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« Understanding Creative Commons Pt 2 | Main | Top 10 Manly Contemporary Authors »

Understanding Creative Commons Pt 1

This post and the next is a draft of an article I've been asked to write for a school library magazine on Creative Commons. I'm sharing the draft here hoping readers will add suggestions for clarification, additions, or other sorts of improvements.

If you can't take advantage of your readers, just who can you take advantage of? I look forward to your comments. Thanks - Doug

Creative Commons and why it should be more common (Part One)


You’ve heard yourself on countless occasions tell students, “Assume everything on the Internet is copyrighted!”

Sorry. That’s not exactly good advice anymore. Authors, videographers, musicians, photographers, well, almost anyone who creates materials and makes them publically available has an alternative to standard copyright licensing: Creative Commons. As library media specialists, we need to understand this relatively recent invention and its implication for our staff and students.

Why Creative Commons?

The Creative Commons website explains its mission as:

Creative Commons provides free tools that let authors, scientists, artists, and educators easily mark their creative work with the freedoms they want it to carry. You can use CC to change your copyright terms from "All Rights Reserved" to "Some Rights Reserved."

In other words, Creative Commons (CC) is an alternative to traditional copyright. The creator can assign a variety of rights for others to use his work – rights that are usually more permissive than copyright, but more restrictive than placing material in the public domain. CC makes sharing, re-using, re-mixing and building on the creative works of others understandable and legal.

Inspired by the Free Software Foundation’s GNU General Public License, the non-profit Creative Commons organization was founded in 2001 by Stanford Law professor Lawrence Lessig. As a part of the “copyleft” movement, Lessig and others believe traditional copyright restrictions inhibit cultural and economic growth. A growing number of content producers want to allow others to use and remix their materials – and in turn be able to use and remix the content of others. CC licenses make this legal.

While Creative Commons was started in the United States, about 50 other countries (as of late 2008) have “ported” the licenses to work with their copyright laws. More countries continue to be added. The “International” tab on the CC homepage lists the cooperating jurisdictions.

Understanding Creative Commons Licenses
While initially this looks complex, a basic understanding of the types of licenses and how they can be combined is relatively simple. There are only four “conditions” of a CC licenses:

These four conditions can be combined to form six different licenses that specifically describe the conditions they wish to apply to their work. These are, from least to most restrictive, as described on the CC website <>:

Attribution Share Alike
This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial reasons, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use.

Attribution No Derivatives
This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.

Attribution Non-Commercial
This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike
This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. Others can download and redistribute your work just like the by-nc-nd license, but they can also translate, make remixes, and produce new stories based on your work. All new work based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also be non-commercial in nature.

Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives
This license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, allowing redistribution. This license is often called the “free advertising” license because it allows others to download your works and share them with others as long as they mention you and link back to you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

How to use CC for one’s own work
Determining which license one wishes to use has been made simple by Creative Commons. By answering just two questions at

  • Allow commercial uses of your work?
  • Allow modifications of your work?

the appropriate license will be generated for your work, either as embeddable code for a webpage or as text:

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.

Continued in next post...

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Reader Comments (4)

You should be more consistent about explaining that Creative Commons is about licensing -- not an alternative to copyright per se. The only reason you can apply a Creative Commons license is because you've got your rights under copyright law.

I would not describe our current copyright law as "traditional." Part of the reason we have Creative Commons is that copyright law has diverged so far from its traditional role under the constitution.

I wouldn't try to explain every combination of licenses, just a couple of the most common ones. It would be very difficult to explain why someone would use attribution non-commercia, and I don't think very many people dol, so I'd rather not bring it up.

Another underlying point you should try to make more clearly is that Creative Commons licensing doesn't allow you to do anything you couldn't do before. The difference is that before people would stick a line on their website that said something like "you may copy this for non-commercial use" but it wasn't really clear if it was binding, exactly what it meant, etc. Creative Commons makes the process more standardized and rigorous.

December 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTom Hoffman

Thank you, Tom. This was exactly the kind of perspective I was looking for.

All the best,


December 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

It's very eye opening, the information that I have obtained from this class. I must be better aware of laws and regulations that are involved with copyright issues.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJared Eure

Hi Jared,

Here is an article (probably a little better edited) on CreativeCommons that you might want to look at:

All the best,


February 6, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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