Introduction to Creative Commons and the basics of copyright law

Raven Lanier
Last Updated: May 30, 2024

Copyright exists to promote progress by securing time-limited exclusive rights for creators of original literary and artistic works, including movies, songs, software, photographs,and architecture. On the other hand, Facts and ideas do not fall under copyright protection, including methods of operations or systems. A work is copyrighted as soon as it is fixed in a tangible medium, or created in a way that is saved in some way. For instance, if you come up with a new song and sing it at an open mic night, that song is not protected until you either write it down or record it. Specific exceptions to copyright, such as using material in a classroom or making preservation copies for libraries, exist in the US. Fair use is the broadest of these exceptions (or user’s rights) and provides flexible guidelines to help determine how you can appropriately use the work.

If your use is not allowed under an exception to copyright law, permission is needed from the copyright holder. This can be difficult, especially when works are posted online and not connected with a person’s name or contact information. Even if creators were okay with people using their works under certain circumstances, there was no easy way to convey those permissions to the general public. In 2001, Creative Commons created a suite of licenses that would help bridge these gaps and make it easier for creators to give permission for their content and for the general public to find works they can easily reuse. Creative Commons licenses work within the existing copyright landscape, not against it, and explicitly allow for fair uses of the works, even if that fair use would contradict the other terms of the Creative Commons license.

Between 2001 and today, Creative Commons has grown, not only as an organization, but as a movement. The licenses are now used on nearly two billion works online across nine million websites. Creative Commons licenses increase access and “…give every person and organization in the world a free, simple, and standardized way to grant copyright permissions for creative and academic works; ensure proper attribution; and allow others to copy, distribute, and make use of those works” (About Creative Commons). 

Layers of Creative Commons Licenses

There are three layers of the Creative Commons Licenses. First, a legal code that is a base layer that provides terms enforceable in court. Next, there’s a human readable layer that summarizes the legal code and is easy to understand for non-lawyers.  Finally, there is a machine readable layer that is a summary of key features that technology, such as search engines, understand, allowing for filtering of works by Creative Commons license.

License Elements

There are four license options to pick from when choosing a Creative Commons license: Attributions (BY); Share Alike (SA); Non-Commercial (NC); and No-Derivatives (ND).  More detail about each type of license is outlined below, along with information about the two public domain tools Creative Commons has created.

  • The Attribution license (CC BY): allows people to use and adapt the work for any purpose (even commercially) as long as credit is given to the creator. This is the least restrictive Creative Commons license.
  • The Attribution-ShareAlike license (CC BY-SA): allows people to use and adapt the work for any purpose (even commercially) as long as credit is given to the creator and any adaptations made are shared under the same or a compatible license.
  • The Attribution-NonCommercial license (CC BY-NC): allows people to use and adapt the work for any noncommercial purpose as long as credit is given to the creator.
  • The Attribution-NoDerivatives license (CC BY-ND): allows people to use the work for any purpose (even commercially), as long as they give credit to the creator and do not create adaptations or derivatives of the work. This includes making any major changes, creating translations, or creating sequels. Under this license, people may adapt the work for their own personal use but may not share any adaptations publicly.

The four license types can be mixed and matched depending on the preferences of the copyright holder. It’s important to remember that all Creative Commons licenses require attribution. 

There are also two Public Domain tools: CC0 and the Public Domain Mark.

  • CC0: Allows creators/owners of a work to waive copyright and put their work in the public domain. This is different from a CC license because it is a choice to opt out of copyright protection.
  • Public Domain Mark: Universal label that shows a work is no longer covered by copyright. Popular with museums, this mark is for works that are free of known copyright restrictions around the world.

Get Involved!

The Creative Commons Global Network is part of the open movement focusing on collaboration and sharing works across the globe. You can learn more about the movement and how to get involved in your local Creative Commons Chapter at their website.

Looking for more resources?

Visit Openverse or take a look at the Center for Academic Innovation Finding Useable Materials Guide to help you find openly licensed third party materials. 

The Copyright Team at the Center for Academic Innovation is always available to answer any questions you may have about Creative Commons licenses, including licensing your own work and using the works of others. Feel free to contact us at [email protected].