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2 minutes to read Posted on Tuesday January 13, 2015

Updated on Monday November 6, 2023

portrait of Joris Pekel

Joris Pekel

Former Community Coordinator Cultural Heritage , Europeana Foundation

Creative Commons licenses are great - but how to use them?

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Creative Commons recently released a report which shows the spectacular uptake of their licenses. At the moment almost 900 million works are licensed using one of the 6 licenses they offer. In Europeana around 8 million cultural objects licensed under a Creative Commons license can be found. This next to another 9 million records that are marked using the Creative Commons Public Domain mark.

Every object you can find in Europeana includes a standardised rights statement that provides information about the copyright status of the work to our end-users. We currently use 13 rights statements that range from no copyright restrictions, to full copyright protection with additional licence requirements. Eight of these rights statements are provided by Creative Commons: 6 licences, 1 dedication to the public domain and 1 public domain declaration.

Use of different rights statements in Europeana on 13-01-2015. Click on image for a larger version.

These rights statements show us that one third of the content you can find in Europeana is ‘open’. This means that the material is either in the public domain and free from any copyright restrictions, or the rights holder has made the material available using one of the two open Creative Commons licenses (CC BY and CC BY-SA). The licenses that restrict commercial use (NC) and the creation of derivative works (ND) are not considered open as they do not allow reuse by everyone and are in general not compatible with other open licenses. To learn more about what ‘open’ means, please have a look at the Open Definition.

Europeana greatly encourages cultural institutions to use Creative Commons licenses as a tool to open up their collections. The thing here is, that in order to be able to apply CC licenses, you have to be the rights holder in the first place (or you need to have permission from the rightsholder to apply a CC license). If I write this blogpost, it is quite clear that I am the creator. As I write this as an employee of the Europeana Foundation they are the rights holders under Dutch law. This allows Europeana to apply a Creative Commons license on my creative work and share this with you under certain conditions.

Cultural heritage institutions very often are not creators of works, but collectors. This means that in most cases they are the owners of the work, but not the owners of the copyright. This can still be in the hands of the original creator, or their heirs. Applying a Creative Commons license in this case would involve the cultural heritage institution seeking the explicit permission of the rights holders before they can apply a CC Licence.

However, it’s not always as simple as asking the rights holder permission. In most European countries, copyright expires 70 years after the death of the author and automatically falls into the Public Domain. In Europeana an institution can indicate that a work is in the public domain by applying the Public Domain Mark, which is a clear way to declare that no copyright exists.

Only if a cultural institution is the owner of the copyright of the digital object, or has explicit permission from the rightsholder, it can choose to use a Creative Commons license. This can be the case because the institution created the work, like a translation of a text, or when the copyright has been explicitly transferred to the institution. This is for example what happened with a large collection of Dutch newsreels that was donated to the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. Being the owners of both the works and the copyright allowed them to make the material available under a CC BY license on the Open Images platform and in Europeana. For most audiovisual works in the Sound and Vision collection this is unfortunately not the case, as there are third-party rights holders. To indicate this the Free Access - no-reuse rights statement is used.

Creative Commons licenses are a great way to make your creative content available to a wider audience and we are very happy to see the massive uptake of them in the last couple of years. At the same time it is important to know how these licenses work and in what cases they can be applied.

Are you a cultural institution and have questions about using Creative Commons licenses? Feel free to get in touch!