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A Cultural Shift in Copyright: Creative Commons Fosters File-Sharing Concepts

By Pamela Yoder

Steve Sires' resemblance to Bill Gates is polished and made ready for the camera by director Brian Flemming on the set of the film 'Nothing So Strange.'

Who owns the images of our world? Where do ideas end and images begin? How can we both defend the freedoms and rights of filmmakers and encourage the fostering of the evolution of film?

This may seem like too "heady" a thought for those of us in the trenches, trying to slog out a living in the world of indie film. But if we don't care, who will?

Let's make the philosophical practical for a second.

I made a film about New York after 9/11 called 7 Days in September. I wanted to create a work that would be enduring. Now the film is about to be released on DVD, and I'm trying to think about how I can protect the integrity of the work while at the same time understand that other filmmakers may want to use the film as part of other historic works.

The music industry has been facing this for some time, as rappers use riffs from existing works to spark their creative spirit, and "borrow" from the roots of music. It's a tricky line...and it comes down to the concept of fair use.

But as the archive business is monopolized by larger companies whose sensibilities are more bottom line than creative, the idea that there is any situation in which fair use is acceptable becomes harder to argue. For someone on the other end of the phone whose job it is to maximize sales, every filmmaker calling with a request to make them an expectation to the $60/second licensing fee sounds the same: "Important issue...have no budget....need to tell this story..." His response? Pay up.

So what do future filmmakers do when every piece of our visual history is owned and controlled by corporations? And what about film funders and buyers who don't want to consider any images fair use—often since it would undermine their ability to sell their own library as file footage?

Well, there may be a new way to look at copyright that is less black and white. Today, either material is public domain or copyright. And copyright means, Don't touch without permission.

The future may be a concept called Creative Commons. Creative Commons (or CC) is devoted to expanding the range of creative work available for others to build upon and share. It provides an interface so that you'll know how you can distribute or re-issue your moving images. CC also helps creators find video they can use and transform.

Basically, what the CC license does is let you, as the filmmaker,  define the rights you are willing to share, and on what terms. The result is a pool of material that becomes part of a creative resource that can create new works. This concept serves both to build an open-source resource and to put the creative clay back in the hands of the creators.

Who are the filmmakers that are already using the CC mark?

Prelinger Archives, based in San Francisco and founded by Rick Prelinger, is a collection of over 48,000 "ephemeral" (advertising, educational, industrial and  amateur) films.

Brian Flemming, film producer, has recently released Nothing So Strange, an open-source film. While his final cut of the movie is protected by an "all rights reserved" copyright, the raw cut has a CC license.


Those are just two examples.

How can you use the CC resources? Share your files. The Internet Archive's Open Source Movies Archive offers free hosting for CC movies. Choose a license that suites your material, and your willingness to share. Here are some of the options for file-sharing:

Attribution: You let others copy, distribute, display and perform your copyrighted work-and derivative works based upon it—but only if they give you credit.

Noncommercial: You let others copy, distribute, display and perform your work— and derivative works based upon it—but for noncommercial purposes only.

No Derivative Works: You let others copy, distribute, display and perform only verbatim copies of your work, not derivative works based upon it.

Share Alike: You allow others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs your work.

Save legal costs. Each CC license comes along with three ways to document and mark your work: Commons Deed: A simple, plain-language summary of the license, complete with the relevant icons. Legal Code: The fine print that you need to be sure the license will stand up in court. Digital Code: A machine-readable translation of the license that helps search engines and other applications identify your work by its terms of use.

This is more than a series of legal ideas, this is a cultural shift that move media away from big companies toward creator-controlled media. It's worth learning about. Take a look at and to learn more. For filmmakers, this is a movement worth paying attention to.


Steve Rosenbaum can be reached at