What the Hell Is Creative Commons?

Chances are you’ve heard about Creative Commons, and possibly even used content licensed by others under CC, but have you ever applied it to your own work? While the hodge-podge of letters on the CC license badges may seem a little abstract at first, distributing your work under Creative Commons is likely much easier than you think.

First, let’s start with a point of clarification. “Creative Commons” actually refers to two things—it’s the term people often use to broadly describe this alternative licensing system, and it’s also a non-profit organization by the same name that develops, supports, and advocates for expanded use of the CC licenses.

These licenses simply provide a way for you distribute your content and other creative works without reserving all rights. You may be wondering why you would want to do that. By licensing your work under CC, you’re contributing to the spirit of openness and collaboration upon which the internet was founded, and making it easier for others to share and make use of your work with appropriate credit paid to you as the original creator. (Double bonus!)

The licenses

Unlike the sweeping definitiveness of traditional copyright, Creative Commons offers six different licenses:

Attribution (CC BY)

This is the most lenient license. When you license your content, etc. in this manner you are allowing others to redistribute and adapt it (even for commercial purposes) as long as they provide credit to you.

Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)

More or less the same as the Attribution license, but anything new based on your original material must be distributed with the same license you applied to it.

Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND)

Selecting this license means others may redistribute your work for both non-commercial and commercial purposes, but they can’t change it, and they still need to provide credit to you as the original creator.

Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC)

Much as the name suggests, this license prohibits redistribution of your work for commercial purposes (and any non-commercial redistribution will of course require attribution). However, others are allowed to adapt the original material.

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA)

As above, but the re-distributor must license your original work, and any adaptation of it, with the same license.

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)

This license provides the least leeway out of the six. Choosing this license for your work means that others will be able to share it, but they can’t change it, can’t use it for commercial purposes, and must credit you as the creator.

CC in action!

Wondering what the value of Creative Commons is when the rubber actually hits the digital road? Here are a few examples of CC in use today:

  • Wikipedia: Ever scrolled down all the way down to the footer of a Wikipedia entry? If so, you may have noticed that the text-based content on the site is licensed under the Attribution-ShareAlike license.
  • Flickr: A remarkable number of photographs and other images have been posted under various CC licenses on Flickr. It’s easy to sort out what’s been posted under CC versus regular copyright too… simply use Flickr’s advanced search page, and check the box above the search button that says you only want to look for CC licensed content. You can apply the same kind of filter to a Google Image search too.
  • Editorial Checklist: Last week, I posted my Editorial Checklist Template under the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. So please feel free to share, adapt, redistribute, and enjoy!

If you think you’d like to apply a CC license to your work, but you’re still not sure which to choose, try out this nifty license selector. It can also generate an HTML version of the license badge for you to embed anywhere on a web page.

Something to keep in mind…

Deciding whether to apply a Creative Commons license to your content, etc. isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. You need to be 100% positive that you’re OK with your work showing up in other locations around the web (and in potentially unexpected ways if you select a license that allows derivative works).

And please do keep in mind that I’m definitely not a lawyer, so if you’re wondering about certain legal implications of applying “Some Rights Reserved” to your work, it would be best to seek professional advice. You can also check out some additional Creative Commons-related resources below for more info.

Recommended Resources

Let's talk this out, shall we?