Understanding Creative Commons Licenses

5 mins read

Since late 2002, Creative Commons (CC) Licenses have been the most popular form of public copyright licenses, allowing creators and artists to share their work, for free, while still retaining it as their own, copyrighted creation.

However, lots of people do not understand how these licenses work, especially when it comes to mixing several works with different CC licenses attached to them.

This naturally leads to creators in a constant struggle to ensure their work is being correctly distributed. Often, after finding that their work has been (perhaps unintentionally) misused, they feel as if their work had been stolen. Lots of bad feelings back and forth, but fortunately it is not difficult to fix it. 

How? Users must educate themselves that all CC licenses can be mastered by understanding only four major building blocks that go into all of these licenses. All CC licenses are just different combos of the four building blocks that I will discuss below. I will then describe the CC licenses most often used, from least restrictive to most. At the end, there is a matrix of what to do if you want to mix multiple works with different CC’s attached to them. 


A brief history of CC
Created in December 2002 by the U.S. non-profit organization Creative Commons. We have seen five redevelopments of the suite of licenses. The most current version of the suite, 4.0, was released in November 2013. It is a set of generic licenses that do not require adapting (porting) to the different laws of different countries. This leads to the licenses being applicable to most jurisdictions around the world.

All You Need to Know Are These Four Blocks


The basic building blocks of all CC licenses are: ATTRIBUTION, SHAREALIKE, NONCOMMERCIAL AND NODERIVATIVES. Once you know these blocks, everything else will automatically fall into its place. 


The Most Popular CC’s, From Least Restrictive to Most

So, let’s examine how the above basic building blocks play out in most popular combos, starting from the least restrictive to most. 

There are six licenses that are most often used, plus CC0 (public domain, total freebie). All six of these grant “baseline rights”, including the right to distribute worldwide for non-commercial use as long as no modification is made.

The first, least restrictive and most basic form of a CC license is the ATTRIBUTION ONLY (BY) license. This allows a piece of work to be shared and adapted (derived) freely. All the distributor has to do is credit the creator and state any alterations that have been made from the original (if any).
To be safe, when crediting the creator, the distributor must include: the creator’s identity (name or screen-name), the work’s title (if it has one), whether any adaptions (derivatives) have been made, and what those adaptions are, the exact CC license the work is under and any other copyright notices contained within the work. These attribution rules apply to all the CC licenses.
The second license to talk about is the ATTRIBUTION AND SHAREALIKE (BY-SA) license. This includes everything stated above in the BY license, but any derivatives of the original work must be shared under the exact same CC license to the original. Simply, if you were to take my poem that is under a BY-SA license and change the last sentence to make it sound better, you would then HAVE to share ‘your’ adapted poem also under a BY-SA license.
The next license on the list is the ATTRIBUTION AND NONCOMMERCIAL (BY-NC) license. This seems like the easiest to understand, but it’s not. You must attribute in the same way as a BY license, but you can’t use the work to make money (for commercial gain). What does ‘for commercial gain’ actually mean though? Clearly, taking someone’s work and putting it up for sale is commercial gain, and this isn’t allowed under this license. However, does uploading the work to a monetized website with advertisements count as ‘for commercial gain’? Does allowing donations for the work (even if a donation is not needed to gain access to it) count as ‘for commercial gain’? These points have not been explicitly defined by CC and thus, it is best to deal with them on a case-by-case basis. Your best bet is to contact the creator and ask what is OK and what is not. Please note: BY-NC licenses DO allow derivatives to be made, as long as the work is only changed in a non-commercial manner.
More generally speaking, if you are ever in doubt of what you can do under any of the CC licenses, contact the creator for clarification. This will avoid a lot of hassle and upset for you (which could result in legal action), and also for the creator, who may not want their work shared in a certain way.
The last ‘basic’ license to discuss is the ATTRIBUTION AND NODERIVATIVES (BY-ND) license. This license is quite simple. As long as you do not make any alterations to the original work, you can do whatever you want with it. No alterations mean none, at all. This includes changing as little as one word in a book or adding a filter to a photo. As long as you don’t change anything, you can share the work however you like, whether for commercial gain or not.

The last two licenses are simply combinations of the ‘basic’ licenses.

The ATTRIBUTION, NONCOMMERCIAL, AND SHAREALIKE (BY-NC-SA) license takes the BY-NC license discussed earlier and adds the element of ShareAlike. If you take a piece of work under a BY-NC-SA license and change it, you can only share it under a BY-NC-SA license. This adds fairness that the editor isn’t gaining from someone else’s original idea, even if it has been heavily altered.
Finally, the ATTRIBUTION, NONCOMMERCIAL, AND NODERIVATIVES (BY-NC-ND) license is the strictest CC license one can obtain. It allows nothing to be done to the work, besides from sharing it (for free) with appropriate credit given to the creator. Remember, when crediting, please make sure to include all the points listed earlier in this article.
In addition to these six licenses, CC does offer a method to release work to the public domain, forfeiting as many legal rights as possible. This is called CC0 or CCZero. This form of public domain equivalent license was released in 2009. CC0 is often used in conjunction with the Public Domain Mark, also developed by CC and released in 2010. The Public Domain Mark is simply an indication of a work’s public domain status. You may have seen the Public Domain Mark before; it looks like a copyright symbol with a strike through it.
Any work with a CC0 designation has ‘No Rights Reserved’. It can never be assumed that any work carries this designation unless it is very, very explicitly marked as CC0.


Combining works



Select two works you wish to combine or remix. Find the license of the first work on the first row and the license on the first column. You can mix the two if there is a green smiley there. Use at least the most restrictive licensing of the two (use the license most to right or down state) for the new work. If there a red smiley, then you can not mix these works. This probably indicates that one of the two licenses may not used for commercial purposes, or one of the licenses does not allow for derivative works to be created.

Remix works with a NonCommercial building block

It is not possible to mix works where the first work is placed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license and the second work is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. The ShareAlike building block in first license requires that the newly created work is released under that license and can therefore be used commercially, the second license wants you to release the new work under a license that does not permit commercial use.

Remix work with a NoDerivative building block


It is not possible to use in a remix where NoDerivative is a building block in processing a work. All works released under this license may only be distributed in their original form. No cropping or lower resolution works can be made available. Parts of these works cannot be utilized to create other works.

Hopefully, reading this article has given you a better understanding of the main Creative Commons licenses. If you are ever in doubt of what you can and can’t do with someone’s work, please seek legal advice or contact the creator directly for clarification.

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