Creative Commons Licenses

Creative Commons is an organization and a movement in response to expansive copyright protection. By using Creative Commons Licenses, artists and creators can proactively make their work available for public use, under specific conditions.

Creative Commons is not an alternative to copyright, it is an option for a different way of sharing works. Creative Commons licenses fundamentally rely on copyright because you must own a copyright in a work in order to make it available under a Creative Commons license.


Creative Commons Basics

Creators Control Sharing

Creative Commons Licenses allow creators to make their works available for use under conditions determined by creators. One great advantage of Creative Commons licenses for creators is that they can reduce administrative overhead for frequent approved uses of materials. For instance, if a creator wants to allow anyone re-use of their creation as long as their authorship is noted, a CC-BY license states this clearly. The creator will not have to grant individual license to other creators who wish to re-use or adapt the work.

Users Get Certainty

Even in the best of circumstances, it can be difficult to be sure that a given use is acceptable under fair use or other formal copyright exemptions or limitations. Creative Commons licenses give much more certainty: if you meet the conditions of the license, your use is pre-approved.

For example, if you use illustrations under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC) or Attribution (CC BY) license, you won’t have to consider permission requests, or payment, or even have to think about fair use, you can be certain your use is permitted when you follow the terms outlined in the license.

Attribution Guidance

Probably because there are a lot of clearly defined academic style rules around citation formats, many people think there are clearly defined legal rules about attribution or citation and copyright. In the U.S., most of the time, there really aren't.

However, when you use a work through its Creative Commons license, you are legally bound by the license to provide a certain minimum attribution. This attribution is additional to and independent of any citation that may be required in your academic use of the material.

Basic Elements of Creative Commons Credit

  • The creator's name (or other form of identification, like a website username)
  • The work's title (not required in most recent, CC 4.0 licenses)
  • The Creative Commons license through which you are using it
  • An indication of changes or alterations you have made, if any
  • Relevant links, if possible

Unlike academic citation styles, there is no specific, proscribed form in which these elements must appear. You simply have to provide them in some kind of reasonable form.

An academic citation might be appropriate (although you would have to modify most citation styles to include the CC license information), or not. Credit directly at the moment of use might be appropriate (for example, an image caption on a presentation slide), or credit could be provided in another reasonable spot (for example, on a "credits" slide, or in the (linkable) text information accompanying an online video.) While credit is required with Creative Commons licenses, the actual form it takes can be quite flexible.

Licensors can request that attribution take a particular form, such as an employer granting a license in a work the company owns, but requesting credit for individuals within the company who created a work. Licensors can also request that they remain anonymous; complying with the Creative Commons license then may involve indicating why you are not providing credit.


An instructor uploads an article to share with students on a course website. Demonstrating academic citation styles, the article might appear on the reading list as follows:

Halsey, L. G., Watkins, D. A. R., & Duggan, B. M. (2012). The Energy Expenditure of Stair Climbing One Step and Two Steps at a Time: Estimations from Measures of Heart Rate. PLoS ONE, 7(12), e51213. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051213. Copies provided via a Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license.

An image appears in a newspaper article. The image may be credited in a caption (better), or at the end of the page (good) as follows:

Additional examples and information:

Sharing Your Work with a CC License

Most of the time, you own the copyright in works you create, from the moment you create them. That means that you can make the decisions about whether, when, and how you share your work with the world. Creative Commons licenses offer some options for doing that.

Benefits for Rightsholders

  • Attribution
    U.S. Copyright law does not usually care much about attribution or correct citation (citing a source correctly will not save you from infringement, nor does not citing make a legal use presumptively illegal). With a Creative Commons License, creators receive attribution as a condition of almost all of the licenses.
  • Visibility and Spread
    Works that are widely available get wide use! By indicating that re-use is encouraged, Creative Commons licenses allow your work to spread farther and have a greater impact.
  • Enabling "Good" Uses
    Online distribution exposes works to a lot of potential users; but also necessarily involves giving up a little control over a work. Some users do not think carefully about copyright issues when they re-use, but many other users do think carefully about copyright, and avoid reusing works without permission. Creative Commons licenses let you indicate to those thoughtful, careful users (like teachers! and librarians!) that you do want your works to be used, and under what conditions.
  • Saving Time
    Processing permissions requests can take time for a copyright holder, and definitely takes time on the side of the person requesting permissions. If there are many users to whom you'd always say "Yes," a Creative Commons license may save you, and your users, a great deal of time.

The Licenses

Creative Commons licenses come with a variety of mix-and-match pieces. Creators, or others who own copyrights, can choose the combination of license terms that make the most sense for them.

License Elements

Attribution - BY

"you can use my works, but you must provide attribution."

NonCommercial - NC

"you can use my works, but only for noncommercial purposes."

No Derivatives - ND

"you can use my works, as long as you do not change them."

ShareAlike - SA

"you can use my works, but if you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you must distribute your contributions under the same license as the original."

Creative Commons Licenses

Only the Attribution term can stand on its own as a full license; the others only work in certain combinations, described below. Learn more about the details of these licenses from the Creative Commons organization.

  • Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
    This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.
  • Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0
    This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to "copyleft" free and open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. This is the license used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects.
  • Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 4.0
    This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.
  • Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial 4.0
    This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.
  • Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0
    This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.
  • Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0
    This license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

Additional Considerations and More Information

The Creative Commons licenses have evolved over the years, the current version of licenses are CC4.0 Licenses. Previous versions of licenses have had slightly different details. Users may need to check the specific terms of a specific version of a license; creators granting CC licenses may need to keep up to date on changes as they evolve.

All Creative Commons licenses preserve, and do not override existing copyright exceptions and limitations. For example, even when an owner has included a "No Derivatives" term in the license they granted, users may be able to make changes if those changes are fair use.

No Creative Commons license grants rights to users to sub-license. So for example, if a non-profit research center released a report under a CC-BY license, and the report included images available under BY-NC licenses, a later commercial user would be able to use the report, but would have to approach the image rightsholders for permission to reproduce the images on the commercial user's webpage.

More information and guidance:

CC0 and Public Domain

In addition to the Creative Commons licenses, the Creative Commons organization has put forward two other resources that enable sharing of creative works.


The CC0 Tool is not a license. It is a legal tool for waiving copyrights and related rights, as much as possible under applicable laws. It is sometimes called a "public domain dedication" tool, or the "no rights reserved" option. You must hold a copyright in a work, in order to apply the CC0 tool to that work.

Some rightsholders may want to relinquish rights to many of their works, if they have objections to the way copyright law and related laws function. Others may simply want to ensure the broadest possible distribution of one particular work, and may only rarely rely on the CC0 tool. Sometimes, too, the CC0 tool is used to ensure that materials that do not have recognized copyright-like rights in some legal jurisdictions, but do in others, are equally accessible across all jurisdictions.

It is quite difficult in many jurisdictions for rightsholders to relinquish all rights in a work, in some jurisdictions, there are some rights you simply cannot transfer away. Most commonly, the un-relinquishable rights arise from "moral rights" theories of copyright, but even where moral rights are not heavily emphasized (as in the U.S.), courts have often tended to limit the ability to waive copyrights. The CC0 tool gets as close as possible to full relinquishment of copyright and related rights, for the relevant jurisdiction.

Public Domain Mark

The Creative Commons' Public Domain Mark is also not a license, but it is also not a legal tool for rightsholders. Rather, it is a symbol that is intended for use when someone believes that a work is in the public domain; i.e., that there are no existing rights in the work. Rightsholders cannot apply a Public Domain Mark to their own work, as it is only to be used on works for which there is no rightsholder.

Since it can be very difficult to conclusively determine that there are no existing copyrights in a work, this mark is primarily used only on very old materials, where the rights status is uncontested worldwide.

This web site presents information about copyright law. The UTC Library make every effort to assure the accuracy of this information but does not offer it as counsel or legal advice. Consult an attorney for advice concerning your specific situation.

Material on this page was adapted from the University of Minnesota Copyright Services website under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.

Creative Commons By License Unless otherwise noted, all content on the Copyright and Fair Use section of this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.