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Industry Insider: Eric Steuer

November 1, 2009
Eric Steuer is the creative director at Creative Commons.

Eric Steuer is the creative director at Creative Commons.

In today's connected world, more people than ever are content creators. Whether they're producing videos, podcasts or other media, many of these folks are looking for music to use on their projects. On the other side of the coin, musicians are always searching for ways to reach new people and make new fans, and allowing content creators to use their music without charge is one way to do so. Standing in between them is copyright law, which simply says “all rights reserved” unless the lawyers get involved. Musicians who wish to get their music into the hands of creators must find a way to license their compositions for these purposes, yet still be able to profit in case a major movie or TV studio calls to use their music.

Enter Creative Commons (“CC”), a nonprofit organization that provides free, easy-to-understand licenses for creators of all types. They are designed to let you license your work for certain uses while keeping the rest of the rights. Stories about successful uses of Creative Commons' licenses abound, by both major-label and independent artists. We talked to Eric Steuer, the creative director at Creative Commons, for the details on these licenses, and on ways musicians can use copyright to get opportunities and exposure for their music.

Why should musicians use CC licenses?

By default, copyright law sets all your rights as “all rights reserved,” so people have to ask permission to use, copy or share any of your music. What we do at creativecommons.org is provide you with free and easy-to-use licensing tools that let you choose what you want to allow and restrict by creating ready-made licenses — all without having to hire a lawyer. These licenses can increase your exposure by allowing people to share or use your music legally, while at the same time keeping your work protected through copyright. If you don't make this clear, you're not taking advantage of the full social, distribution and marketing aspects of the Web. There are so many places that people are conversing and spending their time on the Internet that by allowing others to use your music, your reputation as a creator will grow every time someone puts your work somewhere else.

What kind of opportunities can a CC license open up for your music?

By using a CC license to encourage sharing, you release your creations for more people to hear and share with others. Fans can post your music on blogs, share them on peer-to-peer networks and put your music in places that you might not have thought of. And if you allow derivative works to be created through your CC license, you encourage collaborations to take place that can spread your music. Someone might upload a guitar part under a CC license that allows everyone in the community to take it and use it for noncommercial purposes. Maybe the next musician will add to it, or instead add a drum track. This type of collaboration is only possible with the legal framework a CC license provides. Artists like Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, The Roots, John Legend and Yo Yo Ma have uploaded stems (vocal tracks, drum tracks, guitar tracks, et cetera) for others to create new music out of. It's through campaigns like this that they build awareness of the original recording and also get the benefit of others sharing thousands of new remixes of the song. Plus, through their CC license, they retain full copyright over the original track. So they don't give away anything and can still sell that track.

What permissions do CC licenses provide and how many are there for musicians to choose from?

Right now there are six licenses you can choose. The most liberal one requires only attribution. That is, you give people the right to do whatever they want with your music — even make money off of it — as long as they attribute you as the creator. The most restrictive requires attribution, forbids the use of your music for commercial purposes and doesn't allow them to make any derivative works based on it. They can't change, edit or build off your music in any way, such as making remixes, collages or editing it down for other purposes.

And musicians can use these licenses and still sell their music?

Yes, if you reserve the commercial rights for yourself. In that case, you'd use the noncommercial CC license, which says: While I may be giving you the right to share my music with friends, add it to YouTube videos, make mix-tapes out of it, et cetera, I'm retaining the exclusive rights to make commercial use of this material. So if someone wants to use your song in a way that would constitute commercial use, a noncommercial CC license states that they have to come back to you and negotiate a separate license (and possibly a royalty) for the commercial use of that song. Just like they would have had to do in the first place if you hadn't licensed your song under a CC license.

And do people buy the music, even when it's free to share?

Yes they do. The two Nine Inch Nails albums that came out last year are a good example of how someone can use a CC license to complement and drive revenue for different versions of their product. So while anyone could freely download and legally share a version of NIN's albums, NIN was still selling a higher bit-rate version of it for something like $5, a CD for $10, a limited vinyl edition for $300 and so on. Within the first weekend, NIN pulled in about $1.2 million, which is a huge amount of revenue to make off of an album available for free under a CC license. The lesson here is if you give people rights to hear and share your music, it's a way to build awareness about it in the marketplace and drive them to your site. From there, you can direct them to other money-making things like higher-cost products, merchandise or to encourage them to see you on tour.

How would a musician go about choosing which Creative Commons license to use? What are the steps?

We have an easy-to-use licensing tool at creative commons.org that anyone can use. You answer a few questions that define the extent of the rights you want to give to people, put in your attribution and contact information (so it can be included in the license), and we'll point you to the license to use that's the most appropriate for your needs. You then copy the HTML and paste that into your Website, and it will link back to our site. Clicking the link to the license brings up a page on our site that explains what people can and can't do with your music.

Do you have to be a lawyer to understand these licenses?

No, and that's really one of the main problems we were trying to solve when we launched CC. We provide licenses that are easily understood by the public so lawyers don't need to get involved. So if you find something on the Web that has a CC license, all you need to do is click on the icon and you'll see the license written out in very simple language — just the three or four things you can or cannot do. But if you want, you can click from there to read the full 15 to 20-page legal document written by our lawyers and updated throughout the year.

Because you talk about HTML and embedding things on your Website, do these licenses only apply to Web content?

No, you can use a CC license for any copyrightable work — whether it's online or off. This includes your videos, the composition itself (not just the recording), your album's cover art, sheet music, photographs, your Website, your blog and your writing. It's not just for music.

Can you name some of the other high-profile musicians who use CC licenses?

We've worked with all kinds of artists. Beastie Boys, Deerhoof, Dangermouse, Pearl Jam, Girl Talk and T-Pain are just a few that use CC licenses.

How do you think Creative Commons and copyright fits into this new music industry?

We're in a transition period. And I think that an approach like a CC license can be a critical part of the new music industry because it puts the artist in control to permit which rights they want to grant and which rights they want to keep. I think you'll have more luck getting people involved with your music if you're clear about what you want them to be able to do and tell them how you want to be attributed. This clarity will be integral to the relationship between people who consume and listen to music and people who create and publish it.


Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan are authors of The Indie Band Survival Guide: The Complete Manual for the Do-It-Yourself Musician, The D.I.Y. Music Manual and founders of the open and free musician resource, IndieGuide.com (www.IndieGuide.com).

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