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Ryan Merkley on Licensing Creative Work and How Attribution is Gratitude

The Internet created a tidal wave of creativity and knowledge, and left in its wake the conditions for unrestricted sharing—but it didn’t come with a set of rules or principles that the world would abide to.

Everything we’re seeing in the media, to the lack of attribution in work, and companies stealing from freelance artists is not shocking, but disappointing. That’s what comes with wide boundaries and freedom. The future of the Internet will be rooted in principles that enable continuous burgeoning of art and information so that the world can relentlessly benefit from this priceless gift.

We spoke to Ryan Merkley, the CEO of Creative Commons—a global nonprofit organization that enables creators to share and reuse creativity and knowledge through the provision of free legal tools. While they’re known for their licenses, they also offer other technical tools that facilitate sharing and discovery of creative works.

Ryan shares why unlocking your work can create unique opportunities for creators, and what the future of creative work and knowledge looks like.


Creative Commons provides an indispensable tool for makers of all kinds—and yet, as I look at my favorite writers’ blogs or photographers’ sites, most people don’t have the CC license (not even me). Why do you think that is? And what do you think the general attitude is towards licensing our work?

Ryan: The default term of copyright is all rights reserved. That means no one can use your work in any way without permission. And copyright is automatic, for everyone, from the minute the work is created. So it makes sense that most people wouldn’t choose an alternative. But millions have decided to share, and there are over 1.3 billion licensed works online using CC licenses. Every time, someone had to choose to share, which is a big deal. What do you think it will take for widespread adoption of CC licensing in creative work, so that it becomes common-place in the workflow of the creative professional?

CC tools are embedded in major content platforms like Medium, YouTube, Soundcloud, and they power the free knowledge on Wikipedia. There are over 1.3 billion works shared by creators in 85 countries and 35 languages — so I’d say that’s pretty widespread.

But if you mean creative professionals specifically, then that’s a more complex question, because creators are all different, and the motivations and goals for why they create are many and varied. In some professional creative communities, like photography, sharing with CC can be a form of marketing and brand-building.

For musicians, it’s a way to reach new fans and invite collaboration. For creatives who work in agencies, much of their work doesn’t belong to them, or is assigned to the client.

The creative professional generally needs to be compensated, so solving that will come before sharing, unless there are ways to do both that benefit them.

What are the steps to licensing via CC. Walk people through it to encourage them to license CC on their work. For example: an illustrator could… a photographer could…

Creators who want to share have a variety of options, and most of them are built directly into mainstream platforms they already use every day. If you’re a photographer and you want to share a selection of images under CC to promote your name, you could upload a photo set to a platform like Flickr or 500px, and simply choose the license of our preference (the most popular license is CC BY, which allows any use, as long as you credit the author, and link back to their original work).

Blockchain technology seems to have immense potential in this world of attribution and licensing. Imagine a future where an artist knows how their work is being used, where, and being compensated for it. What are your thoughts on this technology and how it might change the way we attribute, license, and share our work?

Ryan: There is some really exciting work being done around distributed ledgers and content analytics. It’s possible that Blockchain will be part of that. We’re following it closely, and speak regularly with the many (many) startups working in this space.

Should all work be licensed at all costs? What are the pros and cons of taking this approach?

Ryan: I think all creators should first understand the rights they have, and then consider what they might gain by choosing to share. If they want to share, we offer simple tools that are the free, global, inter-operable standard. CC licenses are built on top of copyright — that means they rely on copyright law for enforcement and international recognition.

If creators want to protect their work from being used in ways they don’t want, they are no more or less safe using CC licenses. Our tools stand up to legal challenges and international use.

Attribution is often woefully practiced. Sometimes the act of giving credit isn’t taken seriously. What can creative communities do better? What does good attribution look like?

Ryan: Attribution is gratitude. It’s the least you can do to thank someone for creating something and allowing you to use it. CC’s minimum standard for attribution is author, title of the work, link to the original work, link to the CC deed for the licenses. For example: Ryan Merkley, “Self-Portrait”, https://www.foo.com/12345, licensed CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Unfortunately, attribution like that is done incorrectly quite often. Sometimes it’s malicious, but most of the time I think it’s because people are confused, or a bit lazy. I think we should make it easier, or better yet, automatic.

We’re working on tools to make that possible. Our first iteration of CC Search provides one-click attribution with automatic formatted text or HTML that creators can copy/paste into their remixes.

If creators want to protect their work from being used in ways they don’t want, they are no more or less safe using CC licenses. Our tools stand up to legal challenges and international use.

What does the future of content look like to you?

Ryan: It depends on the content. The future of academic publishing, educational materials, government data, and more is undoubtedly going to be more open. The future of film and music, is heading to a more closed state, powered by digital-rights-management that effectively subverts copyright by preventing access — it “puts the content behind glass” by creating containers the user can’t access.

What we know is that creativity and innovation benefit from access to raw material, and that our tendency is to believe that restriction is good when it’s our content, and bad when it’s content we want to use. The history of creativity and discovery are rooted in remix, not restriction. We need to find ways to ensure creators can have livelihoods, and also that content and knowledge are accessible.

Attribution is gratitude. It’s the least you can do to thank someone for creating something and allowing you to use it.

What is your definition of owning your content?

Ryan: For me, ownership is about choice, not restriction. CC was founded on the idea that creators should be able to share if they want, with the fewest barriers. That’s why we created the CC licenses, and why we made them free — so anyone could use them to share under simple, permissive terms.

Any final thoughts on this subject that you want to express that I haven’t asked as a question?

Ryan: We get hung up on the control of our work, and too often forget what’s possible when it gets unleashed. I often encourage creators to think about what they want to enable, not what they want to restrict — translation, adaptation, remix, collections, and other serendipitous asynchronous collaborations are what make the web delightful, and excite us.

But to do that, we have to be willing to let go a bit. We are quick to forget that everything we make is a derivative of something else. Sometimes it’s a reaction, but often it’s a remix. We can fight it, or embrace it, but art and knowledge, like love, are not finite. They are infinite, if we’re willing to open ourselves to the idea that someone else having and using my work doesn’t deny me the ability to also enjoy it.

The history of creativity and discovery are rooted in remix, not restriction.

This interview was produced in partnership with WordPress.com & CreativeMornings.

Morning people get 15% off their WordPress.com site at wordpress.com/creativemornings.

Interview by Paul Jun. Illustrations by Jeffrey Phillips. ‘Own Your Content’ illustration by Annica Lydenberg.


Recommend tools from Ryan:

  • Adobe Creative Suite: InDesign, Illustrator
  • GDocs, Slack, Hangouts (CC is a virtual org, with staff in 7 timezones)
  • Canva: Just discovered it, very good for quick stuff

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