Is it a good idea to give away work for self-promotion? Can you realize secondary gains from charity? I like to think of myself as a charitable person; my stance has typically been to give things away in the name of recognition rather than lock them up and hope to find a market for them in the future. I’d rather let the world see my work and appreciate it than stand on principle and be completely unrecognized.

That said, everyone has a different threshold of charity, and that threshold seems to be linked to their success and recognition. Completely unrecognized people give things away to gain exposure. After achieving success, they often stop giving things away to maximize their gains. Then, if they become very successful, they may begin giving things away again because they can afford to.

Because there are so many nuances to the ways in which creators may wish for their work to be used by others, the Creative Commons emerged, creating whole new gradations within the copyright system. Now, rather than saying “all rights reserved,” we can easily say “some rights reserved” and call upon a pile of pre-written legalese. Good idea?

Fundamentally, copyright is an agreement among the people to treat creative works in specific ways. Historically, copyright established a monopoly over a creative work that its creator could wield to derive (usually financial) benefit from it, thereby coercing others to create works of their own. Without getting mired in the specifics of copyright law, the intricacies of which have been explained at length elsewhere, the whole shooting match was designed to safeguard creativity in modern society. In the words of Lawrence Lessing (“Innovating Copyright”, Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal, 20:611-623):

The owner of a still live copyright, that is, one that has not yet expired, controls the rights of others to produce derivative works. … At least until that copyright expires, though the idea of copyright expiring seems itself an expired idea.

Under copyright law, the creator of an original work automatically receives full rights to its use. Only through a specific exception can certain rights be surrendered and others retained, at least until the copyright lapses. In America’s litigious climate, even such a simple thing as stating “you may use this song of mine to make remixes but you can’t charge money for them” requires pages of legalese to avoid ambiguity. That’s where the Creative Commons comes in.

Understanding the Creative Commons

Creative Commons “provides free tools that let authors, scientists, artists, and educators easily mark their creative work with the freedoms they want it to carry.” Their chief contribution is in the form of “licenses,” which are basically rules of use for creative work stated in defensible legal terms, written by lawyers. Using their handy license selection questionnaire, you can simply choose the rights you wish to yield to others and the appropriate Creative Commons (or “CC” for short) license will be provided to you.

There are three major categories of rights that CC licenses allow you to control:

  • Attribution

  • Commericial use

  • Derivative works

Attribution means receiving credit, or some indication of ownership. Typically that means a piece of accompanying text containing your name, and possibly the same information in the metadata. Attribution is polite and it appears in the license only because you may wish to waive it, and for completeness. I hope that all of you out there give credit where credit is due without being forced to by a lawyer.

Commercial use is exactly what it sounds like. A work tagged for commercial use means you don’t mind if someone uses it to make money on their own somehow, and one tagged for no commercial use means the opposite.

Derivative works is an interesting twist on copyright law. Under US copyright law, derivative works are almost always permitted, and disputes over whether certain works are suitably different from the originals to be considered “derivative” or whether it’s plagiarism has typically been a decision for the courts. This right permits or denies end users from deriving new creative works from yours, period. In my opinion, denying derivative works is contrary to creation as a whole, but CC leaves the ball in your court.

There is another license attribute used in two of CC’s six major licenses called “share alike,” which means that work based on yours must carry the same (or suitably similar) license as yours. This is much like the idea of the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL) for open source software.

Each of these categories can be toggled “on” and “off” using the CC license selection questionnaire, and each combination of desired rights has its own CC license, presented in full, specific, defensible legal jargon. They even give you pretty little buttons to use on web-based copies of your work that link to the license’s page on CC’s website and announce that you have released some (or none) of these rights to end users.

In addition to the buttons, there is a “deed” page on CC’s website for each of their licenses, which spells out in very simple and easy-to-understand language what you are permitted and not permitted to do with work carrying that license. Each deed is then linked to the full text of the license for the hardened lawyers among us.

If You Love Something, Let It Go…

I believe in sharing. In my Web Rules for Photographers article, I stated that “sharing is caring,” and I stand behind that. I am not anti-capitalist, nor would I deny anyone the fruits of their labor, but sometimes a little bit of giving goes a long way.

Let me break this down from a photographer’s perspective. I had the opportunity a couple of years ago to photograph the abandoned and decrepit Mansfield Training School, which was a hospital for mentally retarded children in Mansfield, Connecticut from around the turn of the century until about 1993. Of all my photographs, the ones I took inside that place seem to be the most popular, and generate the most traffic from web searches simply due to the scarcity of photographs and information about the place. I have been contacted by several people looking for directions to it and more information about it.

People who search Google for “Mansfield Training School” inevitably find my gallery, and I think that’s pretty sweet. Some time later, as someone was editing the “Mansfield, Connecticut” article on Wikipedia, they thought to mention the Mansfield Training School in its “Places of Interest” section, and linked to my gallery page, undoubtedly found in a search.

When a friend of mine pointed out that I had been linked from Wikipedia, I immediately thought two things simultaneously: 1) that’s really cool, and 2) can I make more out of this? Contributing to Wikipedia is one of those things that can be helpful to you and to others at the same time, and I like helping myself at least as much as I like helping others, so I decided to contribute more. What I actually did was to select a photo from my Mansfield Training School gallery and place it on the Wikipedia article page.

Wikipedia requires a fairly comprehensive copyright history for items submitted to its site, and for good reason: used as a reference, Wikipedia’s media items should be at least as free (as in speech) as items published in traditional print encyclopedias. To that end, they require a selection from a fairly long list of licenses from popular sources including Creative Commons, GNU, and others.

What this meant for me was that I would have to give up some rights to that particular work in order for it to appear on Wikipedia. Aside from the intangible exposure I would gain from it, and of course my own sense of altrusim, I hoped to see a bit of traffic from my submission.

Being the generous man that I am, I selected the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 license (the link leads to the “deed” page, conveniently available in about 30 languages), which means that you are free to copy, distribute, transmit, remix, and adapt the work as long as what you create from it carries the same license and that I am credited for the original if displayed in any way.

I think that releasing a portion of your work in this way, especially in a high-traffic and high-exposure location such as Wikipedia, can definitely pay off in terms of recognition (both for the work itself as well as your reputation for generosity) and help to promote your other work, to which you retain all rights. Give a little, get a lot.

The way I see it, if everyone gives a little, we all gain a lot.


If you are serious about protecting your copyrights, you may wish to officially register your work with the United States Copyright office. It isn’t terribly difficult or expensive, and it will give you huge leverage if you ever take a claim to court. For more information, check out Copyright Office Basics on the Copyright Office’s website.