Surviving as an Author in the Realm of the Creative Commons

As content on the web begins to grow and expand, a pool of knowledge resources grows with it. The demand for open access to these resources has only increased, with people becoming more and more accustomed to free information from sources like Google and Wikipedia. This has been especially true when it comes to works in the publishing industry. In 2012, Winston Hide—associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health (Behrenshausen, 2012, para. 2)—resigned from his position after discovering that the university’s subscription-based research was inaccessible to those who could not afford to pay (Hide, 2012, para. 1). This was found to be extremely problematic, as the research contained important resources and findings for biomedical studies. Though the particular publishing company behind the controversy, Elsevier, has since improved their services to include some open access journals (Elsevier, n.d., para 2), many others still follow the more traditional mode of information release: pay up, or you cannot read the content. This concept has become increasingly outdated as people who want access to content continue to find ways around these restrictions. Though it is illegal, it is not impossible to scan an entire book and distribute it across the internet. It is also not impossible to distribute leaked manuscripts. That being said, some breaches of copyright, such as creating and publishing derivative works, may be something that the original author wishes to support. By default, these remixers would be breaking copyright, and thus, breaking the law. In 2001, however, a team of heroes introduced the Creative Commons (CC) license to bring humanity an alternative. The Creative Commons license creates a flexible alternative to the typical copyright. With this structure, copyright holders can freely distribute their content (and allow others to distribute it) while still covering a number of licensing options including attribution (requiring that users credit the author), ShareAlike (all derivative works must fall under the same license as the original work), and NonCommercial (prevents uses wherein content will generate revenue). Many authors choose to give their works away for free, but how does one guarantee an income from such an arrangement?

Author SL “Lisa” Huang is a proud appreciator of her fandom’s creativity. She wanted to ensure that her fans were not penalized for creating adaptions, fanworks, or fanfictions based upon her writing. From the get-go, she knew that her first published work would utilize the Creative Commons license (Huang, n.d. para. 4.).. She released her first novel, Zero Sum Game for free through the website The website allows creators to release Creative Commons licensed writing to their audiences. Revenue for Zero Sum Game is generated through a feature known as Thank the Creator, which is essentially a tipping service that allows readers to give money in appreciation of the writer/work provided. However, the website offers alternatives: one can also “buy to unglue” or “pledge to unglue”. The former requires the author to create a work that is then purchased by users, with a Creative Commons licence applied upon release. The latter provides somewhat of a Kickstarter format, which asks potential readers to pledge money towards the authoring of a work that will later be released under a Creative Commons license. This structure provides a wide range of options for both writers and their audiences and allows authors to generate revenue. It also allows fledgling authors to build up interest in their work. Though there is some risk in a “revenue-less” result, Huang points out that there is also a risk in the content never reaching audiences in the first place through lack of exposure (Huang, n.d. para. 2.).

Models of profitability can also be found when examining other freely distributed works that have not yet adopted (but could easily adopt) the Creative Commons license. The bi-monthly podcast Welcome to Night Vale is host to a very large fanbase. The cast itself is entirely free and accessible through a wide range of outlets such as iTunes, YouTube, and Stitcher. The YouTube uploads themselves are able to generate ad revenue, but the majority of income comes from the extensive merchandise shop and donations. The merchandise shop is relatively self explanatory, but what makes the donation service interesting is that one can choose from a range of options: a small or large one-time donation, or a variety of ongoing donation plans. This enables a wider range of listeners to support the show. The writers and actors are also known to go on live tours, in which they prepare a special script to entice listeners, while gaining revenue from ticket sales and merchandise. This particular model is quite risky, as it requires viewer interest in order to succeed. However, it makes sense that audiences would be more likely to support an author that is able to provide quality content.

That being said, indirect profitability is not always necessary. A great example of this is Natural Math, a website that hosts online lessons with a “pay-what-you want” structure. According to Team Open—a group that showcases open-access content under Creative Commons licenses—Natural Math is simultaneously changing the realm of educational publishing, while changing the way in which children learn math (Team Open, n.d., para 1). It operates on a “CC-BY” license: the material may be remixed, redistributed or copied for commercial and/or non-commercial use as long as it is attributed to the creator. Dr. Maria Droujkova created the site in order to provide openly accessible learning tools that could be adapted to each user’s needs. Under normal circumstances, copyright would restrict alteration of the materials, thus making it difficult to adapt the learning tools to the different contexts and cultures in which they will be used. Naturally, a Creative Commons license was a good fit for the cause. This structure has given opportunities to people who would have otherwise been unable to participate in the learning, including students in Iran, who are unable to pay a U.S. company due to trade restrictions. Natural Math is entirely at the mercy of its users. However, according to Dr. Droujkova, her compensation for the materials is quite similar to her traditional counterparts (Team Open, n.d., para 3). In one recent course, while half of its participants did not pay the $20 fee to participate, the other half of them insisted that the price was too low (Team Open, n.d. para 7). On top of this, the site does not need to pay university overhead charges in order to run its business.

In retrospect, copyright is not really as affective as it should be: it cannot physically prevent people from breaching it, and a lot of times, breaches may be too insubstantial or expensive to pursue in court. The Creative Commons license provides an alternative to help authors distribute their work freely. It also gives users peace of mind when remixing content and provides resources to people who may be unable to afford a set price. The issue now becomes adapting the license into society in a well-defined manner, and carving away hardened mindsets on copyright. The CC license may not be for everyone, but it is becoming a more and more integral part of publishing culture. To learn more about the Creative Commons and Creative Commons licensing, visit


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


  1. Michelle G · November 13, 2015

    I like your opening, beginning with the case of the Harvard professor draws your reader in. Your introduction does a great job of setting up the circumstances of Creative Commons so that the paper is accessible to any reader. I like that your writing style is a mix of academic and blog-like.

    I have heard a lot of buzz about Welcome to Night Vale recently, but I had no idea the extent to which this story has reached (tours, etc.). I think the power of the audience is key to the success here. The serial nature of the podcast and the audience it has developed is a great case study for what is possible in the industry. The potential for others to duplicate the Night Vale model is really promising, especially for indie authors. Did you know that a Night Vale book was recently published by HarperCollins as one of their biggest books of the season?

    The Natural Math software example is really interesting. This ‘pay what you want’ model reminds me of honour code fruit stands in rural areas, where people leave the money the retailer suggests. I like that you bring up that profitability is not always necessary with online publishing. Sometimes, software is developed with the purpose of improving what’s available, without any expectation of profit. This is usually to the benefit of public knowledge or general open access. It reminds me of the app Duolingo, a language-learning software that teaches by having users translate the internet. The app and service is free, but the benefit is that the internet is translated, for free, by users.

    You used two really great examples here, and I feel like you could have lengthened your essay by expanding on both of these. You could have shown other ways the same models are used for other products or services, to compare and contrast how the same models are molded to different circumstances. I would have liked to see how the Night Vale model has played out in other situations to see how other audiences react to this model.

    In your conclusion, you touch briefly on the effect on readers/users, but I think you could have dedicated a whole paragraph to this. The ability for fans to remix content and have the peace of mind that they won’t run into legal issues is something that has dramatically changed fan interaction online, and I’m guessing you could have found some great examples from Night Vale of fans remixing content that would have added to your argument.

    I really liked your writing style, you express your ideas clearly and in a way that makes it easy for me to keep reading. Writing without distracting your reader is a skill, so great job!


  2. jalperin · December 10, 2015

    This essay opens wonderfully well. It captures the reader’s attention, it sets out the necessary information, and it clearly states a theme/question that will be addressed. The essay goes on to lay out three very different, and useful examples of users of creative commons licenses in publishing. Unfortunately, all we get to learn about these examples is that they exist, but we are left wanting to know how the author believes these examples will play out in the larger scheme of things. A bit more thought into analyzing each, and this would have been an excellent paper.


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