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Understanding Creative Commons Licenses

written by: Rebecca Scudder•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 11/5/2012

Creative Commons licenses are appearing more and more, especially on Internet published content. If you want to allow use of your creative work, you need to understand which license to choose. If you want to know if you can use a work with a CC license, you need to understand that license.

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    How Do Creative Commons Licenses Work?

    How can you use works that have CC licenses applied? If you use images and text created by other people in your desktop publishing, whether in print or on the web, understanding copyright and how Creative Commons licenses work with copyright, and what different CC licenses mean, is very important. You should make sure all the material you use is legal for the use you are making of it. It would be unpleasant, at the least, to receive a take-down notice for material in a piece you published, and could have legal and financial consequences.

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    A work created by someone is copyrighted, and unless otherwise specified, the owner has all rights reserved. No use of the work can be made without the owner’s permission except for fair use, and even using part of a work under the fair use doctrine still requires attribution to the creator. When you see the symbol ©, you should assume all rights reserved. You can make use of the work if you have permission from the creator- and it is an excellent idea to have that permission in writing. The copyright holder can charge for the use, or grant you the right to use the material for nothing. They can also assign the copyright to someone else, or sell the copyright. A writer can also produce a work for hire, which means the copyright holder is the person who hired the work to be created, and that case they are the person who needs to be contacted.

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    What is Creative Commons?

    Creative Commons is an organization which wants to allow copyright holders and potential users to share material in a way conventional All Rights Reserved copyright does not.

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    Creative Commons licenses are a way in which people can share their work, and let it be used by others under specific conditions, without giving up their copyright in their work. The six main CC licenses all require attribution for their use in any manner. However, while the license requires attribution- acknowledgement of the creator of a work, it in no way implies that the original creator endorses the user’s presentation of their work, and this is explicitly stated in the license.

    Creative Commons License matrix All Creative Commons licenses are not created equal. They all require attribution- the acknowledgement of who originally created the material, but there are six main types, divided into two broad areas. The first allows anyone to use the material, including use for commercial purposes. The other group is for use in non-commercial form. Within each group there are further divisions, for whether the material can be shared, and whether derivative works can be made from the original. There are also two additional licenses. One is the Creative Commons license in which the creator gives up all right to the work. The other is a Creative Commons public domain license, with which a work is certified as being in the public domain, to the best of the certifier's knowledge.

    As well as using material with a Creative Commons license, you may decide to let others use material you created. When an individual uses a Creative Commons license on their intellectual property, it means that they are allowing others to use their work, in certain specific ways, depending on the chosen license. As a creator, whether you are willing to let your work be used solely in a non-commercial way, without any permission to modify or share the material, or you are willing to let anyone use your work in any form, as long as they attribute it to you, the original creator, you need to select the right license to accomplish that.

    Image: Creative Commons license matrix- CC site

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    If you see a work which you would like to reproduce in some way, and it has a Creative Commons license on it, you must be sure you understand the license, to know if you can use the material for your purpose, and if there are conditions for your use.

    It is very important to know what each license means, and in this article we will explain in plain English what privileges the copyright holder is sharing.

    The main Creative Commons licenses areCC icons 

    • Attribution, abbreviated cc-by, which allows commercial and non-commercial use and transformation of the original, as long as the original is acknowledged, or attributed.
    • Attribution without derivatives- which means it can be used for commercial and non-commercial use, with attribution, but may not be changed. It is abbreviated cc-by-nd.
    • Attribution Share Alike, which allows the use of the material, with the right to adapt it, as long as the adapted material is given the same Share Alike license. In effect, this means whoever uses the material created must distribute it for free, as that is how the copyright holder is allowing it to be used. Its abbreviation is cc-by-sa.
    • Attribution Noncommercial, abbreviated cc-by-nc, allows use by anyone for non-commercial purposes, and allows the user to adapt the material. As the use is non-commercial, the user would not be charging for the material.
    • Attribution Noncommercial Share Alike allows non-commercial use of the material with attribution, and allows you to make adaptations to the material. It can be used by others after you have changed it, as long as it has the same licensing. It is abbreviated cc-by-nc-sa.
    • Attribution Noncommercial No Derivatives allows the use of the original material for non-commercial purposes, but it cannot be changed in any way. It is abbreviated cc-by-nc-nd, and is the most restrictive Creative Commons license, as all it allows you to do is display the work, attributed, in a completely unchanged form.
    • No Rights Reserved- abbreviated cc0, is the license you assign to work you allow anyone to use, for any purpose, with any changes they want. This license does not require that the work be attributed to the creator, but it does mean that nothing with the use of the work should imply it is endorsed by the creator.
    • Public Domain- Copyright-Only Dedication* (based on United States law) or Public Domain Certification

    Image: CC logos from Creative Commons site

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    In the additional articles in this series we will explain the different Creative Commons licenses in plain English, with examples of how a specific license will work in a copyright situation.

Creative Commons Licenses

Whether you want to choose a Creative Commons License for your published work, or you want to understand the license on a work because you're considering using it, you should know what various Creative Commons Licenses mean. Here at Bright Hub we explain all 6 main licenses and 'No Rights Reserved'.
  1. Understanding Creative Commons Licenses
  2. Creative Commons Licenses for Commercial Use Explained in Plain English
  3. Examples of Non-Commercial Creative Commons License Usage
  4. Creative Commons Licenses for Releasing Copyright