Case Studies/Jonathan Coulton

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Jonathan Coulton is an independent/unsigned singer-songwriter who utilises Creative Commons licences to help promote his music via free downloads.

All I can say is that Creative Commons is the most powerful idea that I’ve heard since they told me there was going to be a sequel to Star Wars. Everyone in the world should read Lawrence Lessig’s book Free Culture. …The things he says make so much sense — Jonathan Coulton,


Jonathan Coulton is a singer-songwriter and musician based in Brooklyn, New York, in the United States of America. Coulton refers to his music as an experiment in the new ways in which content will be distributed and disseminated as a result of the Internet. His rationale, in his own words, is that, ‘I give away music because I want to make music, and I can’t make music unless I make money, and I won’t make any money unless I get heard, and I won’t get heard unless I give away music.' ( In 2005, Coulton began a project entitled 'Thing a Week', where he wrote and released a new song on his website every week for a year ( The project was aimed at getting publicity for Coulton's music, and several of the songs including 'Flickr' and 'Code Monkey' were big Internet hits. The Thing a Week project was released via a weekly podcast, with each song being available under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial licence.

Jonathan Coulton has all of his music available to stream on his website, as well as many of the songs available for free download. Customers can then buy songs in either mp3 or FLAC format for $US1 and albums for between $US5 –$US10. Customers can also make donations via Paypal or Amazon, buy physical CDs through online distributor CD Baby, download songs as ringtones for free, or buy t-shirts, books and games from the merchandise section. There are even karaoke versions available of some of the songs. Evidencing his enthusiasm for engaging fans, Coulton has even performed concerts in the virtual world, Second Life (

In a May, 2011 interview Coulton noted that he made $500k from his music in 2010. (

License Usage

The licence adopted for all Jonathan Coulton songs is the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial 3.0 licence. The licence is applied to songs available on Coulton's website both for download and as streaming content. Coulton highlights the importance he places on allowing his fans to have the chance to use his work in whatever way they choose, including remixing and adding to his work.

Though unable to release any statistics, Jonathan says that some of his songs have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, and 45% of his income in 2007 was from paid digital downloads (Interview by James Milsom with Jonathan Coulton via email, 5 April 2008). This evidences the success Jonathan has had through the use of Creative Commons licences facilitating the ability to give content away for free. Jonathan's content has been used in music videos made by fans and posted on Youtube, subsequently receiving (in some cases) over a million hits. Fans have also created cover versions of his songs, artwork, dances, plays, card games and even guitar instructional videos. Coulton says that this sort of outcome is very satisfying and validating, but more importantly from a business point of view, such enthusiasm from fans has meant that he has received a great amount of free publicity.


Jonathan Coulton heard about open content licensing through his previous work writing software. He heard Lawrence Lessig speak at the PopTech conference in 2003, and was sold on the Creative Commons rationale immediately.

When asked about the benefits of licensing his music under CC by Wagner James Au for New World Notes in September 2006, Jonathan responded:

'It’s gone very well for me. At first, even though I was all fired up about the possibilities of CC, I still had that panicky lizard-brain fear about file sharing. I can understand why it’s a hard thing for people in the industry to get over – I totally sympathise. But at least for someone in my position, it’s the best thing I could have done. Every month I get more traffic, more donations/sales, and more fans. I’m quite certain that having a CC license on all the music has really helped that process. If someone who’s never heard my music before gets a free mp3 (or twenty) and likes it, chances are they’re going to pass it along to some friends, blog about it, maybe even make a video for it. Each one of those outcomes means more exposure, more fans, and more chances for people to pay me – something that wouldn’t have happened as easily if the music was all locked up with DRM and the full battery of copyright restrictions.'

Creative Commons licensing was chosen for its ability to facilitate sharing of content easily for publicity. Also, while understanding the significance of being able to give music away legally, Jonathan sees the importance of protecting some rights in the music, and the non-commercial aspect of the licence he uses serves this purpose well. He sees it as important for musicians to reserve their right to commercially license their content if an opportunity to do so comes their way.

Jonathan uses the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial 3.0 licence. Following trials using licences that incorporated the ShareAlike provision, Jonathan found that it was too difficult to monitor whether people were indeed 'sharing alike' and licensing his content in the same manner that he had licensed it. For that reason, he abandoned use of the ShareAlike provision.

Having had considerable success owing to Creative Commons licensing, Jonathan Coulton has also seen the difficulties that arise with commercial licensing of content. He has had many offers from businesses hoping to license content for commercial use for small fees. Such situations, he argues, are hard to justify using a lawyer to negotiate and contract into, as they will most likely not earn a lot of money. He suggests that if there were a boilerplate solution similar to the Creative Commons licences that enabled artists to commercially license their work easily this would be of great benefit. (Interview with Jonathan Coulton via email, 5 April 2008)


‘Jonathan Coulton’ by Dan Coulter, CC BY-SA 2.0,

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