Some rights reserved: Creative Commons and the new era of copyright

Wednesday 27th August 2014
Article written by: Thomas Huthwaite

Copyright is a relatively old form of intellectual property: a set of rules about how an original work can and cannot be treated.  If an original work such as a film, song, photograph or text is protected by copyright, another person will not be allowed to copy, modify or communicate that work without the owner’s permission.

These rules have proved flexible over the years, and New Zealand’s 1994 Copyright Act has stood up relatively well considering how quickly technology has developed.  However, the digital era has thrown up some challenges – particularly with the rise of a strong culture of re-mixing, re-mashing, and generally re-using content in new and interesting ways. 

Part of the appeal of digital media and social networking is that content can be shared and spread rapidly.  But often, copyright content is so quickly and widely spread that the owner loses control over how it is used.  Some owners welcome this kind of attention to their work; others wish they had retained some control.  Is there anything copyright owners can do to allow others to copy, modify, or communicate their work without losing control entirely? 

One option is for the copyright owner to waive his or her legal rights, but retain the moral right to be attributed as the author of the work.  This can be effective so long as it is properly communicated.
Another option is for the copyright owner to grant a license to a specific person or persons allowed to use the work.  This too can work very well and can be tailored specifically to the circumstances, but it can also be costly and unduly complicated.

So what about a hassle-free, comfortable middle ground – can a copyright owner easily free up access to his or her content while at the same time retaining certain rights?

Enter Creative Commons: a relatively new concept, helping copyright owners to share and use their creativity and knowledge while retaining some control over it.  Creative Commons provides options through a set of six predetermined “CC licenses”:

Rock legends Nine Inch Nails proved that CC licensing could work for digital music release, with their 2008 release of Grammy-nominated album Ghosts I-IV not only being made freely available online in a limited format (under CC-BY-NC-ND), but also going on to become the 2008’s number one paid MP3 download on Amazon.

Similar models have since been adopted by other bands and music platforms, with major websites SoundCloud and BandCamp now also using CC licensing where possible.

Wikipedia has shown the power of CC licensing for online collaborative resources, with CC licenses allowing for its community to contribute and access content freely and with ease, while still referencing source material.  The result is one of the most popular cultural resources of the digital revolution.

The value of CC licensing has become clear in the digital era, with more creators developing content for the primary purpose of sharing, re-mixing and re-using.  While digital media has dramatically changed the creative industries, copyright has not been as quick to follow suit.  Creative Commons seeks to fill the gap between law and common practice, providing an element of flexibility for modern creators.

Many New Zealand copyright owners – including the Government[2]– have embraced CC licenses and encourage sharing of content where possible.  Creative Commons New Zealand has also recently launched a new website, NZ Commons,[3] dedicated to opening up New Zealand’s culture and knowledge.

If you are a copyright owner and want to know more about licensing, copyright statements, or anything copyright-related, we are happy to discuss options with you.

[1] CC licenses typically assume that the copyright owner and author is the same person.  Care should be taken where this is not the case, because our copyright law treats owners and authors differently.

Need more information?

Contact a member of our team:

Contact us

Baldwins' eNewsletter

Sign up to our monthly newsletter