Creative Commons offers flexible licenses that allow various options for sharing your music. Copyright affects all the music you create. It allows you to protect your music and it’s been the legal mechanism underpinning the recorded music industry for about a century. Its default setting is: all rights reserved. This allows you to control how your music is used and ensures you profit from it.
But this doesn’t help the goal of getting your music “out there” and shared. After all, it’s your music that will grow your fan base—the more that people are exposed to your music, the more likely it’ll generate new fans. All rights reserved is also at odds with the web, which is about sharing. Plus, it doesn’t directly help you with promotion, which is about exposure.
What if there was a way to use copyright to promote your music while reserving the commercial rights for yourself? Basically telling the world: some rights reserved.
Enter the Creative Commons (creativecommons.org), an organization that offers flexible licenses. For example, depending on the terms you decide to use, you can allow fans to share your music with each other as long as they attribute it and don’t try to make money off of it. And you are able to inform artists, video directors, podcasters, and other creators that they can use your music in their works as long as it’s for non-commercial purposes and as long as they give you credit. All of this sharing can drive exposure. It can get your music in front of content creators, who get to sample your work, which can give them ideas to license your music for commercial use, or commission new works from you.
Creative Commons is written in three different formats: human-readable, lawyer-readable, and machine-readable. All of the Creative Commons licenses require attribution, which means that anyone sharing it or using it must also share who created and owns it. But these licenses are flexible, and allow you to set your own terms:
Commercial/Non-Commercial Use: You decide whether others can use your music to make money or whether that’s reserved just for you.
Derivatives/No Derivatives: You can require others to keep your work exactly the same as you released it or allow them to create variations (derivative works) off of it.
ShareAlike: This, paired with derivatives, allows people to remix your music as long as they release it under the same license you gave them.
There are some gotchas with Creative Commons. First, it’s perpetual, so once you release a song under this license, you can’t take it back. Second, you can’t legitimately sell an exclusive license to any song that you previously released under a Creative Commons license. Third, it’s not compatible with the rules of some Performance Rights Organizations.
But if you’re comfortable using these licenses, they can allow you to participate in entirely new types of creator communities. For example, ccMixter (ccmixter.org) dominates the remix communities on the web, and lets musicians release source tracks in a way that remixers know exactly what they may and may not do with the music. And sites like FreeMusicArchive (freemusicarchive.org) curate free music, allowing fans to discover new music and content creators to find music to use in their videos, podcasts, and other artistic works.
Also, the machine-readable license terms under Creative Commons added a unique new dimension to the web: a search engine that can distinguish how a work is licensed (search. creativecommons.org). This allows content creators to find video, images, and music to use in their media to share with their audiences. Feeding these engines are major music sites like SoundCloud (soundcloud.com), which makes it easy for their users to license their music under these terms. And YouTube has built-in tools for video creators to discover Creative Commons licensed work to use in their videos (youtube.com/yt/copyright/creative-commons.html). Using this tool, YouTube will automatically handle the attribution in the credits of the video, pointing people back to you.
While Creative Commons licenses are not for everyone, they are an exciting method for encouraging fans to share your music with their friends, and encourage content creators to use your music and broadcast your name to the world. You never know where your work will wind up once you decide to use copyright to promote your music.
Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan are authors of The Indie Band Survival Guide (St. Martin’s Griffin), now in its second edition.