Some numbers on Creative Commons

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The number of the current, freshly-released version of the Creative Commons licenses: 3.0. The total number of CC licensed works on the web at last estimate: 145 million. The percent of those that we would call “free": 29%. The time it takes to double the number of free, Creative Commons licensed works: approximately 115 days.

Every so often, Creative Commons publishes some statistics intended to estimate how many people are using their licenses, as well as which licenses they use. Now that Creative Commons has just released their new, more-compatible version of their license, it seems an apt time to go over some of the success metrics for the Creative Commons licenses. Also—conveniently—I just happen to be analyzing this data for a book I’m working on, so I’m in a good position to write this.

One of the things that CC does right is to make it very easy to trace their licenses. The recommended licensing system is to link back to a unique URL for each license type and version. Both Yahoo and Google provide a means by which you can search for web pages that link to a certain URL, so it then becomes possible to estimate how many pages on the net are pointing at the CC licenses. The bulk of these, one assumes, will be licensing statements. Of course, like all data-gathering of this type, the assumptions aren’t perfect, so there is some error, but probably not enough to make the numbers violently wrong.

The CC licenses show a fairly clean exponential growth pattern. Free licenses are growing slightly faster.The CC licenses show a fairly clean exponential growth pattern. Free licenses are growing slightly faster.

The first thing that immediately jumps out at you from this plot is that there’s nothing complicated going on here: the growth is a plain exponential. The wobbles that are there are probably not that significant—they can easily be explained by changes in the methodology (such as switching from Yahoo to Google statistics).

That’s interesting, because with all the fuss going on over whether CC has “betrayed" the free culture movement by promoting “non-commercial" licenses, which has earned them a specific _non-_endorsement by Richard Stallman, and much flak from Debian and other free software organizations; with all the FUD flying from Microsoft, the RIAA, and the MPAA, and so on; you might expect to see dips and jumps in the license adoption rate. But if such political upheavals have any effect, it must be pretty small, because the overall story is “unrestrained growth".

That’s what you expect to see early in the growth of something that will one day be much bigger: first, there’s exponential growth, then as environmental factors start stunting the growth (e.g. the friction that ASCAP, BPI, RIAA, MPAA, and Microsoft among others are very highly motivated to create) the growth slows down to linear, then sub-linear growth, eventually capping out at an “equilibrium" state.

If free culture were an edge phenomenon, only interesting as a loss-leader to attract proprietary sales, for example, you would expect to see this equilibrium be pretty small. However, it’s clear from the numbers that whatever the equilibrium is, we are currently very far from it—exponential growth means that anything that is trying to retard the growth isn’t working, and so there is apparently loads of room to grow.

“Exponential growth" means that over any fixed interval of time, the amount increases by a fixed percentage—you’ve probably heard of this in connection to compound interest. The growth we see here is around 0.6% per day (it’s about 0.53 for all CC works and maybe 0.60 for free works). That probably doesn't sound like much, but it builds up quickly. One way to characterize exponential growth is to specify the “doubling time"—how long do you have to wait for the amount to increase by 100%, or for the phenomenon to double in size?

For 0.6% per day, that number is about 115 days, or a bit under 4 months. Another way of looking at it is that the number is increasing by almost an order of magnitude (more exactly, about 8.9 times) each year. This is the growth rate of free-licensed CC works.

The fact that the free licenses (Public Domain, CC-By, and CC-By-SA) are showing the same growth (in fact, slightly beating the overall CC licensed growth) appears to refute the widely-held belief in the free-software community that the non-commercial and non-derivative variants are stunting the growth of free licenses for cultural works.

Certainly, we can afford to lay off of CC about it: even if they are stunting that growth, we have little to worry about. The free license options are becoming slightly more popular: between early 2005 and the middle of 2006, they went from about 22% to about 29% of the total. Copyleft (By-SA) licensed works are growing just a teensy bit faster than the non-copyleft licensed works, though not enough to really call it significant.

In June 2006, the number of free-CC-licensed works was about 40 Million. If the growth rate observed in this plot keeps up, that number will be about 360 Million by June 2007, and of course, about 3.2 billion by June 2008. After that, I’m a little afraid to predict, but I think you can see that it will be pretty huge.

It’s much more speculative to talk about the relative increase in free-licensed works (PD, By, By-SA), but if the growth curves I've plotted here were to be extended to June 2008, then free works would make up about half of all CC works by then (the total would be about 6.6 billion by then).

Unfortunately, I don’t have comparison figures for the amount of work under proprietary licenses on the web. It’s probably a pretty huge number, so these may well still be small percentages of the total—though it’s already clear that CC licensing is becoming more mainstream, and another couple of orders of magnitude of increase will surely make them much more important to mainstream culture.

Another problem, of course, is that this picture doesn’t distinguish by media. There are some other statistics by media type available, but they’re somewhat limited, and they I’m not able to find time-series data, so it’s not really possible to try to find a trend, though we could naively assume that the media makeup isn’t changing that much.

All in all, it’s a picture of roaring success. Congratulations are clearly due to the Creative Commons!


Copyright ©2007 Terry Hancock / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (

Originally published at

You must retain this notice if you reprint this article.

Except where otherwise noted, the illustrations in this piece are by me, and under the same terms.



Scott Carpenter's picture

How about the template effect? In my blog I link to the CC license from my sidebar, so that it appears on every page. If a lot of sites are doing this, it would drastically skew the total numbers and maybe even the growth rate, if we interpret each new post as an increase in adoption. (That's if their statistics simply count links and don't consolidate link counts from the same domain.)


Terry Hancock's picture

That's possible, of course. There are a lot of reasons why the numbers wouldn't be totally representative.

However, if you link to CC licenses on every page, don't you mean to license every page under that license?

If so, then those are legitimate hits -- the numbers are tracking your production along with others and with newcomers.

It's very unlikely, however, that a fixed number of authors would produce exponential growth (you'd have to be constantly increasing your own production -- just continuing at the present rate would produce linear growth). The exponential growth almost certainly means that the numbers are dominated by increasing numbers of people using the licenses.

You might think that this probably indicates that most new content is just textual (blogs), but in fact, there are other numbers suggesting that significant amounts of this data are represented by images, sound, and video. In those cases, I imagine sites like Flickr which make selecting CC licenses easy are at work.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

You talk about:

... the widely-held belief in the free-software community that the non-commercial and non-derivative variants are stunting the growth of free licenses for cultural works

You also mention Richard Stallman. It might be interesting to note that neither Non-commercial nor "No derivatives" is the major problem for Richard Stallman.

Richard Stallman mentions that licenses should at least give the right to make verbatim copies for non-commercial purposes. So, CC-BY-NC or CC-BY-ND are not among the "bad" licenses.

The problematic CC licenses are one kind of Remix license that doesn't allow non-commercial verbatim copying (file-sharing), but only derivatives. (The problem is that such a license wouldn't stop the RIAA lawsuits.) And the "Developing Nations" license, which is pretty restrictive unless you're in Africa.

If I understand his position correctly, that is. Some sources:

Terry Hancock's picture

I give Stallman a lot more credit than that. If he were genuinely most concerned about the tiny trace (<1%) using the non-systematic "CC" licenses like "Sampling" and "Developing Nations", then he'd really be off his rocker.

The truth is, these are the only licenses that make his claim that "there is literally no single freedom" guaranteed by CC licenses truthful, but that's an obvious stretch to make a point, not a true diagnosis of the problem, and these are not the problem licenses (too few people use them, and almost no one identifies them with the label "a Creative Commons License").

If any licenses were causing a real problem, it would have to be the NC/ND licenses, because they are the ones which are confusingly identified with the label "Creative Commons License" (indeed, the CC-By-NC-SA is the one which is most likely intended by this expression when it is used). I still think it is rather likely that many people using this particular license are subject to some confusion (using NC and SA together suggests the author wants to get "something for nothing": commons-like leverage without actually having to put their work in the commons -- and as a practical matter, that doesn't work very well).

However, the numbers show that there's really not much to worry about on that score: the free licenses are showing impressive growth.

It stands to reason, of course, that the NC and ND licenses will be more popular -- especially initially -- because they are the ones that require the least adjustment from the "All Rights Reserved" business-as-usual of the entertainment and arts industry. If you're a professional who's been creating and selling works under the existing copyright regime, then these licenses require the least from you. So it's a no-brainer that they will be used in greater numbers.

Truly free-licensed works involve a complete turn-around in thinking: inventing new business models, developing new marketplaces to try them out in, and risking hard work on untried methods. So far, no one has yet come up with a totally satisfactory solution to how to make a living off of producing free-licensed artistic works (I've seen some good ideas, but nothing that works as well as the old system, nor anything that works as well as the already-pioneered systems of making income from free software). Until someone does, there can't be a real revolution in free licensed cultural works.

Nevertheless, they are still booming. I can only conclude, that confusion or no confusion, CC's licensing strategy is not at fault (or not causing any serious damage at any rate). It may even be that artists who try CC's "semi-free" licenses are likely to experience success and are therefore more likely to experiment with the free licenses. IOW, it may be that the NC/ND licenses are piloting for the By/SA licenses -- selling the idea to new markets. I know this idea has been promoted by CC representatives in the past.

I'm inclined to think that the numbers support that hypothesis over the hypothesis that the NC licenses are succeeding at the expense of free licenses.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I think he's concerned most with people lumping together all the CC licenses and referring to them just as "a/the Creative Commons license" (which most web sites do, as that's how the CC banners were designed -- not just when they refer to the CC-BY-NC-SA, as you suggest).

Creative Commons doesn't have any specific freedoms as its goal, and this is how they came to accept these new licenses. Granted, Sampling and Developing Nations are obscure, but it just shows that CC doesn't actually stand for anything.

I don't fully understand why you say that "no derivatives" licenses cause "real problems". Isn't that just "verbatim copying is allowed", which happens to be the license of Stallman's book "Free Software, Free Society". Stallman has repeatedly said that for works of opinion, "no derivatives" is useful, so that one's views are not misrepresented. I don't see this as a real problem.

I personally don't think that NC is such a big problem either. It at least stops the intrusion of the music/movie industries into private homes. When non-commercial uses are allowed, file-sharing, transferring music/movies among devices within your home, etc. all become legal, and the RIAA can stop suing minors.

Of course, allowing commercial uses as well is the logical next step. (If the GPL wouldn't allow commercial uses for software, it wouldn't be nearly as powerful.)

Enough of speculating about RMS's thoughts on this. If anyone wants to know about them in detail, they should ask him or get a copy of "Free Software, Free Society".

Terry Hancock's picture

I agree with you that ND licenses have their place (and as you rightly note, I use them from time to time, as does Stallman, although not the CC-By-ND "brand"). The issue there is not the validity of the license, but the issue of confusion with more liberal licenses.

Likewise, CC-By-NC might not be a totally unreasonable license in itself, but the question is, does it cause confusion? And here, the answer from my personal experience is that yes it does.

On the other hand, there is (at least theoretically) a competing effect which is the "get your feet wet" theory: that artists will be willing to try a By-NC license who would not otherwise consider free licensing. Then, if they have a good experience with that, some will educate themselves about the licensing issues, and some of those will begin using free licenses at least part of the time. Thus, under this hypothesis, NC contributes to the growth of free-licensed content.

guydjohnston's picture

It's good news that the fully free licences are doing well. It is a concern for me that people often lump the CC licences together, so when someone says "this is under a Creative Commons licence" that's useless information from the point of view of your freedom. It's true that it almost always means that it allows at least noncommercial unmodified copying, but you can't be absolutely sure it's not one of the Sampling or Developing Nations licences. I'd definitely prefer it if they just scrapped those. Another thing I don't like is Lawrence Lessig referring to works which ban commercial use as "free culture", but luckily most people don't seem to agree on that and mostly only refer to works which allow the four freedoms of free software as completely free. I think the Definition of Free Cultural Works ( is very good, and I hope it becomes the most popular definition of that type.

A major source for new non-textual CC-licensed works seems to be the music site Jamendo. There's a huge amount of music on there, and it seems to keep increasing extremely quickly. They talk about CC quite a lot, but luckily they only allow music under one of the licences which at least allows noncommercial unmodified copying of the whole work. They also allow the Free Art License, which I think is very good. It's not as professional as the CC licences, but the motivation behind it is closer to the free software movement's, as it takes the view of "people should have freedom" rather than "wouldn't it be good if we made it easier for copyright holders to exert their power more flexibly?" I've seen that quite a lot of the French language music seems to be under it.

GNU - free as in freedom

guydjohnston's picture

This article is definitely wrong that Richard Stallman's 'un-endorsement' is because they promote non-commercial licences. His reason for not supporting them is that some of the licences don't allow at least noncommerical, unmodified copying of the whole work. Creative Commons have always promoted noncommercial licences, and he used to support them. You can read what his views are on this in one of his blog entries at

GNU - free as in freedom

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Terry Hancock's picture


Terry Hancock is co-owner and technical officer of Anansi Spaceworks. Currently he is working on a free-culture animated series project about space development, called Lunatics as well helping out with the Morevna Project.