What Is Creative Commons Anyway?

Jonathan Bailey ,
Contributing Editor

Founded in 2001 and releasing its first set of licenses in 2002, Creative Commons (as an organization) aims to help “You legally share your knowledge and creativity to build a more equitable, accessible, and innovative world.”

The work of the Creative Commons Organization is everywhere. It is the default license of Wikipedia, covers over 300 million images on Flickr and millions of videos on YouTube.

But for all of its popularity, there’s a lot of confusion with exactly what Creative Commons is. That’s because Creative Commons is meant to solve a challenging and misunderstood problem with copyright law, not with plagiarism.

To understand what Creative Commons is, we first have to look at the problem it’s addressing and how it works to fix it.

The Problem Creative Commons Addresses

Under copyright law in most of the world, a work is given copyright protection the moment it is created. This means that others can not copy the work, distribute it, publicly display/perform the work or create derivative works of it without the permission of the creator or rightsholder.

However, many creators, including researchers, authors, musicians, photographers and filmmakers, are happy to have their work copied, shared or even used in new works. Unfortunately, those creators do not have an easy way to indicate that they are fine with their work being used.

This is where Creative Commons steps in. The Creative Commons Organization created a series of licenses that creators and rightsholders can place on their work to indicate that they permit certain reuses.

The licenses include three elements: An icon or short text line indicating the license, a “human readable” version of the license (example) and the full legalese version.

These licenses are made available for free and can even be integrated within a site, such as YouTube or Flickr, to enable the site to make the licenses available to their users.

About the Licenses

Currently, there are six different Creative Commons Licenses. When choosing a license, creators can select to allow adaptations of their work (yes, no or only if others share alike) and whether or not to allow commercial use of their work.

For example, if a creator wished to allow adaptations but only for non-commercial use, that would be an Attribution-NonCommercial license. However, if they wanted to only allow adaptations when others share alike (meaning they place the new work under the same license), that would be an Attribution-ShareAlike license.

All Creative Commons Licenses, at the bare minimum, allow for non-commercial copying. However, all Creative Commons Licenses require attribution, meaning that you have to cite the creator of the material you’re using.

What Does This Mean?

What this means is that, when you encounter a Creative Commons License, the creator is giving you permission to use the work in certain ways beyond what copyright law already allows. However, you’ll need to read the specific license to see what the terms of that use are and always attribute the source.

Bear in mind that a Creative Commons License is not the same as placing a work in the public domain (though Creative Commons has a CC0 License that does this). There are still restrictions with using Creative Commons-licensed works.

Also bear in mind that, while Creative Commons is a powerful tool for dealing with copyright, it does not address issues of citation and plagiarism. It may be possible to use Creative Commons works in a manner that is legal under the license, but may still be plagiarism.

For example, pasting a large amount of Creative Commons-licensed text into an essay and attributing it in a footnote but not quoting it may comply with the license, but not does not comply with an academic standard for attribution.

In short, Creative Commons is a powerful tool but it is important to use it well. Pay attention to the terms of the license and continue to follow all attribution rules required by your school and you should be fine.