The Lowdown On Content Licensing

Surfing the internet, I see a lot of questions regarding the use of the multitudes of content available everywhere. As writers and artists, it is important for us to understand some of the popular licensing structures applied to content so we know not only how we may use someone else’s creation as well as how we should license our own work in this atmosphere of open content.

Public Domain

When a body of work is in the public domain, it means that though it was created by someone, there are no legal restrictions on its use. For instance, a public domain photo may be used for both personal and commercial projects without being required to pay royalties to the creator of the image.

Scientific and creative works are put into the public domain when their copyright, patent or trademark has expired or has otherwise become null.


The General Public License, or GPL, mainly applies to software though it can apply to creative works as well. It was written by Richard Stallman for the GNU project. This license grants users the right to use the work in question as well as to modify and redistribute it as long as the derivative work gives the same privilege to other users.

As stated before, this mostly applies to software however it can easily be used on other creative works. A perfect example of this is the Wikipedia Project where the articles written by volunteers can be used freely as long as the resulting works afford the end user the same freedom.

Creative Commons

The Creative Commons is a non-profit foundation started in 2001. The aim of the foundation is to allow copyright holders a way to share some of their rights with the public while avoiding some of the problems that copyright laws create in the open information atmosphere of the internet.

The Creative Commons site offers a variety of licenses that allows copyright holders to dictate exactly how their content can be used. For instance, many writers license some of their articles so that other site owners can republish the content on their own websites but not allow them to create derivative works or to claim ownership of it.

Royalty Free

This license is used primarily by content providers. Traditionally, when content providers sold their work they would allow purchasers to resell or reuse it with the requirement that they (the provider) would get a predetermined amount based on each instance of sale or use otherwise known as royalties. This is predominantly seen in the music and literary industry where music artists and writers contract with publishing houses to let them sell their work in exchange for a cut of the profits.

A Royalty Free License, however, lets a person purchase the use of content for a one time fee without having to pay anything more each time they use it. The creator of the content still retains the copyright to their creation.

The importance of using the correct license will continue to grow as more and more people use the internet for both personal and commercial purposes. Visit Wikipedia for a more in depth overview of these and other licensing options.