It's a non-profit organisation focused on developing innovative and balanced approaches to copyright and intellectual property law. The brainchild of Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, it was founded in 2001 by a small group of academics, lawyers and content creators. It's based in the San Francisco Bay Area but has an increasingly international reach.
So what do they do exactly?
Their most significant accomplishment thus far has been the Creative Commons licences, which allow artists to specify how they want their works copied and distributed. Instead of the usual 'all rights reserved' of standard copyright, artists can choose to reserve only some rights and specify under which conditions they want those rights applied. With a CC licence an artist could allow, for example, a photograph be copied only if they're given credit or if it's for non-commercial use.
They want to do away with copyright then?
Not at all. The Creative Commons licence is meant to complement standard copyright law, to provide a way for those who don't mind their work being passed on and who see collaborating with people they don't know as a good thing. The organisation understands there are still some people who want the 'all rights reserved' and 'you must ask for permission' approach for their content - and that's fine with them.
This sounds a bit like the GPL licence for software...
You're getting the idea. Creative Commons credits software licences such as the Free Software Foundation's GNU General Public License as an inspiration though in practice they are quite different. The CC licences are not for software but for works such as literature, photography, music, film and websites.
How would I go about using the licence?
You can choose a licence on the Creative Commons website. The site then provides links to places you might like to publish your work online such as the Internet Archive or photo site Flickr. Or you can of course publish it on your own personal website. CC also provides metadata to designate the licence status of your works so they can be more easily located by others looking for them online.
Will the licences work for me anywhere in the world?
The depends. The first CC licence, launched in December of 2002, was designed as an all-purpose solution, yet it may not hold up in every jurisdiction. The CC has been hard at work creating regional licences for legal jurisdictions across the world, to make sure the licences address local copyright and IP laws. Over a dozen countries now have their own versions. The versions for England and Wales and for Scotland, for instance, just launched this spring.
Do they do anything besides licences?
Yes. CC provides free tools to aid in the sharing of content across the web such as a search tool for finding CC content on the web and tools that help artists tag audio and video files so others know the works have been released under the CC licence.
It has also set up a Founders' Copyright which allows content creators to apply a standard copyright to their work for 14 years, after which it will enter into the public domain. And it has launched the Science Commons, a splinter organisation which seeks to apply the CC philosophies to the world of science.
So what's next?
Who knows? Perhaps more new licences, perhaps more initiatives to increase the number of works available to share online. The CC fancies itself as a grassroots organisation, with a wide remit to encourage creative thinking in the intellectual property world, so the best ideas may well come from the participating community, not necessarily from the board of directors.