Creative Commons

Works such as a photograph, a digital artwork, an essay, etc. are automatically protected by copyright. Anyone who wants to use these works have to ask the copyright owner for permission. This is not ideal for a creator who wishes to share his or her own works more openly. This is the problem that the Creative Commons organization aims to address with its licenses.

There are different types of CC licenses giving users different levels of openness. In essence, these licenses are legal tools to give users permission in advance to share and use the works. While copyrights state "all rights reserved", CC licenses state "some rights reserved". Ultimately, CC is a framework that fosters openness and changes the way we share, collaborate, remix and reuse content.


  • What's the case for Creative Commons licensing?
    An introduction to Creative Commons. Source: Creative Commons Vimeo 2010.

    Copyright law can be traced back to the sixth century, but it was only in 1710 that it became an act of Parliament (in Great Britain) through the Statute of Anne, also known as the Copyright Act 1710. This law granted creators the right to protect their works and set the terms in which their works may be used by others. Initially for books, it was later applied to translations, maps, paintings, photographs, motion pictures and computer programs.

    Copyright is automatic. This becomes a problem in a connected world. It went against Internet's culture of sharing and collaboration. Creators who had no problems with others using their works, had no way to tell people about their intentions. Users who wished to reuse the open works of others had no legal framework to do so. There was therefore a need for an open license.

    In the late 1990s, the GNU GPL license was available but it was tailored for software. It wasn't suited for cultural works. Moreover, for cultural works, one required a range of options to give creators the choice of licensing.

  • Which popular platforms have adopted Creative Commons licensing?
    Some popular adopters of CC licensing. Source: Creative Commons 2018d.
    Some popular adopters of CC licensing. Source: Creative Commons 2018d.

    Flickr, Wikipedia, YouTube and Vimeo are some popular adopters of CC licensing. Among research communities, PLOS is a big adopter. Within Springer Nature, on the bioRxiv preprint server, most articles use CC licensing. Blogging platform Medium adopted CC licensing back in 2015.

    The Free Software Foundation (FSF) recommends the use of CC0 for releasing any work into public domain. The White House website uses CC licensing. In 2015, Europeana had about 8 million cultural objects using a CC license and another 9 million using Public Domain Mark.

    Wikimedia commons allows the use of CC0, CC-BY and CC-BY-SA.

  • Isn't the Creative Commons legal jargon intimidating for common users?
    CC licenses are composed of three layers. Source: Park 2011.
    CC licenses are composed of three layers. Source: Park 2011.

    While it's true that the legal language is often difficult to understand for common users, there's an alternative version that offers a simplified explanation of the licenses. While the legal code is the actual license, its sufficient for users to read the simpler version. Called Commons Deed, it's the "human-readable" version of the licenses.

    There's also a third layer that makes it easier for search engines and other software tools to identify works that are using CC licenses. Such information is embedded into web pages, not visible on the pages for people but can be parsed by search engines. Creative Commons website illustrates one approach to adding metadata wherever CC-licensed is reused. It uses Dublin Core to do this.

  • What are the different Creative Commons licenses available for use?
    Multiple CC licenses are available at different levels of openness. Source: WUR 2018.
    Multiple CC licenses are available at different levels of openness. Source: WUR 2018.

    There are six different CC licenses: CC BY, CC BY-SA, CC BY-NC, CC BY-ND, CC BY-NC-SA, CC BY-NC-ND.

    All six licenses permit copying and publishing of the works. BY implies that attribution to the original author is required. Attribution is mandatory in all CC licenses. Anything marked with NC implies only non-commercial use is allowed. Anything marked with ND implies no derivative use: you cannot modify or adapt the original work. Anything marked with SA implies share alike, meaning that derived works must be released under the same license as the original work.

    From the above understanding, we can say that CC BY is most open and CC BY-NC-ND is least open. CC BY-NC-ND is still better than a copyright since the work in its original form can be shared or reused non-commercially with attribution.

    In 2014, it was seen that one-third of CC licenses in use was CC BY, 76% allowed remixing and 58% allowed commercial use.

  • What's CC0? How's it different from works in public domain?
    Symbols that indicate CC0 and public domain. Source: Merkley 2015.
    Symbols that indicate CC0 and public domain. Source: Merkley 2015.

    CC0 allows creators to place their work as nearly as possible into public domain.

    When a copyright expires, the work comes into public domain. Creative Commons has defined a symbol to indicate this with its Public Domain Mark (PDM), in addition to another symbol that indicates CC0. CC0 is useful when the copyright has not expired but the copyright owner willingly gives up the rights so that others can freely reuse the work. CC0 gives maximum freedom, to reuse or adapt, even commercially, without attribution.

    In 2015, Flickr started allowing users to share their works under CC0 or PDM. SpaceX released its images under CC0. Europeana had 26,000 images under CC0 plus 3.6 million works under PDM.

  • Are there guidelines to use and attribute works with CC licenses?
    How to attribute and where to place it. Source: Engstrom 2014.
    How to attribute and where to place it. Source: Engstrom 2014.

    Attribution should include the original author's name, title of the work, a hyperlink that points to the page where the work was obtained, the type of license used and a link pointing to the license. For example, if the work is an image, this attribution may be place immediately below the image or as an endnote on the same page. Since version 4.0, attributions may be on a separate page that's hyperlinked from the place of reuse.

    Version 2.0 clarified three conditions for linkback. Linking back must be practical; that is, licensee can't be faulted for failing to link to a dead page. Licensor must provide a valid linkback URL. This URL must point to the correct CC licensing terms and not misdirect users to unrelated sites.

    Version 3.0 relaxed the title requirement but added the requirement to link back to source. It also stated that if you adapt or modify the work, this must be noted.

    Here's an example attribution: "Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco" by tvol is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

  • Are CC licenses an alternative to copyrights?

    CC licenses are not alternatives to copyrights. A work must be copyrighted in order to be licensed under CC. Only the copyright owner can place the work under a CC license, or authorize someone to do so. Creative Commons licenses expire when the underlying copyright and similar rights expire.

    CC licenses are non-exclusive: the copyright owner can enter into separate agreements as well. CC licenses are non-revocable: even if the copyright owner revokes the CC license, all those already reusing the work will continue to do so under the original terms. The fact that CC licenses are irrevocable is seen by some as a limitation. It doesn't give licensors an option to change their mind later.

    CC licenses don't limit rights granted through statutory exceptions, including fair use.

  • What are some criticisms of Creative Commons and its licenses?

    With CC licenses, even small modifications can be treated as an adaptation and the person doing it can take credit for it. However, in a 2012 lawsuit, the U.S. copyright law was applied. It considered the work as non-derivative since there were no major additions or deletions.

    In 2014, Yahoo! announced plans to sell prints of photos on Flickr. Owners of copyrighted photos would get a revenue share but those who had used CC BY license would get nothing. Licensors have no protection against who or how their works will be used in the future. In a similar case, Apple Academic Press republished and sold open access research articles.

    Though not limited to CC-licensed work, plagiarism is a problem. You could reuse a work based on its stated CC license, but the original work might still be under copyright. For example, a person who doesn't own the image uploads it to Flickr and licenses it as CC BY. This is in fact a copyright infringement.

    There's also criticism that Creative Commons as an organization offers no protection. You're on your own if things go wrong.

  • If I wish to adopt Creative Commons licensing, what resources are available?

    Creative Commons website is a good place to start. The CC blog is a place to follow news and tips about CC licensing. The CC FAQ is a useful reference. To get connected with the CC community, join the CC Global Affiliate Network, one of their mailing lists or Slack channels. There's also the annual CC Global Summit for discussions, workshops and community building.

    To help find works licensed under Creative Commons, there's the official CC Search. Additionally, there are plenty of other search services. Examples include Free Music Archive, Let's CC, Internet Archive, 500px Creative Commons, and Project Gutenberg.

  • How is the Creative Commons organization structured?

    Creative Commons is a network of staff, board, emeritus, advisory council, audit committee, and affiliates around the world.

    The Creative Commons Global Affiliate Network includes over 500 volunteers and community members who serve as CC representatives in over 85 countries. In 2017, a new strategy was formed. The new network is built on individuals rather than teams that depend on organizations. Organizations can also be part of it as partners. The network is not a separate legal entity and is supported by CC HQ. The network comprises of local chapters, each having an elected representative and a public lead or coordinator. Governance is via the Global Network Council with one representation from each chapter plus three from CC HQ.

    Finally, all activities are carried out within Platforms, or areas of work. Some of these include Arts & culture, Open access, Open data, Technology, Open science, etc.



The Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) in the U.S extends copyright terms by another 20 years. This creates problems for Eric Eldred who was planning to publish works that were about to come into public domain. Together with Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School, they challenge the Act. They eventually lose the case in 2003.


Inspired by Elred's idea to make works freely available on the Internet, Lawrence Lessig creates Creative Commons.


The first version Creative Commons licenses is published.


Version 2.0 of CC licenses is released. Attribution is treated as a standard practice and must link back to licensor's work. The use of CC licenses to music is clarified.


Version 3.0 of CC licenses is released. This clarifies aspects of internationalization. The term unported license is used to refer to licenses not adapted to local jurisdictions. Compatibility structure is included so that users know what license to use based on source licenses.


To enable creators to surrender the copyright and database rights to their work, and place them as nearly as possible in public domain, CC0 is created. It's universal and can be used in any jurisdiction. It's not exactly a license but a legal tool. It's the "no rights reserved" alternative to CC licenses.


Wikimedia Foundation votes to move all its content from GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) to Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 (CC BY-SA 3.0) license. GFDL is suited for software documentation and it requires that full license text be included. Comparatively, CC BY-SA 3.0 is easier to use with only a link to the license.


Version 4.0 of CC licenses is released. This offers global licenses that can be used without "porting". This effort to internationalize the licenses started in December 2011. Attribution is allowed via a link to a separate page. A licensor may request removal of attribution if so desired. Any licensing breach can be corrected within 30 days.


Ported licenses are available for 60 countries. For example, India has ported CC license v2.5 as its latest; China has v3.0. With v4.0, ported licenses are largely redundant.

Growing adoption of CC licenses. Source: Merkley 2018.
Growing adoption of CC licenses. Source: Merkley 2018.

The number of works licensed under CC has grown from 50 million in 2006 to 1.47 billion in 2017. In 2017, the CC Search tool gets 1.5 million queries and the CC website gets 50 million visitors.


  1. Bailey, Jonathan. 2013. "The Problem with False Creative Commons Licenses." Plagiarim Today, June 11. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  2. Creative Commons. 2013. "What’s New in 4.0." November. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  3. Creative Commons. 2017. "Creative Commons Global Network Strategy." June 27. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  4. Creative Commons. 2018a. "Creative Commons Homepage." Creative Commons. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  5. Creative Commons. 2018b. "CC0." Creative Commons. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  6. Creative Commons. 2018c. "Frequently Asked Questions." Creative Commons, August 29. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  7. Creative Commons. 2018d. "Share your work." Creative Commons. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  8. Creative Commons. 2018e. "Team." Creative Commons. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  9. Creative Commons. 2018f. "Global Affiliate Network." Creative Commons. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  10. Creative Commons. 2018g. "About." Creative Commons. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  11. Creative Commons. 2020. "About The Licenses." Creative Commons. Accessed 2020-07-20.
  12. Creative Commons Vimeo. 2010. "Wanna Work Together?" July 23. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  13. Creative Commons Wiki. 2014. "CC Ports by Jurisdiction." October 02. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  14. Crotty, David. 2014. "Creative Commons Confusion Continues to Confound Content Creators." The Scholarly Kitchen, December 10. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  15. Engstrom, Shannon. 2014. "Demystifying Creative Commons: Part 2 – How to use and attribute CC licenses." Blog, Hubert Project, August 27. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  16. FSF. 2018. "Various Licenses and Comments about Them." GNU Operating System, Free Software Foundation, August 12. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  17. Geere, Duncan. 2011. "The history of Creative Commons." Wired UK, December 13. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  18. Glenn. 2004. "Announcing (and explaining) our new 2.0 licenses." Blog, Creative Commons, May 25. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  19. Keller, Kelley. 2016. "5 Expensive Problems with Using Creative Commons for Small Business." Small Business Trends, January 20. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  20. Laskow, Sarah. 2013. "Creative Commons: Ur doing it wrong." Columbia Journalism Review, December 03. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  21. Lessig, Lawrence. 2012. "10 Years of Creative Commons: An Interview with Co-Founder Lawrence Lessig." Governance Across Borders, December 18. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  22. Lizerbram, David. 2015. "Creative Commons Copyright Challenges." David Lizerbram & Associates, November 23. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  23. McKenzie, Lindsay. 2017. "Biologists debate how to license preprints." News, Nature, June 16. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  24. Merkley, Ryan. 2015. "Great news for the commons: Flickr now supports CC0 and the CC Public Domain Mark." Blog, Creative Commons, March 30. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  25. Merkley, Ryan. 2018. "A Transformative Year: State of the Commons 2017." Creative Commons, May 08. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  26. Mia. 2007. "Version 3.0 Launched." Blog, Creative Commons, February 23. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  27. Park, Jane. 2011. "File:License-layers.png." WikiEducator, January 14. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  28. Park, Jane. 2015. "Medium embraces CC licenses." Blog, Creative Commons, May 06. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  29. Pekel, Joris. 2015. "Creative Commons licenses are great - but how to use them?" Europeana Pro, January 13. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  30. Peters, Diane. 2009. "Expanding the Public Domain: Part Zero." Blog, Creative Commons, March 11. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  31. Raymond, Jason. 2018. "A Brief History of Creative Commons." Comosa Connect, July 23. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  32. Redfield, Rosie. 2013. "When is it ethical to re-publish open-access scholarly articles?" RRResearch, July 20. Updated 2017-10-07. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  33. Sandu, Adrian. 2017. "120+ Places To Find Creative Commons Media." SitePoint, September 28. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  34. Scheid, Maria. 2015. "Creative Commons Licenses: What You Need to Know as a Creator and User." Copyright Corner, Ohio State University, June 24. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  35. Timothy. 2009. "Wikipedia Moving From GFDL To Creative Commons License." Slashdot, May 21. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  36. WUR. 2018. "What are Creative Commons licenses?" Wageningen University & Research, May 15. Updated 2018-08-30. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  37. Wikimedia Commons. 2018. "Commons:Licensing." Wikimedia Commons, July 23. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  38. Wikipedia. 2015. "Wikipedia:Comparison of GFDL and CC BY-SA." Wikipedia, January 12. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  39. Wikipedia. 2018. "Creative Commons license." Wikipedia, September 02. Accessed 2018-09-03.

Further Reading

  1. Hawkins, Sara F. 2014. "Creative Commons Licenses Explained In Plain English." February 14. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  2. Geere, Duncan. 2011. "The history of Creative Commons." Wired UK, December 13. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  3. Creative Commons. 2018c. "Frequently Asked Questions." Creative Commons, August 29. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  4. Lessig, Lawrence. 2012. "10 Years of Creative Commons: An Interview with Co-Founder Lawrence Lessig." Governance Across Borders, December 18. Accessed 2018-09-03.
  5. Keller, Kelley. 2016. "5 Expensive Problems with Using Creative Commons for Small Business." Small Business Trends, January 20. Accessed 2018-09-03.

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Devopedia. 2020. "Creative Commons." Version 4, July 20. Accessed 2023-11-12.
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Last updated on
2020-07-20 13:25:26
  • Open Source Licenses
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