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What’s A Creative Commons License?

“Creative Commons.” It’s a term that you might run into when looking for a beautiful photograph or font to use on your website, PR, or in other marketing materials. You see it in a standard note when you go to download that photo or font: “Licensed under Creative Commons.”

Head over to the Creative Commons website, and you’ll be greeted with the message “When we share, everyone wins.” That sums up the ethos behind the Creative Commons License. But what does “Creative Commons” actually mean?

The Types of Creative Commons Licenses

There are actually several Creative Commons licenses. Creative Commons itself has published Licensing Considerations to assist artists that choose to publish their materials with a Creative Commons license. In general (non-legalese) terms, the terms of those licenses are as follows:

  • Attribution. Like all Creative Commons licenses, this allows the user (or “licensee”) to use the subject materials without paying a fee. This license, however, requires the user to give the artist credit (but not in a way that suggests that the artist endorses you or your use of the artist’s work) and a reference to the license. If you wish to use materials subject to the Attribution Creative Commons license without giving credit or for endorsement purposes, you must seek permission from the artist.
  • ShareAlike. This license allows the user to copy, distribute, display, perform, and modify the artist’s work, so long as you distribute any modified works on the same (ShareAlike) terms.
  • NonCommercial. The NonCommercial Creative Commons license is similar to the ShareAlike license, with the exception that the user cannot use the artist’s work in a commercial (or business-related) setting without the artist’s permission.
  • NoDerivatives. Again, as with the ShareAlike and NonCommercial license, the user can copy, distribute, display and perform the artist’s work, but can only do so with original copies of the artist’s work. If you wish to modify materials that are subject to the NoDerivatives Creative Commons License, you must first seek the artist’s permission.
  • Creative Commons Zero (or CC0). This is not really a license, but a designation by the artist that he or she is waiving all copyright, moral rights, and related rights to his or her work throughout the world.

Note that an artist can choose to combine licenses (e.g., Attribution-ShareAlike or Attribution-NonCommercial). See here for the full, legal-speak description of these licenses.

Using Creative Commons Materials in Real Life

It’s important to remember that publishing materials with a Creative Commons license is not the same as releasing a work to the public domain. In other words, the artist still retains the copyright in his or her work (with the exception of works that bear the CC0 designation).

Thus, in real life, it’s important to dig deeper when you see “Creative Commons” and determine the type of Creative Commons license that governs your use or “license” of that work.