US Copyright law provides generally broad protections for the creators (“authors”) of original works of authorship. In particular, authors have the exclusive right to copy, distribute, publicly perform, prepare derivative works from, and publicly display their works. In addition, these rights last for a relatively long time – for an original fixed in a tangible medium – the lifetime of the author plus seventy years. One of the problems with the broad protection is that creative people who want to start with the work of another may be stifled by the licensing regime of an author. Absent “fair use” (a defense raised by an infringer and one that depends on the facts and circumstances of each use), an artist may just be unable to use a work without risking a lawsuit. One partial solution to this problem is the Creative Commons licensing.
The Commons is a copyright licensing regime (actually a set of several kinds of licenses) and searchable database that permits users to obtain re-usable creative works that are not subject to the same restrictions under US copyright law. The database permits a user to search in a variety of individual databases for a particular work, and the database result will then display the use restrictions, if any, based on the applicable license. The database also contains many works that are in the copyright “public domain,” which are works that require no license at all to be used (generally, works published before 1923 are now in the public domain). In reverse, authors of works who wish the work to be more freely distributed can publish works to the Creative Commons under one of the applicable licensing agreements.
The result is that more creative works are available that require less from persons that want to use them with less risk and potentially less licensing expense.