Creative Commons Licenses

Welcome back! What jumped out at you from viewing Twenty Years of Creative Commons (in Sixty Seconds)? One of the things that jumps out at me is that sixty seconds is about how long I can pay attention some days. Hopefully you’ve taken a break and can approach this chapter with energy and renewed curiosity.

Call your imagined project back to mind. We have discussed how the use of OER in this project can increase student access to the experience you are designing and center your expertise. We have remembered that in the United States, copyright is intended to protect creators’ rights over the use and distribution of their work, and that copyright is conferred immediately once the work has taken tangible form. Finally, we took sixty seconds to hear about how some creators have used Creative Commons licenses to communicate their willingness to have others interact with their work. This chapter will share a bit more about what that means.

About Creative Commons Licenses

The Creative Commons licenses layer over full copyright to give creators a clear, standardized way to grant permission to others to use their work. From the re-user’s perspective, the presence of a Creative Commons license answers the question “What can I do with this?” and provides freedom to re-use, subject to clearly defined conditions. All Creative Commons licenses ensure that creators retain their copyright and get credit for their work, while permitting others to copy and distribute it.

Although the tools are designed to be as easy to use as possible, there are still some things to learn in order to fully understand their mechanics. The licenses are built using a three layer design.


Image displaying three layers of CC license

The legal code is the base layer. This contains the “lawyer-readable” terms and conditions that are legally enforceable in court. Take a minute and scan through the legal code of CC BY to see how it is structured. Can you find where the attribution requirements are listed?

The commons deeds are the most well-known layer of the licenses. These are the web pages that lay out the key license terms in so-called “human-readable” terms. The deeds are not legally enforceable but instead summarize the legal code. Take some time to explore the deeds for CC BY and CC BY-NC-ND and identify how they differ. Can you find the links to the legal code from each deed?

The final layer of the license design recognizes that software plays a critical role in the creation, copying, discovery, and distribution of works. In order to make it easy for websites and web services to know when a work is available under a Creative Commons license, we provide a “machine readable” version of the license—a summary of the key freedoms granted and obligations imposed written into a format that applications, search engines, and other kinds of technology can understand. We developed a standardized way to describe licenses that software can understand called CC Rights Expression Language (CC REL) to accomplish this. When this metadata is attached to CC licensed works, someone searching for a CC licensed work using a search engine (e.g., Google advanced search) can more easily discover CC licensed works.

Creative Commons License Basics

Four Creative Commons elements combine to form six licenses communicating varying levels of permission. The four elements are Attribution (CC BY), Noncommercial (NC), ShareAlike (SA), and NoDerivatives (ND).


CC BY icon
Dollar sign in circle with line drawn diagonally left to right over
share alike symbol
equals sign in circle




Each of the six licenses in the Creative License suite include the BY condition. Beyond that commonality, the licenses vary whether (1) commercial use of the work is permitted, (2) whether the work can be adapted, and if so, (3) on what terms.


Attribution (CC-BY) allows the work to be shared, modified, and retained for any purpose so long as attribution is given to the original creator.


Attribution-NonCommercial (BY-NC) allows the work to be shared, modified, and retained for any non-commercial purpose, with attribution given to the original creator.


Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) allows the work to be shared, modified, and retained for any purpose so long as modified works are also licensed CC-BY-SA and attribution is given to the original creator.


Attribution-NoDerivatives (BY-ND) allows the work to be shared without modification and retained so long as attribution is given to the original creator.


Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (BY-NC-SA) allows the work to be shared, modified, and retained for any non-commercial purpose if also licensed BY-NC-SA and attribution given to the original creator.


Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives (NC-ND) allows the work to be shared without modification and retained for non-commercial purposes so long as attribution is given to the original creator.


Modification includes customization of the work itself, or remixing bits and pieces of several works to create something new. Technical format-shifting (for example, converting a CC licensed work from a digital format to a physical copy) is not an adaptation regardless of what applicable copyright law may otherwise provide.

Fixing minor problems with spelling or punctuation is not an adaptation. Reproducing and putting works together into a collection is not an adaptation of the individual works. For example, combining stand-alone essays by several authors into an essay collection for use as an open textbook is a collection and not an adaptation.

Including an image in connection with text, as in a blog post, a powerpoint, or an article, does not create an adaptation unless the photo itself is adapted.

Syncing a musical work with a moving image is an adaptation regardless of what applicable copyright law may otherwise provide.


Yeah. Creative Commons licenses are simple until they are not. The main intent of this chapter is to share that the licenses exist and begin guiding you toward looking for them in existing resources or applying them to your own work. If you are really curious and want to understand them better, Oklahoma State University has created a short-course about them, or you can visit the Creative Commons site itself.

If you aren’t really curious about them, or find them overwhelming, call your librarian. Most of us are dealing with these licenses all day every day, and for us helping figure them out isn’t a stretch. Some of us even think it is fun, and we are all happy to help.

We have one more chapter for your dip and sip exploration of OER. Finding and Evaluating OER will help you identify how your experience and expertise come into play as you move away from commercial resources and center your own expertise to curate meaningful, learning experiences that suit your teaching style and meet the contextualized needs of your students and communities.






Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Exploring Open Copyright © 2020 by Kathy Essmiller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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