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Creative Commons and the GNU GPL

By   |  October 20, 2004

\”It\’s becoming so confusing! All these licences – which one do I choose?\” This is something I hear often when I talk to people in South Africa about Creative Commons. Many people think that Creative Commons is trying to replicate the Free Software Foundation\’s GNU General Public License (GPL), but there are distinct differences in the origin, application and use of the licences.

Creative Commons was born out of the idea that the free and open source software movement\’s approach to copyright held enormous promise in trying to solve some of the problems around copyrighting music, film and books on the Internet. Creative Commons believed that there was a need for some balance between two extremes in the debate around what constituted copyright and \”copyleft\” and that the original author should be able to decide and, more importantly, understand these conditions at first glance.

The GNU GPL, on the other hand, was created by Richard Stallman in 1989 to grant users the right to copy, modify, and redistribute software and to ensure that the same rights were preserved in all derivative works.

There are definitely similarities between the licences. Both the GNU GPL and CC approach ownership and re-use of software, in the case of the GNU GPL, and content, in the case of Creative Commons, in the following way:

• First, the software/content is protected by copyright.

• Then, the copyright holder grants permission to copy, distribute and/or modify the software/content according to a licencing agreement.

• While the conditions of the GNU GPL are unchangeable Creative Commons allows the user to simply choose the conditions under which they make their work available on the Internet. The three decisions that the user must make include:

1. Whether the work will be made available under non-commercial or commercial terms;

2. Whether derivatives will be allowed to be made of the work or not; and finally,

3. Whether derivative works must be made available under the same terms that they were first used, or not.

According to Creative Commons Canada, there are, in fact, only two cc licences that would qualify as \’open source\’ if they were applied to software: the Attribution ( and the Attribution-ShareAlike ( licenses. The other four permutations containing the requirement of \”no derivatives\” and/or \”no commercial use\” would not qualify.

Both licenses have their strengths, relating specifically to the types of products that they aim to protect and innovate around. For many, the success of Creative Commons lies in its user-friendly approach to licensing. This prompted the Brazilian government to combine the software focus of the GNU GPL with the CC \”human readable code\” wrapper to create the CC-GNU GPL The CC-GNU GPL is used to license all government initiated software projects and has been translated into Portuguese.

This has also prompted the start of a discussion within the Creative Commons community on designing a Creative Commons licence specifically for software.

According to Information Technology lawyer, Elizabeth Rader, \”there are already multiple off-the-shelf licenses meant to express \’some rights reserved\’ for software, but these tend to be one-size-fits-all…

\”The beauty of a Creative Commons licence is that humans, even lawyers, can understand its scope instantly.\”

Although we may disagree about features of the licences, the goal of the GNU GPL and of Creative Commons remains the same: the quest for a liberated information society where innovation and creativity is open to all. Both movements recognise that only when we are able to break monopoly market control imposed by one-size-fits-all copyright rules, can we achieve the goals of creating truly free markets and liberated societies.

The consensus around this goal is far more important than differences in how we get there.

For more information on Creative Commons in South Africa, go to and Creative Commons International at

Email the author: heather at

This article is released under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license


One Response to “Creative Commons and the GNU GPL”

  1. Biris
    July 18th, 2008 @ 3:19 pm

    really helpfull article! thank you

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