When Larry Lessig came up with the idea for the Creative Commons, he intended to create an alternative licensing system that would solve the problems with copyright registration in the United States. While admirable, what he did in some respects served to enshrine the current copyright regime as an accepted monolith and forced us to accommodate that system. That is because the Creative Commons copyright starts with a creator being vested with the full rights, powers, and privileges gained by virtue of the existing copyright laws, and then voluntarily divesting himself of some of those rights and privileges — a winnowing away — to grant the end-users a license that is less restrictive that that envisioned by the current iteration of the Copyright Act.
Many lauded the vision behind the Creative Commons project as Open Source for artists, knowing that creation is built on a foundation of what came before, and if what came before is locked up in a vault for 70 years after the death of its creator then our modern poets, novelists, musicians and artists of all stripes are hampered from using any of their predecessors’ work for a period which encompasses their entire lifetimes. The Creative Commons alternative shed light through the prison window, letting the more liberal of our artists offer their work to be used by others on such liberal terms as “free,” or “free, with attribution,” or “free, but not for commercial use.” In fact, if you can think of a situation in which some bundle of rights is granted to the public in connection with a work, then you can probably find a Creative Commons license somewhere that fits it.
The Creative Commons movement is obviously a close relative of the Copyleft movement, which grants a free license for use on the condition that all derivative work remain free as well (i.e., if you use my stuff for free, then your stuff has to be free too). The idea behind the movements centers on the notion that the public has a paramount interest in access to knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge to further the interests of humanity. While this may sound vaguely pretentious, the notion of the Commons is as old as our society, and is the reason we still have such things as Golden Gate Park, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, the Appalachian Trial, public beaches, the National Museum, and other treasures. The Commons includes things that are deemed to be “ours” as a people, and that cannot and should not be appropriated by any person for their own personal use and profit. As with parks, the broad category of “human knowledge” has long been held to belong to us, and not to any corporate entity or oligarch. Thus, you can go to your public library and teach yourself physics from Newtonian first principles (in theory, assuming your library is open anymore), or you can do the same thing online with texts that are in the public domain or through an Open Learning course (like the edX program jointly sponsored by Harvard and MIT).
You might ask why a more relaxed copyright scheme is preferable to what we currently have, since we seem to muddle along well enough with things as they are. Art is being created, after all, books are still being written, choreographers are still indulging their fantasies of becoming the next Martha Graham — so why does Creative Commons matter? The answer to that lies in the question itself — i.e., why should we just muddle along? Why should we change the copyright laws in a way that serves corporate interests at the expense of artists? When the latest copyright scheme — the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act (facetiously known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act) — was pushed through Congress and extended copyright by some 20 additional years, the reaction in the intellectual property community was a resounding “What??!!! Are you kidding me??” Copyright was originally intended only to last 14 years as an incentive for creators to continue to create, but of late it has grown interminably. Its tentacles have stretched until we are forced to bow to such monstrous notions as The Happy Birthday Song being protected by copyright almost 100 years after its creation, generating some $2MM in annual revenue for the heirs of the heirs of the heirs of the original creator. The current version of our copyright laws is not a tool for enabling the transmission of knowledge, or an incentive to spark creative genius, but a weapon to extract fees from users and stifle creativity itself. In a world where 500 years ago the poets already lamented that there was nothing new under the sun, narrowing their rights to exercise poetic license seems plainly absurd.
What Creative Commons attempts to do is to loosen the stranglehold of copyright and give artists some measure of access to work from our current age without being crippled by licensing fees or facing copyright infringement lawsuits for sampling a few bars of music. It seeks to expand the realm of knowledge, rather than contract it. While it is perhaps a stepping stone to progress rather than the real progress I would like to see (i.e., a modification of existing law), it is improvement nonetheless.
It may not be perfect, but we should not deride improvement for not achieving perfection.