Creative Commons

Anatomy of Creative Commons



Three layers of Creative Commons

Legal Code

Each license begins as a traditional legal tool, in the kind of language and text formats that most lawyers know and love.  This is called the Legal Code layer of each license.

Human Readable Deed

Since most content creators are not lawyers, we also make the licenses available in a format that normal people can read - the Commons Deed (also known as the "human readable" version of the license). The Commons Deed is a handy reference for licensors and licensees, summarizing and expressing some of the most important terms and conditions.  The Commons Deed itself is not a license, but rather a user-friendly interface for communicating a particular license.

Machine Readable Metadata

The final layer of the license design recognizes that software, from search engines to office productivity to music editing, plays an enormous role in the creation, copying, discover, and distribution of works.  In order to make it easy for the Web 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 and obligations written into a format that software system, search engines, and other kinds of technology can understand.

Four Elements of Creative Commons


Six Types of Creative Commons Licenses



Creative Commons Options: Non-Commercial & ShareAlike

Should I use choose a Creative Commons, non-commercial license option when sharing content with others?

When choosing to create and share content licensed under non-commercial Creative Commons (CC-BY-NC), the user (i.e., the licensee) allows others to copy, distribute, display, perform, and (unless NoDerivatives is used) modify and use work for any purpose other can commercially unless the licensee gets permission (from the licensor) first.  However, there are a few details one should consider in order to know whether this is the best Creative Commons option when (re)licensing content.

Non-commercial depends on how the content is being used and not on the licensee

Regardless whether a business is not for profit or for profit (assuming the business has issued the Creative Commons license), deciding on a non-commercial Creative Commons license will mean that the user (the individual) is not profiting from the content.  

Defining exactly the type of content covered as non-commercial

Currently, digital file sharing is the only type of use explicitly stated to be noncommerciial (Creative Commons, 2013).  Also, it can get complicated when determining what kind of situation constitutes a commercial/non-commercial circumstance: incentives, YouTube ads, favors, transportation costs, gifts, etc.

The attractiveness of the term, Non-commercial

Many licensors will immediately be drawn to a non-commercial license even though it is not the most open/free license available (e.g., CC-BY).  Creative Commons licenses rank from the most open to the least, so although non-commercial sounds good, it is not sustainable in and of itself. One can argue that non-commercial provides more protection on the part of the licensee or user, but the argument goes the more open and flexible a license is, the more individuals will benefit overall.

Should I use choose a Creative Commons, ShareAlike option when sharing content with others?

Choose a Creative Commons ShareAlike option when you want to make sure that the licensee(s) continue to respect the same type of license - CC-BY - down the line.  Like the attractiveness of the term, non-commercial, ShareAlike sounds appealing because it gives the impression that by forcing others to maintain the commercial option, that the creation of content will remain more sustainable.  However, a ShareAlike automatically restricts the degree a license may remain open.  For instance, a CC-BY-SA is less open than a CC-BY, and thus may restrict its use.

Choose wisely when deciding between commercial and non-commercial and sharealike options by thinking about the sustainability factor of the content being shared. How one makes this decision will depend a lot on an overall philosophy of contributing to the greater good of society.

New to Copyright and Creative Commons?

bellingrath-gardens-alabama-landscape-scenic-158028.jpegMost work (i.e., the expression of an idea) is copyrightable at the moment it is created on some tangible medium - some exceptions being US governmental documents, domain names, facts, ideas, etc.  Generally speaking, a copyright lasts decades beyond the death of the creator or author and will depend on the country and formal international agreements that apply, such as the Berne Convention, for instance. In the US copyrightable work expires 70 years after the death of the creator or author (Copyright).

Before looking into Creative Commons, it’s important to understand the purpose of copyright and its exceptions.  The purpose of copyright is to provide an incentive for expressing a new idea that will provide some benefit for others.  The creator should benefit as well as receive protection as to the integrity of the work itself.  The Fair Use Doctrine in the US offers an exception to copyright law by providing a level of rights for the user to the extent that the copyright holder is not being exploited.  In the US the TEACH Act, which is not an exception per se, clarifies more specifically how a teacher can be compliant when trying to use copyrightable material when teaching and learning online (i.e., distance education).  

Creative Commons is an extension of current copyright law.  To use copyrighted material, one would need to receive permission from the creator.  However, when using work licensed under Creative Commons, the user only needs to pay attribution (i.e., permission is not required).  Creative Commons is not an exception to copyright law but rather an extension of copyright law that provides even more rights to users than any particular exception to copyright law (e.g. Fair Use Doctrine).

When determining the type of Creative Commons license to use, the creator needs to make some decisions about what user rights should be granted.  Beyond attribution, which applies to all forms of Creative Commons licenses, the creator should consider the following questions:

  1. Should the work be used for commercial or non-commercial purposes?

  2. Should the work remain in its original form or can it be modified (i.e., derivative v. non-derivative)? and

  3. Should the user of the work maintain the same license if the user is repurposing the work (share-alike)?

Finding Creative Commons work

Become familiar with DuckDuckGo and Bangs as a way to easily find examples of Creative Commons content. For  example, if I want to search for images of trees that are registered as Creative Commons, I would use the search term !CC trees and then select the Google Images box. If I want to know more about Creative Commons, I would either use the search term !wiki creative commons or !CC creative commons, then select the Google Web box.  

When searching images of trees, compare and contrast a normal search with one using a Creative Commons search as discussed above.  It is not a perfect search, but it will go a long way in making it easier to find content that provides a user more rights in how material can be retained, reused, revised, remixed, and redistributed.

How are you currently repurposing content licensed under Creative Commons?

Copyright and Creativity

It's difficult to imagine innovation of any kind not being rooted in the past.  I draw parallels to the area of linguistics when any particular sentence has a theme and rheme - old information (something known) with new information (something unknown).  Thus, there is a relationship between what we know and what we learn and it presents itself in the way we think and communicate.  We even have a word, scaffolding, to refer to a teaching technique that helps learners connect what they know with what they are learning.

But the question about "creativity" always building on the past is interesting because of the subjectivity of the term.  What's creative for one person may not be creative for someone else.  If something is deemed "creative", then there is an inherent relationship that exists between the past and present, more specifically something that is known with something new.

Protections provided by copyright should end much sooner than stated by current law - starting with the removal of the Sonny Bono Act of 1998.  Works should enter the public domain much sooner so that knowledge becomes more equitable.  It's the old I v. we argument.  I would rather see a reduction in copyright terms (70 to 50 years) than changes to the exceptions/limitations to copyright, although I admit that one hardly influences the other.  Theoretically doing away with the 70 years worth of protection would not negate the necessity of needing current limitations and exceptions to copyright.  These limitations and exceptions provide an immediate need (accessibility to knowledge) that is so important to who we are as human beings: knowledge intertwined with building relationships.

Example: Imagine a world where all published work would remain under current copyright protections for a period of five years, at which time would automatically shift to a Creative Commons license as decided upon by the creator(s): commercial v. non-commercial, derivative v. non-derivative, share alike, and public domain options.  If we compare this scenario to reality, I believe that society (the group) would benefit much more than the degree the individual (or creator) would be disadvantaged.  Just the sheer amount of exposure a creator would achieve in this scenario might put some at even a greater advantage than today's reality. Increasing the "long tail" (power laws) affords a greater distribution of power to those typically marginalized by those at the "head" (Pareto principle).

If we keep extending the timeframe for copyright protection (beyond 70 years), works never enter the public domain.  Fewer works that enter the public domain or are licensed as Creative Commons stifle knowledge/relationship building and thus quell societal development.  In contrast, making more works available through public domain/Creative Commons levels the playing field so that everyone has a greater likelihood to succeed.

Photo attribution

Brief Thoughts on Copyright

Excluding cases of fair use, not allowing others to freely translate, make adaptations, etc. of one’s work (until decades after an author’s death) can be - in some cases - counterproductive in terms of the utilitarian argument.  This is one of the advantages of Creative Commons (CC), that one’s work can more freely be accessible to others which is in and of itself an incentive to create.  The rights graded by the Berne Convention, for example, end up limiting the number of individuals (potentially worldwide) who might decide to translate, make adaptations, perform in public, recite in public, communicate to the public, and make reproductions of a piece of work in a way that limits the exposure or networking opportunities that could lead to further recognition and/or financial gain.

Again, excluding cases of fair use: In terms of author’s rights, I see this in terms of degree.  I am all for ensuring attribution for authors, as in the case of CC.  But in the absence of CC, attribution usually results to granting permission, which is entirely a different notion.  The power of permission is independent to the preservation or promote of integrity.  Integrity comes from the way a piece of work impacts someone else.  When individuals have limited access to a piece of work, the impact the integrity has on the creator of the work can also be limited.  The deep connection an author has with their creative work is only magnified when greater freedoms are granted to others who engage with copyrighted material in a more public and transparent way.  The original purpose of copyright (before CC) expresses a narrow view of what phrases like integrity of creative works and deep connection authors have with their creative works mean. Creative works should be protected not only by the recognition of one’s work but also the freedoms of others to access such work.  This recognition is the result of freedoms others have to reuse, remix, etc. a piece of work that technology of the past could not afford.

Photo attribution


Creative Commons: Past to Present


Internet Archive

This short overview is to describe the key historical events that led up to the launch of Creative Commons and the state of Creative Commons today. I include the transcript below...

Video Transcript

Hello, today I would to provide a general background of what Creative Commons is and a bit about its history: Creative Commons: Past to Present.

The objective of this short overview is to describe the key historical events that led up to the launch of Creative Commons and the state of Creative Commons today.

The intended audience for this brief overview is anyone interested in general education and specifically those interested in learning an additional language, sometimes referred to as English as a foreign or second language.  More broadly, pre/in-service teachers as well as students might benefit from having some general knowledge about Creative Commons as well as content creators overall.

When I began teaching back in 2005, I had an educational philosophy of openness, but never really articulated as such.  I remember from the beginning that much of the course content was posted online, using websites like Wikieducator, Wikispaces, Google Sites, among others.  Since my learners were English language learners, I thought it necessary to make sure that they had equal access to information that supported what we were doing face to face.  Teacher-produced content as well as student-produced content was oftentimes made available for public consumption depending on the course itself, as well as the makeup of the learners.  Some, for instance, have varying degrees of comfort when it comes to open authorship and receiving feedback of their own work.  I often inform my students that I too am under the “magnifying glass” when it comes to sharing my feedback openly online.  But I continually confide in them in that there are benefits, many benefits in fact, in making one’s knowledge (or work) available to someone else.  The key of using educational technology for me is to focus more on these benefits, the benefits of sharing and open collaboration and collegiality, and not focus on the use of technology without any particular purpose.  The idea was to realize how educational technology provides the means to an end. So, from the beginning of my teaching career, this was my approach to teaching and learning that seems to always rub up against another important aspect of sharing… copyright.

Copyright is a legal right created by the law of a country that grants the creator of an original work exclusive rights for its use and distribution, usually only for a limited time. A major limitation of copyright is that copyright protects only the original expression of ideas, and not the underlying ideas themselves.  Following the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright would last for the life of the author plus 50 years or 75 years for a work of corporate authorship.  In 1998, the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) (aka the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, Sonny Bono Act, or the Mickey Mouse Protection Act) was one of many acts that extended copyright terms in the United States. The 1976 Act also increased the extension term for works copyrighted before 1978 that had not already entered the public domain from twenty-eight years to forty-seven years, giving a total term of seventy-five years. The 1998 Act extended these terms to life of the author plus 70 years and for works of corporate authorship to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever ends earlier.  One has to wonder whether we are due for yet another act to extend copyright terms even further… let’s hope not!  

Looking at the historical landscape that existed when Creative Commons emerged, we begin with the Sonny Bono Act of 1998 that set the scene for an even greater tension for those who wished to shared knowledge and experiences openly online while at the same time respect current copyright laws.  Sure, there were exceptions to copyright law, like fair use and the technology, education, and copyright harmonization (or TEACH) Act of 2002, but the ubiquity of technology and new ways of communicating, interacting, and the sharing of knowledge with others, quickly left these exceptions inadequate.  So, here comes Creative Commons in 2001 that set out to precisely address this tension.  Creative Commons was founded in 2001 by the Center for the Public Domain and lists its founder as Lawrence Lessig.  A shift was occurring that required a new name to distinguish it from the traditions of copyright.  That word?  Copyleft.  Copyleft refers to the practice of offering people the right to freely distribute copies and modified versions of a work with the stipulation that the same rights be preserved in derivative works down the line.  In 2002, Creative Commons created its first license, version 1.0, which began the breaking down of legal, technical, and social barriers that plagued the sharing of knowledge in public forums of the past.  Remember, this same year, the US government had just passed the TEACH Act which again, illustrated how tensions existed in how current technologies and more importantly, the willingness for many to share knowledge using these current technologies failed to align with the idea of a copyright.  Just one year later, in 2003, the Eldred v. Ashcroft case went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, stating that the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act was unconstitutional.  The lead plaintiff of the case, Eric Eldred, lost, however.  The Supreme Court had decided that the Sonny Bono Act was, in fact, constitutional.  However, as a co-founder of Creative Commons and a proprietor of the unincorporated Eldritch Press, Eldred continues to this day to promote openness.  The number of works issued under a Creative Commons license continues to grow over time:  approximately 1 million in 2003, 4.7 million in 2004, 20 million in 2005, 50 million in 2006, 90 million in 2007, 130 million in 2008, 350 million in 2009, and currently there are approximately 1.1 billion works that are licensed. This is due largely by a growing movement that is the Global Affiliate Network.  

The Global Affiliate Network has over 500 volunteers and community members who serve as Creative Commons representatives in over 85 countries. This network is broken down into community or network platforms in four general areas: 1) open education platform, 2) copyright reform platform, 3) community development platform, and 4) a repository platform called GLAM, which is an acronym that stands for galleries, libraries, archives, and museums. Indeed, what began as a technical exercise to assign an open license to a piece of work has turned into a global movement that is certain to continue to grow.

Let’s shift gears a bit and look now specifically at the different types of Creative Commons licenses that exist.

There are several types of Creative Commons licenses that are available, but all have one thing in common.  They all include an attribution clause. An attribution clause allows others to copy, distribute, display, perform, and remix a piece of work if they credit the source as requested by the original author. There are times when such a request does not exist, so typically, users will simply include a hyperlink so that others can find the original work.  An example of this might be an image found online that’s license under Creative Commons but lacks any specific request for attribution.  

Beyond the attribution clause, the content creator then must make three distinct decisions about how to license one’s work.  First, will the work include a no derivative works clause, which means that others can only copy, distribute, display, or perform verbatim copies of the work.  Authors of books, for instance, may choose a no derivative works clause so that the book never undergoes any changes as copies are being passed down to users.

The second decision one needs to make when deciding on the most appropriate Creative Commons license is whether or not to assign a share-alike clause.  A share alike clause allows others to distribute a piece of work under a license identical to the one chosen for the original work. The absence of a share alike designation means that users are allowed to change the type of license.  For example, let’s a teacher creates a lesson plan and assigns a CC-BY license (attribution, commercial license).  Someone using this lesson plan is free to not only make changes to the lesson plan (a no derivative works designation was not assigned) but also change the license to a non-commercial license.

So, by way of example, the third decision a content creator makes, is to decide whether or not to assign a commercial or non-commercial license to the work.  A non-commercial license is when others can copy, distribute, display, perform, or remix a piece of work but for non-commercial purposes only.

In summary, content creators, teachers, students, etc. have a lot of flexibility when it comes to determining the most appropriate Creative Commons license for a particular context.  All versions of Creative Commons licenses include an attribution clause that forgoes asking for permission but requires one to give credit to the original author of the work.  From there, one decides for or against the following three options: no derivative works, share alike, and non-commercial.

Today, I look back at the beginning of my teaching career and see how some things have changed while others have not.  I still feel that my original mindset of sharing and contributing to open, online spaces remains the same.  I still encourage my students to make their own knowledge public and try to reveal the benefits of continually cultivating an online “footprint” for professional pursuits.  But what has changed is what I have learned and continue to learn about Creative Commons and the kinds of technologies used to interact with others so that my own professional learning becomes more intertwined with the professional learning of others.

I thank you for watching and encourage you to learn what you can about Creative Commons so that you consistently make good, purposeful decisions that relate to your ongoing development as a teacher and life-long learner, both in terms of content creation and relationship building.