Content Licensing 101 for Bloggers

As we talked about last week, whenever you post a blog entry, upload a photograph to your Flickr account or post a video to YouTube, you’re creating copyrighted work and sharing it with the Internet.

As the creator and copyright holder of that work, you have certain rights and protections over it, including the ability to bar others from making unauthorized copies or publicly display/perform the work.

However, you might not want to enforce all of those rights. For example, you might be perfectly happy to let others copy your work and post it on their sites provided they give attribution back. Or, you might be happy to have them print out copies for their personal use so long as they don’t attempt to sell them.

This is where content licensing comes into play. It’s the means by which you give someone (or everyone) a certain amount of rights to use your work even though that use, without your permission, would have been a copyright infringement.

As such, it’s important to understand the basics of copyright licensing and what some of the options are out there. This is so you can maximize what you get out of your writing and, equally importantly, prevent misunderstandings and accidental infringements by others.

With that in mind, here’s a basic rundown of what you need to know to be savvy about content licensing on the Web.

What is a Content License?

When you create a copyrighted work and become the copyright holder in it, you are given a set of exclusive rights that, when others violate them, are considered infringement. What a copyright license does is give others permission, or a license, to use the work in a way that you wish to allow while still restricting uses you don’t want.

A license can be given to anyone you want. You can give a license to just one person or company, an exclusive license in that case, or you can give it to everyone, making it a blanket license.

Likewise, a license can be just about anything you want it to be, everything from carte blanche to do whatever you want with the work, including sell copies of it, or it could be a very restrictive license that allows only one or two very specific uses of the work.

In short, a license can be almost anything so long as it is granting permissions to others to do things that would otherwise be a copyright infringement.

What If I Don’t Have a License?

If you don’t have a blanket license on your site and you don’t grant individuals a license, then default copyright law applies, which limits all copying and reuse of your work outside of the limited exemption of fair use.

Basically, where a content license is a “Yes” to certain uses, default copyright law is a blanket “No” for everyone and everything.

Why Would I Want to Offer a License for My Work?

Some licensing is necessary for your work to appear online. For example, when you upload a video to YouTube you grant YouTube a license to display the video on their site and stream it, something that they need in order to provide their service. Likewise, if you host with Blogger or, you grant a similar license over your posts.

However, beyond the licensing that’s necessary for your site to function, many are comfortable allowing reuse of their work and feel that it provides them benefit in the form of promotion and increased reach. Many of those who feel that way don’t want to be hassled by countless questions asking if it is ok to repost an article or print out an image. As such, they grant blanket licenses so everyone knows what users are acceptable and which are not.

How Do I Offer a License to Others?

There are three ways you can offer a license to another party and they include:

  1. DIrect Licensing: This is when you offer a license to use your content to an individual or company. This can be done via a contract, such as a terms of service, or even by just agreeing to a use in an email.
  2. Blanket Licensing: This is when you offer a license, such as a Creative Commons one, that anyone is free to take advantage of. This is usually posted alongside your work so everyone can see it.
  3. Implied Licensing: Though not a “license” per se, you can also grant permission to use your work through your actions with it. For example, if you put a “print” button your site you obviously intend for people to use it and, thus, it’s not an infringement when they do so.

You can use any of these methods to license your work or even combine them as appropriate. However, there can be issues when various licenses clash so think hard about what you want people to do with your work and make sure that all of your licensing is compatible with that.

I Want to Encourage Others to Copy/Share My Work, What Should I Do?

If you want to encourage the public to copy and use your work, you need to provide them the license to do so. This can be done easily by providing a blanket license to all of your visitors and posting it on your site.

To that end, Creative Commons is the most popular and likely best solution. Creative Commons provide a series of six licenses that lets the copyright holder decide what terms they are comfortable with and find the license that works best for them. These terms include allowing commercial use of the work and enabling the creation of derivative works.

Once you choose your license, you are then given code that you can add to your site to implement it. This code is both human readable, with simple, easy-to-understand terms, lawyer-readable, with full legalese, and machine-readable as well for easy searching.

See Also

You can also attempt to write your own copyright license, though that path is very risky without the aid of an attorney.

Is Blanket Content Licensing Right For Me?

There’s no right or wrong answer to whether or not you should use Creative Commons or another blanket licensing system on your site. Every blogger has to weigh the factors for themselves including their personal feelings about having their works copied, the business model they are targeting with their site and what their audience will likely expect/tolerate.

Many bloggers thrive with open licensing of their work where others do better under more restrictive terms. You have to decide which is right for you.

If you are unsure, you can always keep the default copyright license and grant permissions on a case-by-case basis, even encouraging others to write and ask.

Bottom Line

Content licensing is one of those things that every blogger should think about but very few actually do. The rules you set for how others can use your content determines not just how it’s shared on the Web but, legally, what is and is not a copyright infringement of your work.

It’s important to note though that licenses and licensing systems, such as Creative Commons, GPL, etc. are not replacements for copyright. Instead, they work within the current copyright system to grant permissions and place restrictions on use. If copyright law went away or radically changed, all of these systems would fall apart.

Given the important legal and promotional elements to content licensing, it’s worth spending a few minutes thinking about it and, more importantly, getting it right.

Your Questions

Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private (However, please mention that it is a suggestion for Freelance Writing Jobs). This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.


I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.

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