The Creative Commons enables copyright holders to grant some of their rights to the public while retaining others through a variety of licensing and contract schemes including dedication to the public domain or open content licensing terms. The intention is to avoid the problems current copyright laws create for the sharing of information.
The project provides several free licenses that copyright holders can use when releasing their works on the Web. They also provide RDF/XML metadata that describes the license and the work that makes it easier to automatically process and locate licensed works. They also provide a "Founders' Copyright" contract, intended to re-create the effects of the original U.S. Copyright created by the founders of the U.S. Constitution.
All these efforts, and more, are done to counter the effects of what Creative Commons considers to be, in the words of chairman of the board Lawrence Lessig, a dominant and increasingly restrictive permission culture, "a culture in which creators get to create only with the permission of the powerful, or of creators from the past". Lessig maintains that modern culture is dominated by traditional content distributors in order to maintain and strengthen their monopolies on cultural products such as popular music and popular cinema, and that Creative Commons can provide alternatives to these restrictions.
The Creative Commons licenses were pre-dated by the Open Publication License and the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL). The GFDL was intended mainly as a license for software documentation, but is also in active use by non-software projects such as Wikipedia. The Open Publication License is now largely defunct, and its creator suggests that new projects not use it. Both licenses contained optional parts that, in the opinions of critics, made them less "free". The GFDL differs from the CC licenses in its requirement that the licensed work be distributed in a form which is "transparent", i.e., not in a proprietary and/or confidential format.
Headquartered in San Francisco, Creative Commons was officially launched in 2001. Lawrence Lessig, the founder and chairman, started the organization as an additional method of achieving the goals of his Supreme Court case, Eldred v. Ashcroft. The initial set of Creative Commons licenses was published on December 16, 2002. The project itself was honored in 2004 with the Golden Nica Award at the Prix Ars Electronica, for the category "Net Vision".
The non-localized Creative Commons licenses were written with the U.S. legal system in mind, so the wording may not mesh perfectly with existing law in other countries. Although somewhat unlikely, using the U.S. model without regard to local law could render the licenses unenforceable. To address this issue, the iCommons (International Commons) project intends to fine-tune the Creative Commons legal wording to the specifics of individual countries. As of June 2006, representatives from 49 other countries and regions have joined this initiative, and licenses for 31 of those countries have already been completed.
Several million pages of web content use Creative Commons licenses. Common Content was set up by Jeff Kramer with cooperation from Creative Commons, and is currently maintained by volunteers.
Some of the best-known CC-licensed projects and works include:
During its first year as an organization, Creative Commons experienced a "honeymoon" period with worldwide success and very little criticism. Recently though, critical attention has focused on the Creative Commons movement and how well it is living up to its perceived values and goals. The critical positions taken can be roughly divided up into complaints of a lack of:
In early 2006, Adam Curry sued a Dutch tabloid who published photos, without permission, from his Flickr page, which was protected under a Creative Commons license. While the verdict was in favour of Curry, the tabloid avoided having to pay restitution to Mr. Curry so long as they did not repeat the offence. An analysis of the decision states, "The Dutch Court’s decision is especially noteworthy because it confirms that the conditions of a Creative Commons license automatically apply to the content licensed under it, and bind users of such content even without expressly agreeing to, or having knowledge of, the conditions of the license."