The following is a conversation between Ryan Merkley, Chief Executive Officer of Creative Commons, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.

Ryan Merkley ©

Denver: How many of you have seen those two small Cs, CC with a circle around it on a picture or on a file  and have asked: “I wonder what the significance of that is!” If you have ever wondered, you’ll wonder no more, thanks to my next guest. He is Ryan Merkley, the Chief Executive Officer of the nonprofit organization represented by those two Cs, Creative Commons.

Good evening, Ryan, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Ryan: Good evening. Thanks for having me.

Denver: Tell us about Creative Commons and the mission and objectives of the organization.

Ryan. Sure. Creative Commons is an international nonprofit, and we are known best for being the creators of the CC licenses. They are a set of copyright licenses that allow people to share their works, if they wish, under a set of standard terms. Things like “You may use this work so long as you credit me and link back to the original.” Or “You may use this work so long as you credit me and you don’t use it for a commercial purpose. I only want it for nonprofit purposes.” We’ve made those licenses for about 16 years now, and they have been used on just about every copyrightable work you can think of, about 1.2 billion works around the world.

You’ve probably seen them embedded in tools or platforms that you use every day, things like Flickr or YouTube or SoundCloud. And our licenses are usually an option that you can select if you’re someone who shares on those platforms.

Denver: Creative Commons was founded by a Harvard Law School professor and political activist Larry Lessig. What inspired him to start this organization and movement?

Ryan: I love this story because it’s one where–when something good is coming out of something frustrating. A couple of weeks ago, I was at an open education conference that was in Anaheim, California, and we were talking about being so close to Disney. And it’s really, in a strange way, Walt Disney’s fault that we exist. It was the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, an act of Congress to extend the term of copyright from life plus 50 years to life plus 70 years that got us all into this in the first place.

Lawrence Lessig, our founder, was frustrated that Congress was going to extend that term, not just for new works, but actually retroactively to everything that had been created before.

Most people don’t know that almost everyone holds copyright in today’s copyright regime. From the minute you put pen-to-paper, the minute you create the “fixed work,” they call it, you have a copyright on that work for your life plus 70 years. 

Denver: That’s insane. 

Ryan: And he thought that was unfair. And so, he fought a case all the way to the Supreme Court, what’s known as the Eldred Case. And when Eldred agreed to be part of that case, he said, “If you’re going to do this, I want you to do something to make copyright easier for people.”  So it’s not just a lawsuit.

Now, in the end, Lawrence and Eldred lost that case, but CC was born as a result — the idea that we should make it easier for people to share the copyright if they want to. Most people don’t know that almost everyone holds copyright in today’s copyright regime. From the minute you put pen-to-paper, the minute you create the “fixed work,” they call it, you have a copyright on that work for your life plus 70 years. You don’t need to do anything. You don’t have to register it. You don’t have to mark it. It’s yours for a period of time that almost feels like forever. Because by the time you’re dead, and then 70 years pass, very rarely does that work have any or a lot of relevance to the world and certainly that urgent relevance that comes from current culture is long gone.

Denver: So our listeners are listening to a copyrighted broadcast, correct?

Ryan: They are.

Denver: So how does this work in practice, Ryan? Suppose I’ve written something or uploaded a photo on Flickr and want to share it now in some way through Creative Commons, what do I need to do?

Ryan: There are two ways. The first is: if you’re using a platform like Flickr or YouTube that already has CC tools built into the platform, when you upload, you’ll have a choice. And so, I’m a Flickr user. And so I upload my photo, and I have an option to change the setting that says “What permissions do I want to give people so that they can use, without asking, my work under those terms?” And so I like to use”CC By” which means you can use my work as long as you credit me and you link back to the original work that I shared. So I use that all the time. And lots of people do that. It’s actually one of our most popular licenses.

Denver: You said there are 1.2 billion licenses on Creative Commons. Do you consider that to be a lot or a little?

Ryan: The short answer is both. There are trillions of works around the world, and because copyright is automatic, every work that enters the world is born closed. It is born locked down by what we call “All rights reserved copyright” or “standard copyright,” which really just means no one can use your work unless you give them explicit permission. And so, in one sense, 1.2 billion is very small compared to the grand scope of all the things that humans have created. In the other sense, it’s a huge deal because over a period of 15 years, in every single case, someone had to choose to share, and they had to decide to set that default from closed to open. And the fact that people have done that over 1.2 billion times, I think is remarkable. And so, the short answer is: it’s both. It’s a big deal; or it’s a lot and it’s a little.

What The Met decided to do was share their digital collection of public domain works under what we call the CC0 public domain dedication, which is zero restrictions. No credit, no link, nothing. You can just use it.

Denver: And I think a big deal for Creative Commons was earlier this year when the Metropolitan Museum of Art added 375,000 images.

Ryan: Yeah. That was a spectacular moment… and also the end of a very long project for us working with The Met to get there. So, The Metropolitan Museum of Art has digital versions of works that are already in the public domain. And well it may seem obvious that every institution should share those things because they’re already open, that isn’t often the case, and they make investments in order to share them. But we want them to put those works out there so that everybody can use them. So, what The Met decided to do was share their digital collection of public domain works under what we call the CC0 public domain dedication, which is zero restrictions. No credit, no link, nothing. You can just use it. And really, that’s how the public domain is supposed to work. The copyright isn’t like other property. It’s meant to be the right of copyright is a balance between the public’s rights and the creator’s rights. And eventually, that term was supposed to end, and what happened when it ended is that everybody got it because everything is built on top of everything that came before it. And so what The Met did was wonderful. We were very excited that they did it, and we hope that it will lead other institutions to follow along. And there are other institutions that have done it as well, like The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Denver: That’s great news. You operate in dozens and dozens of countries across the world. How do you create a legal framework that addresses all the specific laws of each one of these countries?

Ryan: Very carefully. We do it primarily in collaboration. So the CC license tools, when they began, when that small group of mostly lawyers were in a basement in Stanford inventing the license tools, they built the licenses for the United States and the US legal context. And then over time, they worked with legal experts, country by country, to “port the licenses.” It’s a term we borrowed from software, which really just means “adapt to a different legal context.” So, in the early days of CC, the first three versions of the licenses, you would have the US license and then you would have a ported license for another country — so the CC license for Canada or the CC license for India.

About three years ago–four years ago now, I guess, CC completed a two-year collaborative process with all of our international affiliates to create one license, the International 4.0 License. So now, we have one legal license that considers all the legal context around the world so that you can use that license anywhere. So, when you license a work in China, that work is covered by copyright in the US and vice versa.

Denver: That is a Herculean task. Congratulations on that. And that’s why you try to do everything so that it is made simple for the user, and that certainly does it. Let’s get back to copyright law a little bit because it is a bit ironic that in this age where everything is accessible and people are creating in collaboration — a lot of that is due to the internet and cellphones — these copyright laws, as you described, are so darn restrictive. Is there any hope or chance of changing that?

Ryan: Well, I’m hopeful, and it’s certainly a big part of the work that Creative Commons does. One of the things that we try to do is make copyright laws more reflective of the way people actually create and share. Today’s laws were more or less written for large rights holders. And to be fair, in the beginning, that’s how they were written as well. The copyright laws were originally written for book publishers at a time when pretty much the only way that you could copy something is if you owned a printing press. That world has changed dramatically, obviously. And even since Creative Commons began, the idea that every single person would carry a device that could shoot HD video in their pocket was not on the table.

The idea of social media — that we would all share photos all day long — was not a thing that even we contemplated in 2001 when CC was just getting started. Social media didn’t come into the forefront until the mid-2000s. So, the world has dramatically changed. Everyone is a copyright holder. But not only is everyone a copyright holder, but everyone is making things that are worth sharing and that they want to share. And today’s laws don’t reflect that remotely. So, the people end up in scenarios where they are essentially violating copyright all day long. They’re making, as Clay Doctorow says, “a thousand copies before breakfast” because that’s how the internet works. It’s based on copies. We need something smarter than that. And what’s frustrating is that most of these debates are led by large rights holders protecting their specific interest, and there’s very little discussion about regular everyday people who are making copies all day long and who are making copyrighted works all day long, whether they want to or not, and they need tools to share.

Denver: Yeah. And to put this in a little bit of context, I believe that a patent is only good for 20 years?

Ryan: That’s right.

“All rights reserved” is standard copyright. It’s automatic from the moment that the work is fixed or the work is created, and so that term of copyright in the US is your life plus 70 years. That term varies a little bit around the world. In Canada where I’m from, it’s life plus 50 years. In Mexico, it’s life plus 100 years. It’s a very, very long time. And during that period of time, the author of the work has an exclusive right; all of their rights are reserved to them. So the only way you can use that work is if the author specifically grants you the right to use it.

Denver: So this just shows the insanity of how this is compared to something like that. Let me ask you one last question about that. In the front of all the books that I read so often or at the end of a television show, I see these words — “All rights reserved.” What does that mean exactly?

Ryan: “All rights reserved” is standard copyright. It’s automatic from the moment that the work is fixed or the work is created, and so that term of copyright in the US is your life plus 70 years. That term varies a little bit around the world. In Canada where I’m from, it’s life plus 50 years. In Mexico, it’s life plus 100 years. It’s a very, very long time. And during that period of time, the author of the work has an exclusive right: all of their rights are reserved to them. So the only way you can use that work is if the author specifically grants you the right to use it.

Denver: Like any organization, there are going to be some who are going to be a little less enthusiastic about your work than others, and I would suspect one of those would be the academic publishing industry. Tell us how they operate and why they might see Creative Commons as being detrimental to their business model.

Ryan: Creative Commons in that story is the enabler for sharing. And so, in some senses, they may have a frustration with Creative Commons, but really, what they’re frustrated with is that they have an antiquated business model whose time, I might argue, is reaching an end. For those that don’t know, the way that academic publishing works generally is that researchers get money to do research. Usually, they get that money in whole or in part from public institutions or governments. Then they seek an opportunity to publish that work in a journal because journals are usually privately owned, and those journals require the author — in order to get peer review and published — to submit their work for free, to assign their copyright to the publishers. They have to give away their copyright, and then the publisher does peer review, usually with volunteer editors who are in their own right noted academics, who do that work for free, and then the publisher sells access to those works back to the academic and the scientific community. Either they do it by charging large, usually undisclosed fees to academic libraries, or they do it by charging about $30 – $40 per article for people to read it. If that sounds a little bit ridiculous, it’s because it is. What we’re actually talking about is the public funds research — the researchers do the research, then a private company pays them nothing for their work, pays nothing to the editors, and then charges everybody to read the work we already paid for.

Denver: A premium price at that.

Ryan: Yes. If we believe in open knowledge, if we believe that access to information and knowledge leads to greater discovery and innovation, this is the opposite of that. And I think that’s really a moral case. But in that story, CC is just the tool that is most commonly used for what’s called open access research so that those works can be freely used. In that story, CC is one of the leading advocates, but the real point of frustration and the real point of challenge is a community of academics and researchers who want to get to discovery faster and who don’t understand why they don’t have access to the things that they need. And that’s true all over the world, and maybe even more true in the global south where they don’t have access to the research they want. They don’t have the privilege of walking into an academic library where they have full access because their institution pays those fees. But everyone is struggling with this. Germany is saying they’re going to stop paying these exorbitant rates. Even Harvard has talked about how they can’t afford the library fees that they pay in order to access these works. And largely, this is research that was done for free by these researchers, paid for by all of us.

Denver: Yeah. By the government, or whoever it may be. And I guess, the real impetus for change was from people like the Gates Foundation. Correct?

Ryan: Yeah. I think the Gates Foundation has been a real leader in this. They are obviously a foundation that gives out grant money in order to do research. And what they have said very recently is that “If you receive a grant from us — one dollar or a million dollars — we’re going to require that the research you publish is openly available on Day 1 to everyone.” And they require a CC license to be applied to that work. That’s a really powerful statement.

Denver: It sure is.

Ryan: It’s also forcing some really important conversations about how you sustain and engage in the academic model with openness at the center of it. But it is starting to get to some of the other interesting questions about how do we do replicability. Because it’s not just the paper that you need. You often also need the underlying data that explains it because at the core of science is the ability to replicate the discoveries that other researchers have made, and you can’t do that if you can’t see the data that backs up the assertions that are in the paper.

Ryan Merkley and Denver Frederick at the AM970 The Answer Studio

Denver: Right. Would be a lot of redundancy. Well, at the end of 2015, as your organization continue to evolve, Creative Commons shifted its organizational strategy, and you created a new vision. Tell us why that was necessary, and what is this new vision?

Ryan: Creative Commons has been at this for over 15 years. And in the earlier days, the goal was an established license that was respected and applied around the world that held up under legal scrutiny and that operated globally, and we’ve done that work. And we focused very much on adoption of those licenses, to getting them embedded in the places where people share content, and we think we’ve done much of that work as well. The question was: How do we realize the vision of access, equity, innovation, and discovery? What do we want all this content to enable? We want people to have the shared content so they can make great things, so they can create new discoveries. And so what do we need to do to do that?

So, we’ve shifted our strategy towards what we call a vibrant usable commons powered by collaboration and gratitude. We think that that metric is how we figure out if we are enabling that access, that equity, that discovery and innovation, and how we drive people to share more and engage with each other because that’s at the heart of why we do this. These works are not meant to sit alone in an archive. They’re meant to be used. That is their express purpose. And so, we want to enable that kind of use.

Denver: And a big part of that in 2017 has been something called “CC Search”. And this carries with it tremendous applications. Tell us what the problem has been and how CC Search will begin to address it?

Ryan: CC’s success is also now its greatest challenge. One of the smartest decisions our founders made was to embed CC tools in the places where people already work so that you didn’t have to come to the CC website to get a license. The downside of that today, when you reach 1.2 billion works and CC licensed content on over 9 million websites, is that everything is all over the place.

Denver: How do you index that?

Ryan: Right. So, we’re going to try and solve that problem. We want to create a complete index of the Commons — 1.2 billion works probably going on 2 billion or even 5 billion as the Commons continues to grow. We want to index where those works are, what they are and what’s called the metadata, which is really just the descriptive data that says: What is this work? What do we know about it? What kind of file is it? What are the words that describe it if it’s an image which allows it to be searched?

So the first thing is you make that catalogue, that index. The second is write a little bit of software called an API that allows anybody to build a service that can talk to that database and ask it questions. You can use that then to create a service like search, or you can use it to do things like research, or you can do really exciting things like apply machine learning on AI tools to it to enhance the Commons.

There was a period in history when one person could actually know everything. And that period is long past. No single person could sit down and read everything, but there are computers that can read everything. And if we make it accessible to them, they can aid us in discovering the things that are in the Commons — whether it’s looking for patterns in the compendium of academic research and scientific discovery, or whether it’s understanding imagery or video and finding new ways to manipulate it. If we unlock that, there’s so much more potential for this vibrant usable commons that we talk about.

So, that’s CC Search. It’s a catalogue. It’s some software that lets you talk to the catalogue, and it’s the front-end, which is the search tool, that lets you find what you’re looking for and use it more easily.

Denver: What’s the timeframe on that?

Ryan: We shipped the Beta or published the Beta in February. You mentioned The Met. We actually made that announcement at The Met concurrent with their release of that great content. We’ll be revising that Beta based on hundreds of user feedback form completions. That will be shipped by the end of the year.  And we’re going to open that API, that software, that anybody can use to talk to the database in early next year.

Denver: As part of the vision you just mentioned was that piece where you talked about gratitude, and that you really wanted to create a joy to contribute to the Commons, which perhaps had been missing. Describe how you’re changing the experience of the contributor.

Ryan: So, right now the experience of giving to the Commons can be pretty lonely. You upload your photo, and then you sort of wait to see where it goes. And I know lots of people, particularly in the photo space, use reverse image search to try to find out where their image has ended up. Because the reason people share is because they want those works to be used, and there’s very little that comes back to them. And so we started working on this idea of gratitude. I was inspired by a researcher at MIT named Nate Matias who was doing work around how communities work together, and we were talking about this idea of gratitude. We take this idea very broadly.

For me, gratitude is as simple as giving credit to someone for their work, which is fundamental to every CC license. Every CC license requires that you give credit to the author. And I think the least you can do when you use someone’s work is warmly credit them as the author so that people know they made it, and ideally link back to that original work so the next person can find it and perpetrate that sharing, that cycle of sharing. So gratitude is about that.

But gratitude is also about how we want to work together. Much of the Common’s collaboration is asynchronous. I put it out there and years later, you find it and put it in your project. But some of it is direct. And how can we facilitate that? How can we help creators find other creators, thank other creators, encourage other creators through communities of practice? Those kinds of things. So that’s how we want to do that.

The simplest thing that we started with in CC Search was doing one-click attribution in the tool so that when you find the work, you no longer have to do a kind of complicated process to do attribution. It’s one click and there you go. And we think that that will make it easier for people to do attribution, to credit those authors, and that makes it more likely, which enhances that experience.

Denver: That’s eliminating one big roadblock, I tell you that. That’s just great. You’re a nonprofit organization. How are you financed? And what are your major revenue streams?

Ryan: Creative Commons is a US-based 501(c)(3). So we’re a US charity, and we are funded primarily through grants and individual donations. Our revenue stream has changed a little bit over the last number of years. I joined the organization at a time of some financial difficulty with a focus on shoring that up. And so, we have added a couple of new revenue streams, still in the sort of philanthropy side. We have a much stronger individual donor program than we ever had before. And so we have been reaching out to individual creators and people who share our values to invite them to support our work, and they do that every day especially through our year-end campaign, which many nonprofits run a year-end campaign and ours will start sometime in November. And then also through sponsorship. We run a summit, which is our annual gathering of the open movement who work with CC tools, and we fund that event through sponsorship, which was something we hadn’t done before.  And so we invited companies and partners to come to the table around that. And then we have a number of generous grant funders who support our work, both on a project-based format and also as a general operating support format.

Denver: Love that general operating support.

Ryan: We do. We’re grateful for that.

Denver: And you joined the organization from Mozilla, where you had been the Chief Operating Officer, and you’ve worked with the Mayor of Toronto and Open Data, and you also had a stint with the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. How did those experiences help inform the work you do now?

Ryan: There a lot of experiences in there. I think about my work in politics a lot. There is an urgency in politics because you have a closing window of time. And there’s a respect for the public that is baked into that, both because that’s your job, but also because if you don’t, they will remind you that you ought to. And that has always kind of guided me in my work, that there’s a public trust for both governments and for nonprofits, an expectation that this privilege that we have to work in the space requires us to govern ourselves a certain way.

CC is what we call a radically open organization. We do our work in the open. Our strategy is public. You can see our agenda and our work plans. Anyone can join many of our public projects. All of our code is shared openly on the software projects I mentioned, and that creates, we think, an opportunity to be powered by a movement and by contribution. I think that’s why CC has been so successful. It is harder to work that way, I’ll be candid. But we think it makes us better. And so, the things that I learned at Mozilla, which is also an open source organization and the makers of Firefox, and my work in government both had that openness and that public accountability baked into their DNA. And so that has always stayed with me, and I’ve always worked in organizations where that was an element of what we do.

Denver: Let’s talk about your organization and the corporate culture at Creative Commons.  Picking up on what you just said: How would you describe that work culture?  And, Ryan, as a CEO, what specific things do you do to influence it and shape it?

Ryan: Creative Commons is, today, a fully virtual organization which comes with a unique culture. We, at one time, had an office in San Francisco and then later in Mountain View. And when I took over the organization, we had staff in the Bay area, but also staff all over. I’m based in Toronto, and I wasn’t going to relocate into the Bay area for this job. So that meant on Day 1, the CEO was remote.

But my experience at Mozilla definitely taught me that in any environment, when one person is remote, everyone is remote. Because the ways in which you structure a meeting, the ways in which you engage people require you to accommodate the remote participant, to make sure you get their best work. And so that influenced the way that we work as a culture because our staff mostly work from home or go to co-working spaces in order to do their work. The upside of that is I can hire great people wherever they are. So, I have staff in the US, staff in Canada. I have a community manager who lives in Kenya. I have a director of partnerships and strategy who is based in Chile. And so, I have the privilege of hiring those people because I don’t require them to relocate. The challenge of that is I have people in the US and Kenya and Chile, and we work all over the world.

The CC organization has less than 20 full-time employees. But we work and integrate with that community all day long in a variety of channels and collaborative structures. And so that creates a very different culture.

Denver: You know the other side of the coin.

Ryan: Yeah. Absolutely. And so we do the time zone shuffle, and we coordinate those meetings. We do our work largely by video conferencing in order to stay engaged, and we use communications tools like Slack which is essentially just live chat in order to keep people connected.

But you talked about work culture. Because we’re an open organization, there’s a permeability between the staff and community. So, I mentioned the Slack channel. There are over a thousand people in our Slack channel. They are not employees. The CC organization has less than 20 full-time employees. But we work and integrate with that community all day long in a variety of channels and collaborative structures. And so that creates a very different culture. I try to model that work.

You asked what I do. I try to work openly and be accessible, and I encourage people to engage me directly. I spend a lot of time working directly with the community, and I try and spend time making sure that my staff see my work, that they understand the decisions that I am making because they don’t have the opportunity to stand with me at the water cooler every day or just have those informal conversations. And so, I sometimes have to be a bit more obvious or direct about a decision that I am making or a process that I am thinking through so that when I get to that point, they know how I got there and they come with me. That has been a learned skill over time. I learned some of that at Mozilla, which is also a remote and office-based organization. So, Mozilla has a number of satellite offices but also has remote staff. And I think we’ve refined it a lot at Creative Commons.

Denver: Interesting. Well, let me close with this, Ryan. Some of this can be a little technical and legal, but this past year, at your State of the Commons Report, you highlighted impact stories — the human impacts of the global projects that benefit from Creative Commons. Why don’t you close by giving us one or two of those stories.

Ryan: There are so many pieces that are powerful to me, and because the Commons reaches across so many content types, it’s hard to pick one. I’ll mention two. One, I want to speak about a volunteer at Creative Commons named Bassel Khartabil, who’s Syrian. And then I want to talk a little bit about cancer research. I’ll speak about them very quickly.

Bassel Khartabil was a Syrian volunteer who, as part of his passion, archived 3D digital versions of the ancient structures of Palmyra. And he was taken by the government in 2012. And actually just this year, we learned that he was actually murdered by the government in 2015, executed by them. And his 3D models remain. We were actually able to reprint one of those 3D models at our most recent summit, working with a US-based 3D printing company, re:3D. We printed it 8.5 feet tall. It was 250 pounds and one-tenth the size of the original structure, and we were able to kind of bring this new Palmyra back to life. And I think there’s something very powerful about someone creating something that lives on. That structure, the original structure, is gone. It was destroyed by ISIS as they’ve been working their way across Syria destroying monuments. And so now, that’s one of the only versions of that work that exists. And if someone had not done that and shared it openly, it would be gone forever. It was very moving to me.

Denver: Wow. It sure is.

Ryan: The second is I had the opportunity to work a little bit with former Vice President Joe Biden and the Cancer Moonshot through some work that we did advocating for more open research. And one of the things that we did was we invited people to tell us why open access to research would matter to them, why should regular people care about this. And I expected that I would hear from doctors who want access to research, or other researchers who are trying to find discovery. And the thing that really struck me is I heard from families. I was not prepared for what they would write us. They talked about how they were trying to be advocates for their mothers and their daughters and their husbands in finding the latest research and giving good information so they could get the right care and so that they could access what they needed to extend their lives or to have a better quality of life. And this is what stands between researchers and patients is these paywalls and barriers that prevent them from living better lives or living longer lives. There really isn’t anything I can see someone argue that would justify keeping that information from people. That’s why we do the work that we do because of regular people every day who are trying to live better lives.  And we think that open knowledge and open culture can lead us there.

Denver: Well, Ryan Merkley, the Chief Executive Officer of Creative Commons, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Your website is What will people find there?  And how can they become engaged with the organization?

Ryan: At, you’ll find lots of information about how the licenses work and how they can be applied. You’ll also find tools that you can use if you are trying to make something. For example, I talked about search. And at, you’ll find that tool we talked about where you can punch in the thing that you are looking for and find tools to access it.

Denver: Thanks, Ryan. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.

Ryan: I’m grateful. Thank you very much.

Ryan Merkley and Denver Frederick

The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at


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