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Creative Commons Plus: Increasing Options for Content Creators

Kyle Stedman, University of South Florida

Introduction: Assuaging the Fear

In his keynote address at the 2009 Educause Conference, Lawrence Lessig discussed the intersections of copyright and scholarship. His talk is summarized in a short Inside Higher Ed piece, where it predictably received online comments from both copylefters and copyright supporters (Kolowich). One commenter, writing with concern for underpaid junior faculty whose work is profited on by publishers, writes, “I’m delighted Dr. Lessig can afford to give away the results of his own labor; but it seems a misplaced priority for him to work so hard to assure the lowest paid members of his community have even less opportunity to make ends meet.” In other words, loosening the reins of copyright from scholarship could mean less revenue for producers of academic work.

This comment can be read as one voice of a common fear felt by many content producers, whether of scholarship, fiction, music, or video: I need to reserve all my rights to this content, not just some of them. What will happen if I lose control of my work, if people profit from my labor, and I don’t?

Though there is mounting research and anecdotal evidence to support the claim that distributing free books can actually increase sales (Neilan; Doctorow), the fears of those like the Inside Higher Ed commenter are understandable. But I believe that a recent development from the ever-growing nonprofit Creative Commons (CC) can speak to these fears by offering content producers more avenues for communicating their licensing decisions to (re)users. Creative Commons Plus (CC+) increases communication between composers and users about how content may be used and, importantly, can help composers bridge the gap between giving away content for free and earning money from it. By telling users in plain language exactly what they can and cannot do with content, including information about when and how to pay for a license, composers should be able to breathe easier, knowing that users who should pay for legitimate uses beyond those allowed by an existing CC license can now know exactly how to go about doing so.1

Basic Functionality

The heart of CC+ is simple. All CC licenses allow certain uses of content and forbid others–say, by allowing someone to remix content but forbidding commercial uses. Some doors are opened, and others are closed. By using CC+, a composer in effect says, “Sure I’ve licensed this content in a way that closes some doors, but I could give you the key under certain circumstances. If you’re interested, here’s how you can get the key.” In other words, CC+ provides a way for content creators who have licensed their work with any CC license to easily communicate with users how to get permission for uses beyond those allowed by the CC license.

CC+ is described on the CC Wiki as a “protocol” and an “architecture,” not as a new license. Therefore, a composer’s decision to use CC+ is communicated to users alongside her existing licensing language, not in place of it. When using to license material, composers are asked a series of questions about what kinds of uses they choose to allow; with the advent of CC+, composers are now given the option of adding a link to a “more permissions URL.” When they add a url in this field, the auto-generated html includes the same material as before–a clickable icon taking users to a plain-language description of the license–but this icon is followed by additional text stating, “Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at . . .” (“CCPlus”).

The code for this link is also automatically given the RDFa attribute rel=cc:morePermissions, following the CC recommendation “for machine-readable expression of copyright licensing terms and related information” (Abelson et al). In other words, the composer’s choice to make it easy for users to obtain more permissions is communicated both visually to users who see the extra link and technologically to other machines that can automatically understand that the link is one that takes users to an explanation of how to obtain more permissions. Because of this RDFa attribute, when users click through to the plain language description of the license, javascript on the license page recognizes the presence of CC+ and adds to the plain language page a + symbol and a link to the more permissions URL.

Three Examples

CC+ makes most sense when considered with some examples:

Example 1: The Musician

A musician hopes to make money from sales of her music, but she also loves sharing her work for free. She licenses her songs with a CC license that allows anyone to download her music and share it on whatever sites they wish, as long as users attribute the music to her, don’t make money from it, and don’t remix it in any way (a CC BY-NC-ND license). This way people will be exposed to her sound and return to her site to buy CDs, find a link to her work on iTunes, and donate.

When she hears about CC+, she returns to to relicense her material, this time with a link added in the “more permissions url” field. The link takes users to a page of her site that explains the fees she charges for anyone wanting to use her music in a commercial context or to remix it. The html icon and link generated by CC now automatically includes a link to her “more permissions” page; she easily replaces the html on her site with this new code. And if she wants, she can easily design her own new icon to replace the “Permissions beyond the scope of this license” text with a second button that simply says “Looking to license? Looking to remix?” so that users will see two clean buttons on each page of her site: one that takes them to the plain-language description of her license, and one that takes them to her more permissions page.

Before CC+ she could license additional uses on her own, but the CC+ protocol gives her an easier way to communicate her additional license requirements, integrating her additional communication into her existing communication framework (simple new language on her site; a simple new icon that appears on the plain language description of her license).

Example 2: The Scholar

A scholar publishes an article in Kairos, a refereed online journal on rhetoric and technology. Because he retains copyrights to his work, he also posts a copy of the article on his blog under a CC license that allows others to freely reprint and remix his work as long they attribute the work to him and use it only for noncommercial uses (a CC BY-NC license).

But he wants to make sure that readers know that they can request a license to use his work for commercial purposes; all anyone has to do is email him, and he’ll decide whether or not to allow use on a case-by-case basis. To facilitate that conversation, he uses CC+ by inserting a link to a “more permissions” link when licensing the article–in this case, a link to the “contact” section of his professional website, which instructs people simply to email him with licensing questions. A commercial publisher finds this article on the scholar’s blog and wants to anthologize it in a textbook on digital writing; the publisher follows the CC+ link to the page with instructions on how to proceed.

Example 3: The Journal

Molecular Systems Biology, an open access journal published by the Nature Publishing Group, allows its authors to decide between two CC licenses, neither of which allow readers to use the articles for commercial uses. Authors can choose a license that requires any alterations of the articles to be distributed under the same license (CC BY-NC-SA) or a license that doesn’t allow any alterations at all (CC BY-NC-ND). The journal’s site adds, “Any of the above conditions can be waived if users get permission from the copyright holder” (“Open Access”).

If the journal decided to build CC+ into its site architecture, the journal could also ask submitting authors if they would like to manage permissions beyond the CC licenses or if they would prefer the journal to handle all requests (provided the journal has the resources, of course). Each article would then be accompanied with the existing text describing the authors’ chosen license along with information about how to obtain extra permissions–either by contacting the authors or the journal, depending on the authors’ choice.

In practice, use of CC+ can be implemented by the user as described above or by using a content management service like Ozmo, a site owned by the Copyright Clearance Center that helps composers implement CC+ by streamlining the licensing process, managing any licensing fees that users pay, and allowing users to search for content through their site. The musician or scholar in the above example could sign up with Ozmo and then direct users to their Ozmo pages to learn how to use content in ways that exceed their chosen CC license, and Ozmo would handle all the finances.


Implications for the CC Movement

One major implication of CC+ is its potential as a mediating tool between the rhetoric of the commons that pervades in open access and free culture communities and the rhetoric of fear that pervades in legal and corporate discourses. Let’s return to the online comment I discussed at the beginning of this article: the commenter sees the open education movement as suggesting that he happily work for free, giving away his work to anyone who wants it, leaving him penniless. Some feel that even using relatively restrictive Creative Commons licenses should be avoided, since doing so means releasing content into the wild of the Internet, where the ease of digital copying means giving up control to others who may want to “steal” his work. (Of course, copyrighted material online is often just as findable and copyable, but the rhetoric against Creative Commons sometimes forgets this.)

But CC+ addresses the needs of those who want to share but are afraid, potentially increasing the numbers of those who support and implement various CC licenses. CC+ implicitly says to these authors, “If you want to charge people who use your work for certain uses, that’s great! We support you making money from your compositions! Let us help you communicate with users about how they should get in touch with you to pay you.” And of course, it could be argued that the act of using any CC license, especially with the CC+ protocol, makes it less likely that content will be used outside of the scope of its license, given that its allowed uses are brought into the open with human-readable text that is harder to ignore than the silence of content that is posted online and automatically copyrighted but without any copyright notice.

Implications for Scholars

More practically, scholars could use CC+ to license drafts of essays they’re working on. The CC license would encourage other scholars to share and distribute the essay without any fear of overstepping boundaries (say, by downloading the essay and hosting it on a course or department web site for others to comment on), but the + would clarify that any other uses beyond the CC license need to be cleared first with the author (say, if a publisher comes across the essay and wants to publish it commercially, or if a teacher wants to adapt an excerpt for a class handout).

Implications for Teaching Communities

On a larger scale, sites that host content with CC licenses could use CC+ to clarify what options users have when using their material, and perhaps even to profit from it. Sites like MIT’s OpenCourseWare ( and, on a smaller scale, the University of South Florida’s CollegeWriting ( collect content and pedagogical materials and share them using a CC BY-NC-SA license. If either of these sites adopted CC+, they could easily instruct users how to pay for other uses of these materials. For instance, they could make it easier for someone who wanted to adapt an essay assignment to post on another university’s site that doesn’t use a CC share-alike license, or if someone wanted to include a quiz found on one of these sites in a commercial publication.

Implications for Publishing

And at the publishing level, journals and publishing companies that allow authors to retain copyright to their work could help authors better understand their options by facilitating licensing choices, including CC+. For example, open access journals (like Molecular Systems Biology in example 3 above) could use CC+ to direct readers looking for additional licensing options to a page on the journal’s site, on the author’s personal site, or to an Ozmo page, depending on the choice of the contributor.

This mindset of clearly communicating licensing options could also be applied to the more informal publishing that constantly happens on the web, including statements and resolutions issued by scholarly organizations. For instance, Wendy Austin, a scholar in rhetoric and composition, wrote in 2006 to the Writing Program Administrators listserv about her issues licensing the official WPA statement on plagiarism (“Defining and Avoiding”), which at that time had the relatively restrictive CC BY-ND-NC license. (The statement’s license has since been updated to the less restrictive CC BY-ND license.) Austin wanted to publish the statement, which she describes as a “foundation” for her book’s argument, in whole as an appendix to her book on plagiarism, which was to be published by a commercial publisher (Austin). She asked for advice from Chris Anson, a major scholar in rhetoric and composition, and eventually paid the $100 licensing fee to the WPA treasurer for the right to publish the statement in full in a commercial textbook. If CC+ had existed in 2006, it would have simplified this exchange, cutting out the need to ask around for advice about how to proceed, since at the bottom of the statement’s web page and on the CC license page Austin would have been given clear directions for how to obtain the permissions–probably with a link to a page explaining how to pay fees.


In an email response to me, CC Web Engineer Nathan Kinkade wrote, “My sense is that the uptake of CC+ has been very small, at least from the tech. perspective of using ccREL (RDFa) to express CC+.” Though his gut impression is obviously different than a detailed survey of CC implementation, it still suggests a need for further action. My impression is that as CC licenses become increasingly visible on popular sites like Flickr and Wikipedia, the added protocol of CC+ could do much to alleviate the fears of those who aren’t yet ready to commit to alternatives to “all rights reserved.”


Thanks to Wendy Austin and Nathan Kinkade for allowing me to quote their email messages in this piece, and to Nathan for his patience with me as I worked through the technical side of CC+ implementation.

Works Cited

Abelson, Hal, Ben Adida, Mike Linksvayer, and Nathan Yergler. “ccREL: The Creative Commons Rights Expression Language.” Creative Commons Wiki. Creative Commons, 3 Mar. 2008. Web. 1 Mar. 2010.

Austin, Wendy. “Re: Using the WPA Outcomes Statement.” Message to The WPA-L Listserv. 19 Dec. 2006. E-mail.

“CCPlus.” Creative Commons Wiki. Creative Commons, 18 Jun. 2009. Web. 9 Feb. 2010.

“Creative Commons Launches CC0 and CC+ Programs.” Creative Commons Wiki. Creative Commons, 17 Dec. 2007. Web. 1 Mar. 2010.

“Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices.” Council of Writing Program Administrators. The Council of Writing Program Administrators, 2003. Web. 16 Feb. 2010.

Doctorow, Cory. “Giving it Away.” Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future. San Francisco: Tachyon, 2008. 71-75. Cory Doctorow: Content. Web. 25 Feb. 2010.

Kinkade, Nathan. “Re: A comment from Kyle Stedman.” Message to the author. 9 Feb. 2010. E-mail.

Kolowich, Steve. “A Call for Copyright Rebellion.” Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Ed, 6 Nov. 2009. Web. 16 Feb. 2010.

Neilan, Catherine. “TOC: Piracy may boost sales, research suggests.” The The Nielsen Company, 13 Oct. 2009. Web. 25 Feb. 2010.

“Open Access.” Molecular Systems Biology. Nature Publishing Group, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2010.


1 CC+ was actually announced in a December 2007 press release (“Creative Commons Launches”). Its inclusion in this collection of 2009’s top developments is thus rather behind the times. However, its importance and relatively minor use justify its inclusion here, however awkwardly it may sit.

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