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Creative Commons

Creative Commons


(The landscape image was uploaded to Flickr by its creator, Rick Smit and the UFO clipart is from OpenClipArt.org)

What do the images above have in common? They are all free to be used, remixed, and shared because they are all licensed under Creative Commons. Creative Commons licenses helps content creators to share their work more freely than copyright allows. Because both the landscape and the UFO are Creative Commons images, it is absolutely acceptable to edit and remix them to create and share the third image above.

Copyright law protects a work the moment it is put into a fixed form (so the moment the words are written, the video is recorded, or a picture is snapped) and states that there are certain rights with regards to the work that only the creator holds. For example only the creator may reproduce the work. For a list of other rights the creator holds, visit Copyright Basics. According to the law, you cannot use a copyrighted work without express permission from the copyright holder (there are exceptions to this). Fortunately, some authors and creators are happy and willing to share their work more freely than U.S. copyright law currently allows. In order to make their wishes clear to both you and the law, they often license their work. A license details the terms and conditions the author has established with regards to using his or her works. There are many, many different types of licenses but some of the most common and useful in an academic setting are Creative Commons Licenses.

What do Creative Commons licenses do?

Creative Commons licenses are agreements that allow copyright holders to modify the copyrights for their works. Creative Commons licenses specifically address four aspects of use: attribution, the manner of sharing allowed, creation of derivative works, the commercial use.


Some Creative Commons works require attribution while others do not. This simply means that if you use a work, you make it clear who originally created it. This could be through a note, a citation, or even a link. If a Creative Commons licensed work requires attribution, the above image will be incorporated into the license.


The sharing of Works licensed under Creative Commons can be governed in a variety of ways. Creators can require that all works created using the original is then "shared alike" meaning that the new work must use the exact same Creative Commons license as the original. If this is what the creator wishes, you will see the above image within the license.

Derivative Works

Some creators may be comfortable with you sharing their work but would prefer that you do not change, remix, or otherwise build on it. In this case, they will utilize a "no derivatives" Creative Commons license. (Visit the FAQs for more information on how a derivative work is defined.) The above image is shown on the no derivatives license.

Commercial Use

Some works licensed under Creative Commons can be used for commercial purposes while others cannot. If a creator has decided to limit commercial use, the above image will appear as part of the license.

Visit CreativeCommons.org for a more comprehensive overview. If you're looking for in-depth information or have a specific question, visit the Creative Commons FAQ page.

When should I use Creative Commons licensed works?

Whenever you can! Using works that are licensed under Creative Commons simplifies your project by making the ways in which you may use a work very clear. It also eliminates the need to obtain explicit permission from an author every time you wish to use a work. Additionally, by using Creative Commons licensed works you help to support universal access to information and creative works. Visit our page on finding Creative Commons works and CreativeCommons.org for more information.


Where can I find more information on Creative Commons?

Where can I find more information on Creative Commons?

Visit CreativeCommons.org for a basic overview. If you're looking for in-depth information or have a specific question, visit the Creative Commons FAQ page.

What types of works use Creative Commons licenses?

Any work that can be copyrighted can be licensed under Creative Commons. However, there are a few types of works that might be better served by a different type of license (e.g., computer software). For more information, see the General License Information.

What are the parts of a Creative Commons license?

When you use choose a license using the Creative Commons website, the resulting license is made up of three layers. The first layer is legal language; it is the legal description of the permissions you are granting to users of your work. Typically, people can access this layer by clicking on a Creative Commons image located within your work. The second layer is an image with symbols and letters that are easily recognizable by users. Here is an example of an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike image:

The final layer is not visible to the user, only to computers. This machine-readable portion of the license allows your image to be categorized as Creative Commons by search engines like Google. That way, when someone searches for images that are licensed, your work is quickly recognized and returned in that search. To read a more complete explanation, visit the About the Licenses page on the Creative Commons website.

Can Creative Commons licenses be revoked?

Yes and no. While you can always remove the Creative Commons label from your work, people are not obligated to stop using it if you do. It is possible to revoke the privileges you have granted from specific individuals if they are using your work in a way that breaches the terms of the license.

Additionally, licenses are not exclusive, meaning that your work can be covered by other licenses or agreements at the same time (for example, you might have some sort of agreement with publishers of your article. This is fine as long as that agreement does not invalidate the Creative Commons license). See How do CC licenses operate? for more information.

What constitutes a derivative work?

It largely depends on which local copyright laws apply to the work. In general, if you have changed a work so much that it would warrant its own copyright privileges, it is considered an adaptation. Creative Commons has a more complete explanation in their Does my use constitute an adaptation? section and an explanation of when a derivation is copyrightable in the U.S. can be found in U.S. Copyright Law in Chapter 1 of Title 17 (p. 101).

How does Creative Commons work internationally?

There are two general types of Creative Commons licenses: unported and ported. Unported licenses are broad and considered acceptable for international use. The Creative Commons organization has worked with a variety of jurisdictions and examined international agreements regarding copyright to ensure that these licenses allow creators to grant permission to use their works. Unported licenses are great for granting use privileges to as many people as possible all over the world.

However, because of their broad nature, unported licenses may not address local laws in a very nuanced or specific way. For this reason, there are also ported licenses that are applicable within individual jurisdictions. For example, there are ported U.S. licenses in which the legal terms of the license address U.S. copyright law specifically. Visit the Creative Commons FAQ for a complete explanation and the Jurisdiction Database to browse through existing jurisdictions and ported licenses.

What about public domain?

Works that are in the public domain are not copyrightable and therefore cannot be covered by Creative Commons licenses. Should you find a work that is in the public domain and want to make sure others know, Creative Commons has created a public domain mark that can be applied to the work. However, this mark is not intended for works that are under copyright that you wish to waive your rights to.

When you apply a Creative Commons license to your work, some of your rights are reserved. If you wish to give up all of your rights and place your work directly into the public domain, Creative Commons offers a public domain license, known as a CC0.