Open Access / Open Access Week / Penn Libraries

An Anatomy of Creative Commons Licensing: Open Access Week Blog Post #2

Post by Rebecca Stuhr, Director Liaison Services


Creative Commons is all about creators, sharing, and collaboration. The CC founders believe that the results of our knowledge and inventiveness are the bedrock of an evolving culture and not simple commodities with market value. CC licenses serve to protect the creator’s work, ensuring that she receives proper credit (or attribution). They also liberate a creative work so that it can be a catalyst for creation by others. This creation as catalyst for future creation was actually the original intent of the authors of the US Constitution. The Copyright Clause of the US Constitution was devised “to promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” (see Justia: Origins and Scope of Power for one discussion of Article 1. Clause 8 of the US Constitution). Notice that the wording in the Constitution is “to promote” rather than “to protect.”

Constitution 1

This clause comes with much interpretation. It has gone through a long series of legislative and legal transformations from the “Copyright Act of 1790” through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and multiple treaties and court cases.  (See the Association of Research Libraries’ Copyright timeline.) In current legislation, the phrase “Exclusive Rights” has been magnified and the phrase “limited Times” has receded into a remote corner. Section 107 of the Copyright Act introduces the Fair Use Doctrine, which provides limitations on the creator’s “exclusive rights” to ensure that users are able to make reasonable use of copyrighted materials (see’s useful discussion of Subject Matter and Scope of Copyright and for a discussion of Fair Use and the four factors).

The original Copyright Clause and the four Fair Use factors exhibit a certain amount of ambiguity. This leaves them open to significant interpretation and to the proliferation of non-legally binding guidelines that provide some rationalized approach to their application. Ambiguity allows a certain amount of flexibility, which is good for users, but as formats proliferate and copying and sharing are as simple as a few keystrokes, the increased ease of use comes into conflict with a desire to control content, whether you are the author or a third party distributor.

Over time, Congress has responded to efforts to extend the copyright holder’s exclusive rights.  In the 1790 Act the creator had exclusive rights for 14 years with the possibility of renewing for another 14 years.  Currently, the amended US Copyright Act provides for exclusive rights for a period of 70 years after the creator’s death. What does this mean for you if you would like to sample a line of music or incorporate images into something you are working on?  You might find that copyright holders are reluctant to allow use without explicit permission and royalty payments.

Here is where you, the creator, can make a difference with the help of Creative Commons (or CC) licenses. CC licenses provide a clear path to the future use of created works and CC license users select the level of use permitted for their works—(almost) no interpretation involved. If someone wants to use your work, the answer is in the CC license.

CC licenses put control into the hands of the creators. The licenses do not replace or subvert Copyright; they just allow creators to share their agency with the user at the level to which they feel comfortable. Creative Commons licensing is easy to understand.  A creator may apply the most open license on their work, placing it in the “public domain,” or retain more control through applying an “Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivatives” license to their work.cc_license_examples[Taken from the CC website, Share Your Work—Licensing Types—Licenses and Examples]

Visiting the CC website enables you to explore the different licenses, embed the appropriate symbols in your work, and to understand which rights you are sharing and which you are retaining.

Today more than 1.4 billion works, in all formats, have CC licenses. Individuals, institutions, and major media platforms, including Flikr, Wikipedia, Wikimedia, Europeana, Metropolitan Museum of Art, YouTube, and even Google Images, provide access to CC licenses. The licenses are ubiquitous and internationally recognized across the OA community. The search in the image below helps you mine the major platforms specifically for CC licensed material.


Here is what you need to know to get started with CC licenses–and be sure to visit to fully explore your options and understand to your comfort level, the motivation and purpose behind this suite of licenses.

Four Elements Combine to Make Six Licences

CC urges creators to make use of the most recent versions—designated as 4.0

The four elements are:

  • BY — as in created “by whom”?–All licenses require the re-user to give credit or attribution:ccby
  • SA, or ShareAlike. This means that if you use or incorporate CC-SA licensed material into your new creation, you must share your new work under a compatible license. The spirit of the CC-SA license must stay with the material even if it is adapted or transformed.ShareAlike
  • NC, or Noncommercial, means that the work must be used for noncommercial purposes. Noncommercial does not apply to the user, the user could be the Disney Corporation, as long as their purpose is noncommercial – for instance, if Disney were to make use of a CC SA licensed figure to brighten up packets of food for disaster relief and on which they do not include any advertising or merchandising logos.NC
  • ND, or NoDerivative, means the work cannot be adapted AND shared. If the user does adapt the work, they cannot share it publicly.ND

The Six licenses:

  1. Attribution license — CC BY allows users to use the material however they like as long as they provide attribution to the creator. This is the most open of the six licenses. For an even more open approach, see “Public Domain” below.


2. Attribution-ShareAlike license — CC BY SA. Based on the description of ShareAlike above, you can guess that this means you can do what you like with the CC BY SA licensed creation as long as you provide attribution and share the resulting work under a similar license. CC recommends that you direct potential users of your creation from your work to the originating work.


3. Attribution-NonCommercial license–CC BY NC. If you apply this license to your work, you are letting future users know that you expect them to give proper credit and that their intended use cannot be commercial. The licenses may not be easy to enforce, but they are legally enforceable and have been tested in the courts.


4. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license–CC BY NC SA. Are you starting to understand how these SA licenses work? If you are going public with your own creation, either containing or adapted from another licensed work, you must share it under a similar license, and that includes, in this case, no commercial use.


5. Attribution-NoDerivatives license–CC BY ND. The restrictions increase as you work your way through the licenses. This license drops the “noncommercial” but incorporates “no derivatives.” You must use the licensed work as you find it. You cannot add a mustache and then make notecards that you are going to sell online or at a farmer’s market. You cannot turn the novel into a play or film script and then distribute it to the public, commercially or non-commercially. It is possible that the creator would allow you to do this, but you would have to seek permission.


6. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license–CC BY NC ND. Finally, the most restrictive of the six licenses restricts both the ability to adapt a work that you plan to share and restricts commercial use of the item.


“Insert” the image or embed the html code into your work, linking to its accompanying documentation.

Public Domain

Copyright lasts a long time, but it does run out.  At different times in its history, it has run out sooner rather than later. There is an vast body of creative work that is in the public domain. Many of the great classic works of literature from all literary cultures are in the public domain.

In the United States, most works published before 1923 are in the Public Domain, US Government Printing Office documents are immediately in the public domain, and a creator can dedicate her own work to the Public Domain. CC has what they call a Public Domain Dedication, CC0.CC0

This blog post is licensed under a CC-BY-SA license BYSA 4.0


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