What is Creative Commons? 5 frequently asked questions

Get answers to your Creative Commons questions here.

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

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that has created different kinds of licenses to allow individuals to choose which type of copyright protection best suits them and their work.

The goal of Creative Commons, according to its website, is "to increase the amount of creativity (cultural, educational, and scientific content) in the 'commons'—the body of work that is available to the public for free and legal sharing, use, repurposing, and remixing."

1. What do Creative Commons licenses do?

Creative Commons licenses allow their holders to grant broad permission to others to share, remix, use commercially, or otherwise use their work without having to ask specific authorization for each use.

This makes it "easier for people to share and build upon the works of others, consistent with the rules of copyright." Lawrence Lessing, Stanford Law professor and founder of Creative Commons, is a long-time advocate of information freedom and copyright reform.

2. How do Creative Commons licenses interact with copyright?

Creative Commons licenses work alongside the rules of copyright, allowing you to authorize a more free usage of your work and choose the protection that best suits your needs. Creative Commons licenses apply to any work covered by copyright law.

  • By using a Creative Commons license, you do not give up your copyright; you still own your work.
  • Creative Commons licenses do not replace copyright registration—they apply in addition to copyright.
  • Even if you're using a Creative Commons license, it is advisable to register your copyright so you can protect your work from unauthorized uses through the courts.

Think of copyright as an "all rights reserved" option in which you hold all rights—something that you may desire if you don't want anyone taking, using, and potentially making money off of your work. A Creative Commons license, on the other hand, offers a "some rights reserved" option, which permits certain uses of your work under particular conditions that you choose. The options are described below.

3. Are all Creative Commons licenses the same?

No. Creative Commons offers six different licenses, each allowing different uses of your work:

  1. Attribution: The most permissive Creative Commons license allowing others to use, distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work—even for profit—so long as you are given credit for the original in the way you request.
  2. Attribution Share Alike: Very similar to the Attribution license. You permit others to use, distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work—even commercially—provided you are given credit in the way you request for the original, but this license also requires the user to license all new creations under identical terms (meaning any new creations may also be used for profit); this is often compared to open source software licenses.
  3. Attribution No Derivatives: Permits others to redistribute—including commercially—your work so long as you are credited in the way you request, and the work remains whole and unchanged.
  4. Attribution Non-Commercial: Allows others to use, distribute, remix, tweak, or build upon your work non-commercially so long as you are given credit in the way you request. Derivative works do not have to carry the same license (meaning future derivative works can be commercial).
  5. Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike: Permits others to use, distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially so long as you are given credit in the way you request, and the new works are licensed under the same terms.
  6. Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives: Closest to traditional copyright, this is the most restrictive Creative Commons license and allows others only to redistribute your work non-commercially so long as it remains unchanged and you are given credit in the way you request; often called "free advertising" because people can download and share your work freely.

4. What are the pros and cons of using Creative Commons licenses?

Each specific Creative Commons license has its pros and cons depending on your situation, but the biggest overall pros to Creative Commons licenses are that they are free and rather easy to use. You simply go to the Creative Commons website to decide which license meets your needs and then attach the appropriate symbol to your work.

Creative Commons licenses also encourage others to use and redistribute your work, which can create publicity for you.

The biggest con in using Creative Commons licenses is that in all but the two most restrictive licenses, you grant permission to use your work ahead of time, so you can never be sure who is using your work or making money from it.

Any content licensed under Creative Commons can be used by others without compensating you for the use. However, Creative Commons licenses are non-exclusive, so you can still license the same content under a different agreement if you choose.

5. Who uses Creative Commons licenses?

The music industry, especially aspiring artists, are particularly drawn to Creative Commons licenses because of the prevalence of remixing and "mash-ups," which are great ways for new artists to gain exposure. Many of the licenses also allow an artist to keep her options open if she isn't sure what she'll want to do with her work in the future.

Bloggers and other online presences are also increasingly turning to Creative Commons in the spirit of share and share alike into a voluntary public domain.

More info: Creative Commons

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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.