Navigating Creative Commons licensing

Creative Commons licenses work in conjunction with copyright law to make the sharing and tweaking of original works easier. Which license works best for you? Read on.

by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.
updated May 11, 2023 ·  4min read

Just because something is published on the internet doesn't mean you can copy and share it wherever, whenever, and however you like. Copyright law protects most online content—even if you don't see the telltale letter C with a circle around it—and you could unknowingly be infringing on someone else's copyright if you reuse it without permission or without understanding the terms of its copyright license.

If you publish content online in any manner, you should know about licensing from Creative Commons. The nonprofit organization has developed several different types of licenses that allow copyright owners to select the kind of protection, in addition to copyright, they want to attach to their work. The licenses give others the permission to use the works in certain ways without having to ask the copyright holder for permission.

Creative Commons states that its goals are “to build a more equitable, accessible, and innovative world" and to “unlock the full potential of the internet to drive a new era of development, growth, and productivity." To that end, Creative Commons makes it easier for people to legally share copyrighted works by offering a broad permission to anyone who wants to use the works in the ways permitted by the specific licenses.

Copyright law

Before you can understand Creative Commons, it's important to understand the basics of copyrights, which offer protection to original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible format. Copyright covers a broad array of “literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works," including novels, photographs, songs, and architecture. Ideas cannot be copyrighted, but once you type out a script, for instance, even if it is unpublished, you still acquire and retain copyright rights in it.

A copyright gives its owner six basic rights:

  • To reproduce or make copies of the work
  • To create derivative works based on the original work
  • To distribute copies to the public by sale, rental, lending, etc.
  • To perform the work publicly
  • To display the work publicly
  • To perform sound recordings publicly through digital audio transmission

If you want to bring a lawsuit against someone who you believe has infringed on your work, you must register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. You can register even after an alleged violation is committed, but your case will be stronger the sooner you can show your ownership in the work.

Note that works in the public domain are free of any claims of intellectual property ownership. That means that anyone is free to use anything in the public domain for any purpose.

Types of creative commons licenses

Using Creative Commons licenses with your work is entirely free. Moreover, CC licensing works in conjunction with copyright law, which means you retain your copyright protection and can pursue infringers who aren't abiding by your CC license's provisions.

Creative Commons offers six different licenses, often called CC licenses for short, each with their own parameters for permissible usage:

  1. Attribution (CC BY). Creative Commons defines this license as the “most accommodating" because it allows for "maximum dissemination and use of the licensed materials." Others may “distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon" your work, even for profit, as long as they credit you in some way.
  2. Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA). This license allows others to “remix, tweak, and build upon your work," even commercially, so long as they give you credit for the original in the manner you request. New creations based on the work will be under the same license and its terms. According to Creative Commons, the CC BY-SA license “is often compared to 'copyleft' and open-source software licenses."
  3. Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND). Others can share and reuse the work, even commercially, but it must be in its original form (thus the “no derivatives" provision) and you must receive credit for the original.
  4. Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC). Remixing, tweaking, and building upon your work is permitted so long as it's noncommercial in nature and you receive credit for the original work. Derivative works do not have to carry the same license, which means if someone builds upon your work, they could later attach a license that prohibits commercial use of their resulting work.
  5. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA). Remixing, tweaking, and building upon your work is permitted for noncommercial purposes so long as you receive the credit. New, derivative works must be licensed under the same terms.
  6. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND). The most restrictive of Creative Commons licenses permits others to redistribute your work only in its original form and only noncommercially.

As a content creator, you would have to decide which license works best for your purposes. If you are sharing or using others' content, be sure to abide by the conditions they have attached to their works via CC license.

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Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.

About the Author

Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.

Freelance writer and editor Michelle Kaminsky, Esq. has been working with LegalZoom since 2004. She earned a Juris Docto… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.