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Creative Commons: Law and Etiquette

Some Rights Reserved.

Creative Commons was created to provide an alternative to copyright licenses, royalties, and sticky attribution conditions for creative works. It allows users to manage their traditional “all rights reserved” copyright into “some rights reserved” to share their content under the conditions they specify. This article gives an overview of the different types of CC licenses and explains the legal and polite way to attribute Creative Commons content that you use.

How Creative Commons Differs from Traditional Copyright

Under United States law, all content produced in a tangible medium is immediately and automatically granted copyright for the author. Copyright gives the author of a work the exclusive right to use, modify, and reproduce their work. While copyright is a national issue, a variety of international agreements have essentially made copyright worldwide - except in a few countries such as Iran and Turkmenistan. A full discussion of how U.S. copyright works can be found on the U.S. Copyright Office Website.

Traditional copyright requires the expressed permission of the author to use their work. While the doctrine of fair use gives some exception, it's limitations can be unclear or insufficient. With the growth of open-source communities and the use of the internet for shared creativity, many authors would benefit from a type of license that stipulates certain conditions where their copyright can be adjusted - the alternative being to dole out permission to everyone who wants to use their work. Creative Commons was founded to give an easy foundation for authors that wish to reserve some rights of their work while also allowing for open sharing.

Types of Creative Commons Licenses

There are 6 variations of the Creative Commons license, based on combinations of 4 variables.

  • Attribution (BY) - the only condition in every variation of the license. Attribution simply means that if you use the work, you acknowledge who created it. Attribution doesn't mean you need the authors permission, and simply linking back to the source of the content is not necessarily an attribution.
  • Non-Commercial (NC) - if a CC license includes the "NC" clause, it means that you cannot use the work or any derivative for commercial purposes.
  • No Derivative Works (ND) - you can reuse the work, but cannot modify it and reshare it. This means no editing music, cropping photos, or removing text, etc.
  • Share Alike (SA) - a "SA" clause mean that you can modify the work, so long as you also license it under the same CC conditions you originally found the work.

Finding Creative Commons Licensed Content

Creative Commons hosts a wiki database of websites that host content with their licenses. The most popular database for pictures is Flickr, and the Creative Commons site hosts a search that filters CC content (though they don't legally endorse it).

If you use content from a database, it is considered good manners (though not legally required) to leave a comment with where the image or media was used. Most authors will be glad to see their work being utilized, and in the case they mistakenly licensed it this will provide a forum for them to request you take the content down. Some more guidelines for using content are:

  • ask permission to do things beyond the license (ie use a NC work for commercial purposes)
  • keep the copyright notice intact
  • indicate and link to the license
  • indicate changes with acknowledgement
  • don't alter the license
  • don't imply the creator is sponsoring your work

Keeping in mind these simple tips, you can unleash a world of creativity for free - no more expensive stock images - through the power of Creative Commons licensing.