Creative Commons licences

There are millions of Creative Commons (CC)-licensed items, including text, images, video, and audio, freely available online. So exactly what is Creative Commons and how can you use CC works in commercial projects?

What is Creative Commons

Creative Commons logoCreative Commons ( is a non-profit organization that issues a range of easily understood licences that can be used freely by authors, photographers and other content creators. Several countries have produced localized versions.

The Creative Commons movement has grown up in recent years to tackle what its adherents see as opaque or restrictive rules that govern the use of copyright content. It does this by providing its own licences that clearly state how works can be used.

Creative Commons’ licences are often associated with the extreme view that copyright should be removed in favor of free distribution of creative works. But, in fact, they work within current copyright law and provide a simple and lawyer-free way to give creators control over copyright for their work.

There’s also a common misconception that CC licences don’t allow commercialization of your work. Several of the licence types let both the creator and others use a work commercially.

Another area of confusion is public domain. Creative Commons is not the same as public domain. If an item is in the public domain, it means that all of a copyright holders rights are waived. Creative Commons licences allow creators to retain some rights though they might be as limited as requiring attribution.

Education and public institutions such as museums and libraries are among the biggest users. These licences are also common on sites that accept a lot of user-generated content, such as YouTube and the Flickr photo-sharing site.

As we’ve seen in the section on permissions, these licences can help you locate resources online to use in your own works. The licences are both human- and computer-readable, the latter making it possible for search engines to identify CC-licensed works.

The six Creative Commons licence types

There are six CC licences, three of which permit commercial use. The creator of a work chooses the licence that expresses how they would like the work to be used.

The most liberal licence merely asks for attribution if a work is used. Other licences place more conditions on works, including whether and how they can be used commercially.

Licences can be easily displayed by attaching one of the standard CC logos.

Creative Commons Licences

Click here to view the CC licences that allow commercial use
  • Attribution (abbreviated to CC BY). The least restrictive licence: Lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation.
  • Attribution-ShareAlike  (abbreviated to CC BY-SA). Lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.
  • Attribution-NoDerivs (abbreviated to CC BY-ND). Allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.
Click here to view the CC licences that permit no commercial use
  • Attribution-NonCommercial (abbreviated to CC BY-NC). 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-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (abbreviated to CC BY-NC-SA). 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.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (abbreviated to CC BY-NC-ND). The most restrictive licence: Allows others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

Using Creative Commons in your commercial works

While most authors and publishers will be better served with traditional commercial copyright agreements, there are situations where a Creative Commons licence might be suitable. As the Creative Commons organization says in its promotional material, instead of the ‘All rights reserved’ of traditional copyright, CC licences are a ‘Some rights reserved’ system.

Here are some scenarios where a CC licence might be useful:

  • A publisher wants to give away samples to promote a book or series, but wants clear guidelines over how it is used and attributed.
  • An author has written a family history. He doesn’t want to make any money from it or to stop people from using it in their own works, but wants to ensure that they don’t change what he has written.
  • A publisher wants to sell work to schools, giving them the right to freely incorporate some components of its material into their own non-commercial works.
  • An author wants to sell (or give away) her work, allowing others to modify it and incorporate it into their commercial works. The author doesn’t expect further payment, but requires that any changes be shared with others.
  • A publisher creates a website or interactive publication that allows comments and accepts user-generated content. It wants to reuse some of this material in its own commercial works. A CC licence provides a simple, user-friendly way to acquire these rights.

If you’re considering the use of a Creative Commons licence, be aware that while it will afford your work some copyright protection, you’ll be giving up a lot of your rights. And remember that you don’t need an explicit licence to grant yourself copyright over your own work: Your work is automatically copyrighted the moment it’s created. The CC licence is there to make it clear to others what they can and can’t do with your work.


Find out more about this topic on our Digital Publishing 101 useful resources site.


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