Creative Commons Licenses

There are those out there who are worried that a Creative Commons license somehow limits your rights to your own material. But, while a Creative Commons license does give anyone who wishes to use it the legal ability to do so without the step of obtaining permission from you first, the idea that you’re limiting yourself is missing the point.

Creative Commons Licenses
Creative Commons Licenses

What is Creative Commons?

There’s a growing philosophy that art is not something to be kept under lock and key; art is something to be shared, collaborated upon, and used for innovation.

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization built on the idea that while the Internet has vastly increased the potential for interactive and collaborative creativity, copyright law—the law that covers these collaborations—has changed very little since its pre-Internet inception. Creative Commons is a way to fill the significant gap between producing a work under a copyright, which requires anyone who wishes to build upon your work for any reason that is not fair use to ask you for explicit permission to do so (usually in the form of a copyright license), and dedicating the work to the public domain, which strips you of your rights as a copyright holder, giving you no more legal access to or ownership of your work than anyone else in the world.

This is where Creative Commons comes in. The “commons” is, in reality, a pool of material of all kinds from all over the world: songs, books, software, documentaries, photography, graphic design—anything that can be copyrighted can carry a Creative Commons license.

With a Creative Commons license, the ownership of the intellectual property is retained by the author; contrary to the popularly held belief that you somehow lose your rights to your work, you’re not actually losing any rights at all—you’re expanding those rights (which you can specifically select to share) to anyone else in the online community who wants to sample your band’s single on his hip hop album, or use your graphic in a YouTube Photoshop tutorial, or incorporate your photograph into a completely new work, such as a mural.

Or, conversely, it allows you to create a video using a copyrighted song as background, which is nearly always considered copyright infringement under today’s copyright law—a situation in which YouTube, its users, and recording studios have been embroiled for some time now. The most recent solution to this legal fiasco was the somewhat clumsy agreement between YouTube and some studios by which videos are “enhanced” with ads as an alternative to ripping down the infringing videos as a matter of course, thus allowing the true copyright holder to benefit financially in some small way, but the solution is haphazard and inflexible. (More in our 6.7.11 post, “Why Is There So Much Copyrighted Material on YouTube?”) Creative Commons, alternatively, creates an elegant solution that can be tailored to each creator’s wishes.

How does it work?

A Creative Commons works by anticipating that every creator is going to have a different outlook on what people should and should not be doing with their intellectual property. Should someone else be allowed to digitally alter your photograph to create an entirely new work of art, or is it important to you that if your work is used it remains intact? Would you like to allow your designs to be used by a business, or only for noncommercial purposes? Whatever your preferences, you can select the appropriate license to let you retain the exclusive control that you want to retain, and allow others to share in the rights that you want to share.

Because of Creative Commons licenses, I'm able to choose from thousands of images for my blogs—legally!
Because of Creative Commons licenses, I’m able to choose from thousands of images for my blogs—legally!
There are six different Creative Commons licenses to choose from, each with a variety of permissions and restrictions.

  • CC BY: Attribution

This is the most basic of CC licenses; it requires only that anyone who uses the copyrighted material credits the copyright owner. Works can be distributed for profit or for free; derivative works can be created based on or incorporating the work.

  • CC BY-ND: Attribution-NoDerivs

With this license, the work can still be used for commercial purposes and must still be attributed to the proper owner, but the work must remain in its original form and cannot be modified or build upon.

  • CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

As long as the original cardholder is given proper credit, you can use the work or modify it in any way, but you must release any resulting work under the same license, and you must not use it for commercial purposes.

  • CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike

This is the same as the previous license, except that commercial use is allowed.

  • CC BY-NC: Attribution-NonCommercial

With this license, your work can be modified, as long as the copyright holder is credited and it is not used for a commercial purpose. The license does not have to be the same.

  • CC BY-NC-ND: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs

This license allows works to be shared, but not transformed or used commercially.

How can a Creative Commons license benefit me?


Creative Commons license allow art to be shared and expanded on, not locked away.
Creative Commons license allow art to be shared and expanded on, not locked away.
The philosophy that art is not something to be kept under lock and key, that it is something to be shared, collaborated upon, and used for innovation, might not seem compatible with the opportunity for one to make a living from one’s craft.

But consider what a valuable requirement attribution can be; consider the image I chose to use for this blog post. Though the artist doesn’t benefit financially from that choice, if you like the mural, you can click on it to get to his Flickr page and review some of the other work he’s done. The entire Creative Commons philosophy is based on the idea that this relationship is beneficial for all of us.

Where do I find Creative Commons licensed material?

Simple: provides a free search engine that directs you to a variety of sites (including Flickr) that can filter CC licenses for you. You’re sure to find material you can use!

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