What is Creative Commons and why do you need to know about it?

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Many of us go online to copy or download images, videos, audio, or text and use them in presentations, reports or online posts. With the abundance of materials on the internet, it’s so easy to do this and assume that these resources are ours for the taking.

But did you know that if you’re not careful, you can be held liable for copyright infringement?

Copyright infringement is when “someone uses the copyright-protected work of someone else without permission” (Leslie Ellen Harris, World Intellectual Property Organization). It’s basically stealing because not all materials on the internet are actually free for the taking. Photographers, artists, writers and other content creators have rights over their products and may expect compensation (or to be asked for permission) for their use. Even if you will be using it for educational purposes, limits, including proper attribution, must be followed. The good news is that there is an increasing number of content creators who want to share their materials online with other content creators and users. What Creative Commons does is encourage this “culture of collaboration and gratitude” while preserving content creators’ right to say how they want their creations to be used by others.

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons (CC) is an international non-profit organization that provides free, easy-to-use copyright licenses to help content creators, artists and organizations to “legally share their knowledge and creativity to build a more equitable, accessible and innovative world.” CC licenses are intended to push collaboration online as well as encourage the development of open resources, specifically Open Educational Resources (OER), which is seen as a viable solution to widen access to education to everyone worldwide.

It is important to note that CC is not an alternative to copyright. It can be used by content creators together with copyright to modify copyright terms more to their liking.

Why learn about CC?

  1. Knowledge of CC helps you use online materials wisely. You don’t have to be scared that you are stealing somebody else’s work or using them inappropriately. You’ll also learn about the ethical way of giving proper credit to the creator of materials you use.
  2. You learn where to find good materials to use or reuse.
  3. If you share content, knowledge of CC will help you legally share your work and have better control over how you want others to use or reuse your content.
  4. By using CC, you encourage other content creators to share their work for greater dissemination and education of the public.

What are the Creative Commons (CC) licenses and how do I use them?

There are six CC licenses:

six creative commons licenses and what they allow you to do
Image by Foter from Creative Commons free photos for bloggers.

  • CC BY – Attribution – This lets you distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon the work, even commercially, as long as you give credit to the creator.
  • CC-BY-SA – Attribution-Share-Alike – This lets you distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon the work, even commercially, as long as you give credit to the creator and license your new creation under identical terms.
  • CC-BY-ND – Attribution-No Derivatives – It lets you use the work for any purpose, including commercially, as long as you give credit to the creator and you don’t distribute an adapted version of the work.
  • CC-BY-NC – Attribution-Non-Commercial – You can use the material or build upon the work but you must acknowledge the creator and use it for non-commercial purposes. However, derivative work may be licensed differently.
  • CC-BY-NC-SA – Attribution-Non-Commercial- Share-Alike – Lets you distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon the work non-commercially, as long as you give credit to the creator and license your new creation under identical terms.
  • CC-BY-NC-DC – Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivatives – You may download the work and share it as long as you give proper credit to the author. It does not allow you to change their work or use it commercially.

Materials with “All rights reserved” license are not free to use. You must always contact the creator to ask for permission (or follow other conditions) for their use. Meanwhile, works marked CC-0 or Public Domain can be used without permission or attribution. These are not protected by intellectual property laws or copyrights (rights may have expired, forfeited or expressly waived by the creator) and are considered to be the public’s property.

Creative Commons Kiwi by Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand with support from InternetNZ (CC-BY).

How to give proper attribution:

Proper attribution or giving credit is an essential element of the CC system. It’s a great way to say thanks to the source and acknowledge that this is not your own work, creation or idea.

Your attribution must have these elements:

  1. Work title
  2. Author’s name and link
  3. The CC license

You must hyperlink each of these elements to help others see the original source. Go to CC Best practices for attribution to see good and not so good examples.

Where do you find CC licensed materials online?

Not everything on the internet uses CC. If you want to find materials that use CC, go to CC Search or CC Search (New). It searches through more than 300 million images. However, you may still need to verify if the image is CC licensed or if the attribution and licensing information is complete before you reuse.

Want to use CC for your creations? Go to simple License Chooser or Marking your work with a CC license.
Learn more about CC by watching these videos: Wanna work together? and A Shared Culture by Jesse Dylan.
Sources: Creative Commons; What to do if you’re accused of copyright infringement? Leslie Ellen Harris, World Intellectual Property Organization; What is Creative Commons and should you use it? Danny Stieben, MUO; and Copyright Matters! Some key questions and answers for teachers, Wanda Noel and Jordan Snel, Barristers and Solicitors, CMEC Copyright Consortium. Accessed June 28, 2019.

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Community Resources

Are you an educator who uses online content? Learn more about Canada’s copyright act. Download Copyright Matters! Some key questions and answers for teachers by the CMEC Copyright Consortium. You can also use the Fair dealing decision tool to help you figure out if “fair dealing” allows you to use a certain material without violating copyright.

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CC BY-NC-SAText of this page is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA, unless otherwise marked. Please attribute to English Online Inc. and link back to this page where possible. For images and videos, check the source for licensing information.