Creative Commons licenses allow copyright holders to retain the copyright to their works while giving the public permission to use those works under certain conditions. It’s not an alternative to copyright – the licenses are based on copyright law and in order to grant a CC license to a work you must hold the copyright.
One of the best benefits to making your work available under a Creative Commons license is that for the uses you approve, you don’t have to interact with the permission-seeker to grant approval – they can just follow the terms of the license and reuse your work – with proper attribution!
For users, the primary benefit is finding free material you can use without further permission (so long as you follow the conditions of the license and do a reality check on the source to ensure that the license is legitimate). Since Creative Commons licenses provide permission for your use, you don’t need to analyze fair use either. Note, however, that fair use remains available for uses that exceed the scope of a CC license.
Creative Commons licenses are a combination of four principles, listed below.
All CC licenses require attribution, unless the licensor has distributed the work anonymously or asked that the attribution be removed.
TASL is a nice mnemonic for good attribution of CC-licensed material. Include the Title, Author, Source, and License of the work (if that information is disclosed by the licensor). In addition, if a copyright notice and/or disclaimer of warranties was included with the work, you must retain that as well. You must also indicate if you modified the material and/or if it was previously modified. You must not attribute in a way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.
Besides including this information, there’s no specific form or format, or even location. The licenses allow you to satisfy these conditions in any reasonable manner given the medium and context in which you are using the work. For further details, see the Best Practices for Attribution from the Creative Commons Wiki.
The NonCommercial provision limits the scope of the license to noncommercial uses. The current version of the licenses (4.0) defines noncommercial as follows: “NonCommercial means not primarily intended for or directed towards commercial advantage or monetary compensation. For purposes of this Public License, the exchange of the Licensed Material for other material subject to Copyright and Similar Rights by digital file-sharing or similar means is NonCommercial provided there is no payment of monetary compensation in connection with the exchange.”
Most uses of licensed material at Penn State qualify as noncommercial under this definition. Since this provision can often have a chilling effect on, or even explicitly prohibit, uses you might want to permit, we encourage licensors to reflect carefully before choosing an NC license.
Licenses with a NoDerivatives term do not allow you to share adaptations of the work. The current version of the licenses (4.0) explicitly permits production and reproduction of adaptations, so long as they are not shared. The earlier versions do not.
What constitutes an adaptation can be a bit tricky. The 4.0 licenses define adapted material as follows: “Adapted Material means material subject to Copyright and Similar Rights that is derived from or based upon the Licensed Material and in which the Licensed Material is translated, altered, arranged, transformed, or otherwise modified in a manner requiring permission under the Copyright and Similar Rights held by the Licensor. For purposes of this Public License, where the Licensed Material is a musical work, performance, or sound recording, Adapted Material is always produced where the Licensed Material is synched in timed relation with a moving image.”
Because this provision does not permit important uses such as translation and adaptation, and because its complexity creates chilling effects even for permitted uses, we strongly discourage use of this license by licensors. We also strongly discourage members of the Penn State community from relying on this license.
Licenses with a ShareAlike provision allow you to share adaptations of the work only if you license them under a compatible license. This is designed to help spread open licenses.
Unfortunately, this provision creates serious challenges for people who use materials in institutional settings where the user is not entitled to select a license for the final product. This includes many people at Penn State, especially instructional designers creating online courses and course materials. For this reason, we strongly discourage use of this license by licensors. We also strongly discourage members of the Penn State community from relying on this license.
Six licenses are available based on the features above:
Attribution: CC BY
Attribution – ShareAlike: CC BY-SA
Attribution – NoDerivs: CC BY-ND
Attribution – NonCommercial: CC BY-NC
Attribution – NonCommercial – ShareAlike: CC BY-NC-SA
Attribution – NonCommercial – NoDerivs: CC BY-NC-ND
The first version of the Creative Commons licenses was released in 2002. The current version, 4.0, was released in 2013. Although the same six licenses are available in each version, there are slight changes. The Creative Commons wiki provides a chart outlining these differences.
We recommend that licensors today use the 4.0 licenses, because they are the most internationalized and include various updates.
Using and Finding Creative Commons Materials
Penn State’s Media Commons group has put together a Free Media Resource Page that has links to a several places to get media files that can be used for both educational and commercial projects.
Licensing Your Own Materials
To select a license for your own content and generate suggested HTML for labeling it, use the Creative Commons License Generator.
CC0 and Rights Statements
In addition to the Creative Commons licenses, Creative Commons offers the CC0 Public Domain Dedication to enable copyright holders to waive (give up) all the rights in their work and dedicate it to the public domain without waiting for the rights to expire.
When looking for works you can use, you may also encounter the public domain mark or a standardized rights statement from RightsStatements.org. Unlike licenses or the public domain dedication, these statements do not change the copyright status of a work, and they are not necessarily applied by the rightsholder. Instead, they are used to convey information about the work’s public domain status.