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Creative Commons: Story

Story of the Creative Commons

The Story of the Creative Commons 

Copyright symbolThis story begins with the United States founding fathers and a passage within the U.S. Constitution. This passage addresses copyright and asserts that the the goal of copyright law is, "to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." Note the phrases promote progress, exclusive rights, and limited time. The founding fathers gave exclusive rights to creators for a limited time of 20 years in order to promote progress for the benefit of society as a whole. After that, works were to enter into the public domain, freely accessible to the public for creative purposes. Copyright was never intended to provide perpetual exclusive rights, which in itself would become an impediment to progress.

From there, the story moves to 1976 and the passage of the 1976 Copyright Act. While there have been several adjustments to copyright over the years, the 1976 Copyright Act completely revised the law, becoming the framework for the current law, and significantly extending copyright protections. The previous iteration of copyright law set the duration of copyright protection to twenty-eight years with a possibility of a twenty-eight year extension, for a total maximum term of fifty-six years. The 1976 Act increased the term of protection to the life of the author plus fifty years after the author's death.

Jumping forward in time again, it is the 1990’s. Digital technologies like the internet are developing. People are exploring exciting new ways to access, share, collaborate, and remix materials. It's a big, wonderful, world of technological opportunities, but there is a tension. Digital technologies naturally involve copying, sharing, and remixing of materials, which is anathema to copyright.

Rather than working to mitigate these tensions, in 1998 Congress passes the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act. Also referred to as the Mickey Mouse Extension Act because Congress passes it just in time to prevent the Mickey Mouse Steamboat Willie animation film from entering into the public domain, the law extends copyright an additional 20 years. The copyright term becomes the duration of the creator's life plus seventy years for general copyrights.

Sonny Bono

Congressman Sonny Bono

Graphic shows the step-by-step
expansion of copyright term.

Adopted from
Wikipedia Copyright Term Extension Act



Enter Lawrence Lessig and Eric Eldred. Lawrence Lessig is a Professor of Law at Stanford University and Eric Eldred is the proprietor of Eldritch Press, a website that republishes works that have entered into the public domain. They believe that the Copyright Extension Act is unconstitutional, and the two collaborate to challenge the law in court. In 2003, Lessig argues their case, Eldred vs. Ashcroft, before the United States Supreme court. Eldred loses.

But that is not the end of the story. Instead, it marks a new beginning.

As described by David Bollier, "a commons arises whenever a given community decides it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with special regard for equitable access, use and sustainability." Lessig and Eldred have lost a battle, but they have not given up the fight. Their fight now concentrates on the heart of the issue, sharing and usage rights. Joining with a community of like-minded associates, they create an answer to this problem: the Creative Commons.

Founded in 2001, the "Creative Commons is a set of legal tools, a nonprofit organization, as well as a global network and movement." As Creative Commons Licensesdescribed by Lessig, the Creative Commons provides a middle ground between two extreme views of copyright: all rights reserved and no rights reserved. Creative Commons licenses offers authors the ability to choose some rights reserved. It does not replace copyright, but sits on top of copyright, providing creators with different options for sharing. While copyright law is a one size fits all deal, the Creative Commons offers six different licensing options that can be used in different combinations and are recognized worldwide. Licenses range from the most open (requiring only attribution) to the most restrictive (current copyright law).

The goal of the Creative Commons is to build and sustain a "vibrant, usable commons powered by collaboration and gratitude." Its current strategy to accomplish this goal is twofold: 1) support the technical infrastructure of the CC's legal and technical tools, and 2) support the global CC movement.

It is now 2020. Globally, there are over 1.6 billion works with a CC license, and the Creative Commons has grown into a movement of people committed to the idea that "the world is better when we share and work together." It is a distributed network that includes includes activists, policymakers, and creators. Its movements include open source software, open educational resources, open science, open access to journals, and crowdsourcing. Anyone who is interested in the benefits of sharing can get involved by joining with any of these and other related movements.








Jay Yoon, Lawrence Lessig, Yochai Benkler and Ryan Merkley
at the Creative Commons Global Summit 2015
Sebastiaan ter Burg


When we share, everyone wins. by Creative Commons. CC BY SA 3.0

Why Open Education Matters. David Blake. CC BY.

Subject Contacts

Jean Shumway

Reference & Instruction Librarian
724-287-8711 ext. 8296


"The Story of the Creative Commons" is a derivative of the September 2019 Creative Commons Certificate Course by Creative Commons, licensed CC BY 4.0. Jean Shumway adapted content and videos, as well as graphics from Wikipedia and Creative Commons.

Creative Commons license

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.  
You are free:
  • to share – to copy, distribute and transmit the work
  • to remix – to adapt the work
Under the following conditions:
  • attribution – You must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.