projects. You can read more about her work with Artistik License at

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