State of the Commons

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At its heart, Creative Commons is a simple idea. It’s the idea that when people share their creativity and knowledge with each other, amazing things can happen.

It’s not a new idea. People have been adapting and building on each other’s work for centuries. Musicians sample beats from each other’s music. Artists create entirely new works from other people’s images. Teachers borrow each other’s activities and lesson plans. Scientists build off of each other’s results to make new discoveries.

We believe that sharing — sometimes it happens in an instant, sometimes it spreads across generations — is how society grows, how culture develops, and how innovation happens. We also believe that copyright can often get in the way, usually without the copyright-holder’s intention. That’s why we created the Creative Commons licenses.

Millions of creators around the world use CC licenses to give others permission to use their work in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise be allowed to. Those millions of users are the proof that Creative Commons works.

But measuring the size of the commons has always been a challenge. There’s no sign-up to use a CC license, and no central repository or catalog of CC-licensed works. So it’s impossible to say precisely how many licensed works there are, how many people are using Creative Commons licenses, where those people are located, or how they’re using them.

With this report, we’re taking a big step toward better measuring the size of the commons. We’re also sharing all of the data and methodologies that we used to find these numbers, and making a commitment to hone and update these findings in the months and years to come. We’re also telling the stories of events from 2014 that have impacted the size, usability, and relevance of the commons.

The size of the commons

Sharing is winning. In 2015, we’ll pass one billion Creative Commons–licensed works.

How did we arrive at these numbers? Google provided us with the raw data, counting all of the websites in its cache that link to Creative Commons license deeds, which we used to make the estimates in this report. While pages may link to Creative Commons license deeds for reasons other than to license or attribute works under them, we reason that those are vastly outnumbered by pages that indicate a CC license choice without linking to the deed.

We’ve supplemented Google’s data with that of several websites that each have over a million CC-licensed works but aren’t reflected in Google’s data (see notes).

We’re also able to track usage data for the CC license badges. We found over 27 million license badges served in a single day. That’s even more amazing when you consider that that’s just a subset of all CC-licensed content: it covers only sites that hotlink our badges directly.

Even if we had access to unlimited data about how and where CC licenses are used, it would still be very difficult to establish a single number for all Creative Commons–licensed works. Where do we draw the line between one work and another? Every time a piece of content is reused on the internet, should it be counted again?

That said, by drawing these estimates as precisely as we can, we’re creating a baseline that can be useful for comparison over time.

Since Google’s numbers are intentionally conservative — and since there’s more variation in how licensors mark CC-licensed works than a search can account for — all of the numbers in this report should be considered lowbound estimates.

Today, there are over 882 million pieces of CC-licensed (or CC0) content on the web. Roughly 56% of that content is shared under CC tools whose terms allow both adaptations and commercial use (we commonly refer to those as free culture licenses).

In 2010, about 40% of CC-licensed works were under free culture licenses. The increase since then reflects the growing diversity in how and where CC licenses are used; we think it also speaks to a license user base that’s discovered the value and power in sharing work more openly, including national governments and major foundations.

It’s also striking to note that a full 76% of works counted allow adaptations, and 58% allow commercial use.

License breakdown

  • CC0: 4%
  • CC BY: 19%
  • CC BY-SA: 33%
  • CC BY-ND: 2%
  • CC BY-NC: 4%
  • CC BY-NC-SA: 16%
  • CC BY-NC-ND: 22%

Where CC licenses are used

Creative Commons is the global standard for open content. There are active CC communities on every continent on earth.

We created the geographical breakdown of licensors’ locations using the web statistics for our License Chooser page. The Chooser is available in 34 languages and is prominently featured on CC affiliate websites worldwide; therefore, its visitors are more geographically diverse than those of the homepage, which primarily offers content in English.

That said, people who use the chooser represent only a fraction of all CC licensors. Since is more popular in English-speaking countries than in non-English-speaking countries, these numbers are weighted toward the United States and other English-speaking countries.

The map below shows our data country by country, reflecting countries in every region with strong communities of Creative Commons licensors and advocates (click for interactive version).

Countries marked as “0%” on this map each represent less than 1% of the traffic, but many of them are still notable hotspots, when you consider population and internet proliferation (see our complete data).

4.0: A global license for a global movement

On November 25, 2013, Version 4.0 of the Creative Commons licenses ushered in a new era for Creative Commons. The new licenses say a lot about how far Creative Commons has come in the past ten years, and where we're going.

Version 4.0 was rebuilt from the ground up in a two-year process with an international user base in mind, eliminating the need to create custom versions for each jurisdiction. But that would not have been possible if our affiliate network hadn’t spent the past seven years working to adapt the version 3.0 licenses to the laws of more than 35 countries. All of the lessons we’ve learned through the porting process are incorporated into 4.0. The result is a set of licenses that just work. Everywhere.

The licenses don’t just reflect an increasingly global organization and community; they also reflect the new ways in which people have been using CC licenses. The new licenses include provisions related to database rights, personality rights, data mining, and other issues beyond the scope of the original CC licenses. We improved the licenses to catch up with how you’ve been using them. They have already been endorsed by the European Commission for use by public sector institutions, and the White House for federal government datasets.

Open policy goes mainstream

When people see the effects of open in their lives, and in their work, they begin to demand it. We start expecting open policies and practices from our governments, our universities, and our employers. Today, people notice when those in power choose closed.

When open licenses become a requirement on publicly funded resources, they have the potential to massively reduce costs and increase access to use and reuse of a wide range of materials, from educational content like digital textbooks, to the results of scholarly research, to troves of valuable public sector data.

All too often, the opposite is the case. When the public can’t access and use the materials it paid for, the impact those materials have is limited.

We think that the best way to ensure public funds create the greatest public good is to require that digital resources created with public funds be licensed under open, public licenses. We believe that open policies should require, as a default, free culture licenses, with a preference for CC BY for publicly-funded content and CC0 for publicly funded data.

In the past year, we’ve seen some great examples of governments and public institutions giving the public permission to use their works. We’re entering a new era of open policy.

TAACCCT: The world’s largest open education project

One major win for open policy is the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training initiative (TAACCCT), run by the US Department of Labor. TAACCCT is a multi-year, two-billion-dollar project to help community colleges equip their students with the skills they need to find employment. This is the largest grant in the world to require that all resources be licensed under CC BY.

Even more striking is the impact from these publicly-funded resources. So far, the colleges have created 1100 programs of study with 80,000 enrollments, 27,000 of whom have already completed credentials leading to jobs in high growth industry sectors. And those programs are in areas where few open resources previously existed.

Creative Commons worked with the Department of Labor in defining TAACCCT’s licensing requirements, and we’re now working with partner organizations on a new archive to house all of the educational materials funded under TAACCCT.

Hewlett Foundation leads the way in open policy for philanthropy

Like governments, philanthropic foundations also fund content with the public good in mind. We think foundations should strongly consider adding open license requirements to their grants. We applaud the Hewlett Foundation for adopting an open policy and hope to see its peers follow its lead.

The policy is straightforward: it requires that content produced as part of a grant to be made easily available to the public, on the grantee’s website or otherwise, under the CC BY 4.0 license — unless there is a good reason to use a different license.

In practice, the new policy means that nearly all of the extensive content produced with Hewlett funds –– not only works specifically commissioned as open educational resources, but scholarly research, multimedia materials, videos, white papers, and more — will be widely available for downstream re-use with only the condition that the creator is attributed.

UNESCO removes barriers to sharing

In 2013, UNESCO adopted an open access policy, requiring that UNESCO publications be licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 IGO license. The BY-SA license means that users who make adaptations of content released under it must share their resulting creations under the same license.

According to UNESCO’s Abel Caine, allowing anyone to reuse UNESCO publications has allowed that research to disseminate much more quickly: “We need to get them comfortable with the idea that there’s nothing to sign. Run with it!”

Challenges to the commons

Every day, governments, institutions, and corporations make decisions that drastically impact our ability to enjoy the benefit of the knowledge and culture that came before us. Often, these decisions are completely opaque to the public.

As people recognize the value of sharing in their lives, they also begin to recognize how government and institutional policies can add unnecessary friction to sharing, or block sharing altogether.

Creative Commons believes that whenever the scope, duration, or limitations of copyright law are under discussion, lawmakers should think carefully about how those decisions impact the public’s right to information, knowledge, and culture. Unfortunately, sometimes those decisions are made in secret negotiations, where the public can’t watch and can’t participate.

This year, we’ve seen disturbing details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a treaty that, if passed, will extend copyright terms by another 20 years beyond its current, mandatory term.

If adopted, this extension would work to keep creative works out of the public domain for decades beyond the current term. It’s essentially a double-life sentence for all new works. This would be an incredible loss for the commons.

Increasing the term of copyright protection harms the commons. Any public policy that will further delay a work’s entry into the public domain is contrary to the values we support –– realizing the full potential of the internet through universal access to the creativity that promotes active participation in culture and society.

Why interoperability matters

What’s great about having a single set of open content licenses is that users can combine and mix together works from diverse sources. This principle is central to how open content works on the internet. When open licenses have extra rules and requirements making them incompatible with each other, both licenses suffer for it.

This year, the International Association of Scientific, Technical, & Medical Publishers launched a new set of open access licenses. When we learned of the licenses, we joined a coalition of 57 organizations recommending that STM members continue to use CC licenses instead.

PLOS’ Cameron Neylon articulates why sector-specific licenses are an unwieldy path: “…Don’t get me wrong — scholarly knowledge is special. It is special because of the validation and assessment processes it goes though. But the containers it sits in. They’re not special. … The ways in which that knowledge could be used by a motivated community aren’t any different from that of other knowledge resources. And if we don’t make it easy to use our content then it will simply be passed over for other more accessible, more easily usable materials.”

Sharing should be easier

At last year’s Creative Commons Global Summit in Buenos Aires, CC co-founder Lawrence Lessig was asked how he’d like to see the organization grow and change. His answer was simple: “We celebrate the tremendous achievement of Version 4.0 of our Creative Commons licenses. But we are still at Version 2.0 of the technology that we use to deliver those licenses.”

Although CC license adoption continues to grow, the technology infrastructure must adapt to the changing web in order to make both CC licenses and CC-licensed materials truly accessible to everyone.

Where Creative Commons is going

Three key priorities guide Creative Commons' work:

  • A vibrant commons. Supporting the CC license suite so it’s easy to contribute to the commons.
  • A usable commons. Helping creators find and reuse the content they want and need.
  • A relevant commons. Empowering advocates for policies and practices that eliminate barriers to sharing, both legal and technological.

New technologies for sharing

One project we’re really excited about is The List, supported by a prototype grant from the Knight Foundation. The List app will allow users to make lists of wanted images, or submit requested photos to a global archive of images, all licensed CC BY. We’re also working on improving the CC Search page, to make it easier for users to find and attribute content.

Bringing open policy to the next level

CC is partnering with other open organizations on the Open Policy Network. The OPN’s mission is to foster the creation, adoption and implementation of open policies and practices that advance the public good by supporting open policy advocates, organizations, and policy makers; connecting open policy opportunities with assistance; and sharing open policy information.

We’ve also created the Institute for Open Leadership to train new leaders in education, science, and public policy fields on the values and implementation of openness in licensing, policies, and practices. By training new leaders, connecting them to each other, and helping them complete their first capstone open project in their institution, we will prepare them to guide emerging movements in open science, open education, open government, and open culture. These movements are using Creative Commons licenses to broaden public access to knowledge, data, culture, and research around the world, creating new opportunities for education, innovation, and creativity.

License compatibility: removing walls

From the beginning, Creative Commons ShareAlike licenses were designed with interoperability in mind. We believe that the commons is at its best when there are as few walls as possible preventing people from mixing and combining its works. That includes works under other open licenses.

That’s why we’ve partnered with to establish compatibility between CC BY-SA and the Free Art License. That means that now, adaptations of a work under one license can be licensed under the other, and vice versa.

What’s coming next is even more exciting. Since the CC licenses launched, many people have dreamed of compatibility between BY-SA and the GNU General Public License (GPLv3), a widely-used copyleft software license. Sometimes when reusing openly licensed content in software, it can be difficult to discern where the content ends and the software begins. Allowing developers to license their adaptations of BY-SA content under the GPL would prevent a lot of licensing headaches.

CC is actively working with the Free Software Foundation to establish interoperability, which will be a huge step forward for both free culture and free software.

Creative Commons’ goal has always been “realizing the full potential of the internet,” with greater access for everyone to culture, knowledge, information, and education.

Since CC was founded 12 years ago, we’ve made strides at achieving that goal. Today, as sharing becomes mainstream, the opportunity is greater than ever. But so are the risks.

If you believe that society is healthier when it shares its knowledge and culture openly, we’re proud to fight on your side. Please join us as we work together to build a better internet and a better world.

If Creative Commons plays a role in how you use the internet or share your work, please consider making a gift to support the organization. Creative Commons licenses will always be free, but they would not exist without your generous support.

Creative Commons License

Except where otherwise noted, content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

This page is a mirror of Creative Commons’ 2014 report. For more up-to-date information, see the current report.