What Are Creative Commons Licenses?

Any creative work you do is covered by copyright. This means that if you write something, take a photo, record a song, paint a picture, or do anything that creates intellectual property, you get certain legal protections. The biggest protection is that other people aren’t able just to take your work and use it how they please. This is why services like Facebook have such complicated (and scary) Terms of Service.

RELATED: Does Facebook Own My Photos?

But what if you want other people to be able to use your work? Well, you can grant individual licenses to anyone you want but that would get time consuming very quickly. There are entire departments in publishing houses that just deal with licensing the stuff for which they control the copyright. If instead, you want anyone to be able to use your work subject to certain requirements, you can use a Creative Commons License.

The Different Terms of Creative Commons Licenses

There isn’t just one Creative Commons (CC) license; there are a few, and each has different terms and requirements.

The purpose of every CC license is to allow other people to take your work and use it in some way. Which CC license you use determines who can take it and how they can use it. At the most restrictive, a CC license allows someone else to distribute a copy of your work without modifying it in anyway, and to use it for non-commercial purposes anywhere in the world.

CC licenses are made up of some combination of the following four conditions:

  • Attribution: This condition means that anyone can take your work, but they must give you credit. If you look at the end of some How-To Geek articles, you’ll see an “Image Credits” section where we link to any images we’ve used in the article. Most of these images are released under CC licenses with an Attribution requirement, so this is us fulfilling that condition.
  • No Derivative Works: This condition means that other people can only use your work as is, in its entirety. For example, they couldn’t take your photo, change the colors, and then republish. They also could not take part of your work, and then use it as a piece in a larger work of their own.
  • Non-Commercial: This condition means that the work can only be used for non-commercial purposes. There’re some grey area as to what actually counts as non-commercial, but things like printing your photo on a t-shirt and selling it are clearly not allowed.
  • Share-Alike: This condition means that someone can take your work and do something with it, but any derivative works must be released under the same license. So, for example, someone could not take your photo, use it as part of a larger image, and then copyright their derivative image.

With that in mind, there are a few different licenses made up of combinations of these terms.

The Different Creative Commons Licenses

Their are seven CC licenses that you’ll see used around the internet. They each have a code that summarizes the license terms. Lets take them one by one.

  • Public Domain (CC0): A Public Domain or CC0 license means that the work is released freely for anyone to do anything they want with. They don’t need to credit the original creator, they can use it for commercial purposes, and they can make derivative works.
  • Attribution (CC BY): A CC BY license requires that the original copyright holder is credited, but otherwise the work is available for anyone to use. Anyone can use it for commercial purposes or modify it.
  • Attribution and Share-Alike (CC BY-SA): A CC BY-SA license requires that the original copyright holder is credited and that any derivative works are also released under a CC BY-SA license, but otherwise anyone can modify or use the work for commercial purposes.
  • Attribution and Non-Commercial (CC BY-NC): A CC BY-NC license requires that the original copyright holder is credited and the work is only used for non-commercial purposes. The work can be modified however anyone wants.
  • Attribution and No Derivatives (CC BY-ND): A CC BY-ND license requires that the original copyright holder is credited and that the work is not modified in anyway. It can be used for commercial purposes as long as it’s used in full, without changes.
  • Attribution, Non-Commercial, and Share-Alike (CC BY-NC-SA): A CC BY-NC-SA license requires that the original copyright holder is credited, and that the work isn’t used for commercial purposes. While it can be modified, any derivative works must also be released under a CC BY-NC-SA license.
  • Attribution, Non-Commercial, and No Derivatives (CC BY-NC-ND): A CC BY-NC-ND license requires that the original copyright holder is credited, that the work isn’t used for commercial purposes, and that it is not modified in anyway. If the work is used, it must be used as is.

Usually, when something is released under a Creative Commons license, you’ll see the specifics in graphic form somewhere, using symbols like the above.

Releasing Your Work Under Creative Commons Licenses

To release your own work under under any Creative Commons license, all you have to do is declare that you’re doing so and declare the specific CC license. Here’s a photo of my dog. I’m releasing it under a CC BY-NC-SA license. So, as long as you credit me, don’t use it for commercial purposes, and release any derivative works under the CC BY-NC-SA license, as well, go have fun with it!

There are also sites that let you publish your work under CC licences. When you upload a photo to Flickr for example, you can decide whether or not it’s available for other people to use.

Using Creative Commons Works

CC licenses are based on trust and respect. It’s unlikely that if you break the terms of a CC license, someone will sue you, but it’s seriously bad form. Similarly, you can’t just assume that something is released under a CC license. Unless it’s stated very clearly, you have to work under the assumption that the license holder is retaining full copyright.

Harry Guinness writes occasionally when he’s not busy skiing, sailing, partying, lifting weights, or otherwise dodging responsibility. His main areas of interest are himself, gin, and crazy people with interesting stories to tell. When people won’t pay him to write ill-thought-out opinion pieces, he covers photography, technology, and culture. You can follow him on Twitter.