Creative Commons Debuts Study on Noncommercial Use


The Creative Commons organization debuted a new report highlighting the attitudes and conceptions of “commercial use” on the Web.

The report, entitled “Defining Noncommercial” is the culmination of over a year of research by Netpop Research which included both surveys and focus groups to learn about the general public’s attitudes toward what “noncommercial” means.

The issue of the “noncommercial” license has been one of the major sticking points for many with Creative Commons.The exact definition of noncommercial has caused much confusion and debate leading many to feel uncertain about using NC content even for uses likely defined as noncommercial.

The study is an attempt to define what noncommercial means to people on the Web and find out what the de facto standards have become. On that front, the study gleaned some interesting lessons.

How the Study Was Performed

The bulk of the study was performed by a combination of focus groups and surveys sent to content creators, people who use CC licenses on their work, and users, people who take use content created by others for various purposes. The research team collected roughly 2000 completed surveys, half from creators, half from users and compiled the data.

This, coupled with background research, interviews and focus groups, made up the data provided in the survey. Below are some of the key findings.

Key Findings

Here are a few of the critical takeways from the report:

  1. Creative Commons Definition is Holding Up: 87% of creators 85% of users said that the definition of commercial use contained within the CC license (“…any manner that is primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation”) was either “essentially the same as” or “different from but still compatible with” as their own views.
  2. Users Are More Conservative Than Creators Overall: Throughout the survey, users of CC content consistently ranked users as being “more commercial” than their creator counterparts, meaning that a user was more likely to see a use as commercial than a creator. This means that it is probably more common for uses to shy away from uses a creator would be comfortable with than to overstep bounds.
  3. Users in Large Strongly Support Attribution, Remixers Less So: Only 3% of users said that attribution should never be required. However, among those who remix content the numbers were slightly different with 15% saying they either rarely or never attribute content and another 20% saying they only give it when it is requested or required. Only 39% of remixer said they “always” attribute content.
  4. Still a Great Deal of Copyright Confusion: 45% of all users said that “none” of the works they used are copyrighted and another 32% said they were not sure. However, the younger the user was the more likely they were to believe the works were copyrighted.
  5. Most Don’t Generate Revenue: 86% of users said that they never earned money off of the works they used, the same amount of creators that said they had never earned revenue. However, those who did earn money tended to take a more strict view about what is commercial use.
  6. Advertising Largely the Same as Selling: Using a work along side of ads was routinely labeled commercial with roughly the same frequency as selling copies of the work, thus possibly answering one of the toughest questions with NC licenses.

There are many other interesting pieces of information in the study and it is worth taking a look at the full PDF (18 MB) and skimming through the results.

The question, however, is what does this report mean for Creative Commons and its those who use its licenses. That answer is less clear.


Legally speaking, this report likely won’t mean much. Not only have disputes over commercial use not been common with CC licenses, likely for reasons hinted at in the report, but there is a great deal of case law on the topic of commercial use and a the clause within the CC license that defines it, that it seems most people agree with.

However, even with the most clear cut cases (one way or another) there was at least some disagreement and dispute, this means that the possibility for a suit is always there and, though this report can help point to what the norms are on the Web, it isn’t a definitive guide on the topic either nor is it really mean to be.

More than likely, the most important direct use of this report is that it will be taken into consideration when the CC Organization drafts version 4.0 of its licenses, the process of which is expected to kick off sometime in 2010.

Bottom Line

The new Creative Commons study has provided some very interesting and powerful insight into the norms, attitudes and behaviors of those on the Web. Though it may not definitively answer some of the legal questions surrounding non-commercial licenses, understanding the existing norms is important to both avoiding legal trouble and to help the CC Organization craft licenses that can better and more clearly address the issue.

Though this study might not resolve anything by itself, this kind of understanding is the first step to bringing about productive change in the future. On that front, I have to applaud the CC Organization for taking time out, not only to seriously address the issues that have been raised about noncommercial licenses, but also to try and foster understanding of the current copyright climate on the Web.

The results are mixed and there is a lot of work to be done, especially in the area of education, but at least we have a better idea of where the weaknesses lie.