Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization.  It provides standardized copyright licenses and other tools that allow copyright holders to broadly share and widely disseminate works of authorship under these licenses.  Creative Commons is not a law firm or branch/arm of any government, nor does Creative Commons provide legal advice.  Creative Commons’ mission statement is available on its website.

Creative Commons licenses are copyright licenses that forge a middle ground for both creators of original works of authorship who want to make their works widely available for certain uses, and the public who wishes to use such works for certain purposes, but all of whom must do so within the parameters of copyright law, which reserves certain rights for only the holders of copyright.

Creative Commons licenses are based on copyright law fundamentals, namely, that the owner of copyright in a work has the sole right to display, copy, create derivative works from, license, and otherwise use the work.  Typically, unless a license is granted to another to use the work for a certain purpose (in writing or orally), the copyright holder is in the “all rights reserved” position, and no other party can use the work for any purposes, subject to narrow fair use and other limited exceptions under copyright law.

The Creative Commons licenses provide content creators tools to widely disseminate their work and provide the public a standardized license to use the work for the limited purposes identified in the Creative Commons license, so long as the licensee follows the applicable attribution and use requirements. 

By making an original work of authorship available to others through a Creative Commons license, the copyright holder exercises the control over the work granted to them by copyright law, i.e., they can choose to offer a license to use the work in certain ways or for limited purposes (e.g., personal versus commercial use, or for use in its original form and prohibiting a licensor from creating derivative works based on the original).  However, instead of having to execute a new and potentially extensive license agreement every time the work is licensed (and thus expending substantial amounts of time, and potentially the cost of an attorney to draft a license), copyright owners can make their work available to the general public under a Creative Commons license. 

 There are many situations, however, where a Creative Commons license is not the appropriate avenue for a copyright holder to license their works, for example, where royalties must be paid during the term of the license.  Further, copyright owners should proceed with caution when considering allowing their works to be used through a Creative Commons license, because such licenses are irrevocable and, if a content creator expects their work to be particularly valuable, giving up what could otherwise be an exclusive rights arrangement with an entity who might pay a substantial licensing fee or royalties may cause the content creator to lose out on a potentially lucrative income source for the use of their original works. 

Still further, by executing a specific copyright license with a licensee, versus allowing the work to be widely disseminated through a Creative Commons license, a copyright holder exercises far more control in restricting how their work may be used, such as preventing someone from using a work in a way the copyright holder disagrees with or may find offensive.  Such provisions in a specifically drafted license agreement do not exist under the far broader Creative Commons licenses.

Check out our other FAQs on Creative Commons licenses for more information. 

There are six types of Creative Commons licenses:

  1. CC BY
  2. CC BY-SA
  3. CC BY-NC
  4. CC BY-NC-SA
  5. CC BY-ND
  6. and CC BY-NC-ND

The two-letter abbreviations after “CC” signal the different rights and restrictions that apply under each type of license.

These two-letter signals generally indicate the following, however, both content owners and content users should carefully read and understand these Creative Commons abbreviations and types before either licensing their work under a Creative Commons license, or using a work subject to a Creative Commons license:

  • BY: The creator must be given credit
  • SA: Any adaptations made must be shared under the same terms
  • NC: Noncommercial uses are only allowed
  • ND: No adaptations or derivatives of the work are allowed

Each type of Creative Commons license type is identified and described on the Creative Commons website, here.

Before deciding whether and which type of Creative Commons license is appropriate for you and your works of authorship, an experienced copyright attorney can help guide you by reviewing your copyrightable work, your personal and business goals in connection to your work, and identifying potential issues you may encounter by providing your work for use under a Creative Commons license.

CC0 or CC Zero is a Creative Commons public dedication tool that signals to the public that you as the copyright holder are relinquishing your exclusive rights and making the work accessible in the public domain.  This means so that the public may distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon the work without the conditions identified in each of the six Creative Commons licenses (or typical license between a copyright owner and licensee).

Because the use of CC0 or CC Zero in connection with any work of authorship has substantial and potentially severe consequences, a copyright holder considering the use of CC0 or CC Zero should carefully evaluate the subject work, their ownership rights in the work, and the implications of applying CC0 to the work.

Absolutely. Before you apply a Creative Commons license to your work, you should understand what doing so means for your rights in the work.  Below are a few critical considerations for copyright holders considering making their work(s) available under a Creative Commons license. 

However, this list is not exhaustive.  There are especially important considerations for copyright owners who have previously licensed their work to others under agreements with those parties, and an experienced copyright attorney can help you determine whether applying a Creative Commons license to your work breaches previously entered into agreements, or how a Creative Commons license may affect such agreements.

  • A CC license is irrevocable.  This means that the CC license can be relied upon by anyone who receives the license during the term of the original copyright protection, even if you as the author or copyright owner cease using or disseminating the work.
  • You must own the copyright in the work.  Even where you believe you own the copyright in a work, ownership of copyright can be tricky.  Ownership issues often arise where someone else created the work for you or your company, or if you ever worked with or through another party or university to create and/or publish the work.
  • If you are in a member of a collecting society, check to make sure you are allowed to provide a CC license.  In some jurisdictions, owners of creative works assign those works so the rights in the work and future works can be managed by that society. 
  • Make sure you understand the difference between the legal code and CC “deed” applicable to the CC license.  The “human-readable deed” is essentially a summary of the formal rights granted in the CC license.
  • Assess previous licenses under which you have granted rights to the work.
  • Assess your future goals for the work.
  • Consider whether a CC license will affect other projects or agreements.
  • Assess whether a CC license is appropriate for the type of work you created/own.  Creative Commons recommends against using a CC license for software code.  For further information concerning software code and copyright, check out our software FAQs here.

Online Material:

  1. Choose the appropriate license here.
  2. Follow these instructions to include the HTML code which will create a license button and statement for you to use. This will also include metadata, which puts your work on the Creative Commons-enabled search engines.

Offline Material:

  1. Choose the appropriate license.
  2. Either (a) mark your work by a statement such as “This work is licensed under the Creative Commons [insert description] License. To view a copy of the license, visit [insert url]” or (b) insert the license button with the same URL link and statement.

Side note: You don’t need to register with Creative Commons before obtaining a license because CC licenses are free and without obligation.

Go through this checklist to make sure you are using the work in the right way:

  1. Check which type of license it is and what exactly you can do under that license.
  2. Attribute the creator of licensed material (unless the creator waived that requirement).
    1. Attribution must include the name of the author/licensor, the title of the work, and the URL that is associated with the work.
  3. Provide either a copy of the license or a link to the license.
  4. Check to make sure that you aren’t violating the Noncommercial (NC) license.
  5. If you are planning to modify the work, check to make sure you are allowed to do this.
    1. If modified work is allowed, make sure it falls under the share-alike requirements.