Creative Commons Licenses

Creative Commons LicensesSongwriting and recording copyrights perplex even the most knowledgeable of us and the laws are consistently becoming more complex as music goes digital. We want to be paid for our work. We certainly do not want to be stolen from or taken advantage of by the industry. We want to get our music out there for people to hear and enjoy. But paying to register our songs and then not getting paid for their use does not seem right either. For many artists and many songs the typical way of handling copyrights simply does not make cents or sense.


In previous posts we have learned quite a bit about copyrights. You may want to review this information to better understand how copyrights typically work.

Copyright or Copywrite

Who owns the copyrights to your bands songs? 

The Poor Man’s Copyright

Copyright Notice

Registering Song Copyrights

Performance Rights Organizations: Working with the PRO’s


After gaining an understanding about what copyrights are and how they work, most of us have come to the conclusion that we will not be paid royalties for most of the songs we write. Not being paid does not mean the songs are not good or that they do not have incredible ministry potential. It simply means that they will not make the charts and get enough mainstream radio airplay to generate a paycheck. This begs the question, “Why should we pay to register our songs with the copyright office?It does not make cents.


When we learned about the economics of free in the post Should my band give away free music downloads?  many of us agreed that it would be better to give at least some of our songs away. So, why would we restrict access to the songs by reserving all our rights to the songs? It does not make sense.


Is there another way we can handle copyrights?

Yes. It is called a Creative Commons License.



Creative Commons Licenses are a way that we can give certain, specific rights to people while keeping other rights for ourselves. These licenses let our work (in our case, songs) circulate freely and legally while maintaining our copyrights. In other words, downloading and file sharing becomes legal when you license your songs under a Creative Commons license, but you retain ownership of the song and specify how it can or cannot be used.


Some Background Information on Creative Commons

The Mission Statement Creative Commons has posted on their website is:

“Creative Commons helps you share your knowledge and creativity with the world.

Creative Commons develops, supports, and stewards legal and technical infrastructure that maximizes digital creativity, sharing, and innovation.”

Some companies who use Creative Commons are: Google, Wikipedia, Flickr,, even YouTube has a Creative Commons video library. The most notable musician who has used this license is Nine Inch Nails with the releases Ghosts I-IV and Slip.

Creative Commons is not exclusive to the United States; it is a global organization with courts worldwide upholding the licenses.


About the Licenses

Creative Commons Licenses are free to use, but this does not mean that your work must be free. Some of the licenses allow you to sell your work while others stipulate that your work must be shared freely—you get to choose which is best for each one of your projects.

Creative Commons Licenses are for any works that are covered by copyright laws—not just songwriting and recording (although that is what we are focusing on here).

There is no registration (or registration fee) to use the Creative Commons licenses.

You can choose a different license (including the typical “all rights reserved” license) for each project.

To license a work simply choose which of the six licenses is best suited for your project using their license chooser, and then place the copyright notice for that license on your project. This copyright notice tells others that you have chosen to release the project under the terms of that particular license.


There are six main options for Creative Commons licenses:

Attribution—The word attribution in this usage means giving credit to you for your original work. Usually attribution is in the form of a link to your website or profile for online work or your name and where people can find you for offline work. The attribution license allows other people to modify your work as long as they give you credit. This license is the most lenient of the six and should be used whenever you want to maximize the distribution of the work.

Attribution-NoDerivs—NoDerivs stands for ‘no derivatives’. This means that your work must remain unchanged and whole. So, this license is used when you want people to give you credit for your work (Attribution) and leave the work exactly as you created it (NoDerivs).

Attribution-ShareAlike—ShareAlike means that anyone who remixes, tweaks, or builds upon your work must license their new creations under the identical terms your initial creation used. So under this license other people can change your work as long as they give you credit (Attribution) and also use the same ShareAlike license as you did in the initial work.

Attribution-NonCommercial—A commercial use is one primarily intended for commercial advantage or monetary compensation. In other words, a commercial use generally has the intent to make money while a non-commercial use does not. This license gets a little tricky because ‘the use’ is not based on who is using it but on the intent of the user to make money or not from your work. A non-profit organization (like a Church) does not automatically qualify as non-commercial simply because their overall group is not focused on making money. Most fundraising campaigns, for example, are considered to have the intent of making money. This license allows people to use your work as long as they give you credit (Attribution) and use it in a way that is not intended to make money (NonCommercial).

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs—This license means that people must give you credit (Attribution), use the work in a way that is not intended to make money (NonCommercial), and your work must remain unchanged and whole (NoDerivs).

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike—Under this license people must give you credit for your work (Attribution), use the work in a way that is not intended to make money (NonCommercial), and must license any remixes, tweaks, or work that is built upon your work under the identical terms your initial creation used (ShareAlike).


There are many ways each of these licenses could be used. Here are some of the more common ways that Christian music ministers might want to use them:


Attribution—This is least restrictive of the licenses offered by Creative Commons. It allows anyone to share or change our work as long as they credit us. But since commercial uses are not restricted we should not use it on anything that we do not want someone else to sell. We should to use it when we want to reach most people possible. Memes would be good works to license this way because you want everyone to share them (and draw some attention to your band as the creators), you do not care if they change them, and they are generally not used to make money.

AttributionNoDerivs—This is the license to use when you want to make sure your work does not get changed but you still want everyone to share it. Candid photographs of your band might be licensed well here. You do not want to give people permission to change (photoshop) your band or your surroundings, you want everyone to share your photos, but no one will try to make money selling them.

AttributionShareAlike—This license lets other people change and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. Wikipedia uses this license, so if your band has a Wikipedia page it will be used there.

AttributionNonCommercial—Use this license when it is OK for other people to change your work but not to use with the intent to make money from it. Some songwriters have released music under this license so that fans share it and can use it on videos and in remixes. Here is a case study for Jonathan Colton (a singer/songwriter who uses this license): CLICK HERE   and another case study from Christopher Willits: CLICK HERE

AttributionNonCommercialNoDerivs—Many of us will use this license for songs that we do not want changed or sold by someone else. This is the license to use when you want to give free downloads to your fans but you do not want to give them permission to sell or remix them. Here is a case study for a musician who uses this license, Monk Turner: CLICK HERE

AttributionNonCommercialShareAlike— This is the license I used for The Christian Music Festival Survival Guide because I did not want anyone to be able to sell it, but I also want bands and fests to be able to add their information to the guide. Anyone who creates a new guide based on mine will have to also share it without the intent of making money. This license allows fans to receive free information, bands and fests to add information, and gives me credit for the work. Hopefully this form of license will result in more people checking out this website. Here are case studies of bands who use this license: Ancient Free Gardeners: CLICK HERE   Pig Head Skin: CLICK HERE   Topolgy: CLICK HERE


Do Creative Commons Licenses make sense and cents for your Christian band?

Probably, most of the time, Yes.

Especially in this digital age of music.


Creative Commons Licenses are certainly well suited to music ministry. But, I have a feeling that these licenses may be the future for all indie musicians.

This post has been a brief overview to get you started thinking about the best ways to share and protect your songs. Remember that you can choose a different license for each song. So, you may want to consider trying a Creative Commons license for one song and see if you like it. At the very least, take some time to explore the Creative Commons website and learn about one of the most exciting options the digital age of music has made available to us.

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