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Open Access and Open Educational Resources

Intro to Creative Commons Licenses

Creative Commons Licenses: the Basics

Creative Commons Licenses were created to open up the limited permissions associated with traditional All Rights Reserved copyright.  The moment an original creative work is fixed in a tangible form, the creator owns copyright of their work.  This means that the creator controls all future use of that work, and unless these rights are sold or transferred to another entity, such as a publisher, anyone who would like to share or modify the work in any way needs to request permission from the creator.  In cases where the creator is unknown or difficult to reach, this practice can restrict the reach of a resource. 

This is where Creative Commons licenses come in--if a work is released with a set of standardized permissions selected by the creator, the creator is able to apply permissions that are more open than the standard All Rights Reserved, and users immediately know how they can use content.  Once applied, a license cannot be rescinded.  There are six licenses to choose from.

Breakdown of a CC License

Three Layers of a License:

  1. Legal Code: builds on existing copyright law
  2. Human Readable: easy to understand and descriptions of the usage terms for each license
  3. Machine Readable: encoded so that CC licensed content can be identified by search algorithms


Elements of a CC License:

  • CC: Creative Commons
  • BY: Give creator attribution
  • SA: Share alike, derivative works must be shared under the same license as the original work
  • NC: Noncommercial, content cannot be shared for commercial purposes
  • ND: No derivatives adaptations not permitted

The Six Creative Commons Licenses

Creative Commons licenses chart of permissions
"Creative Commons Licenses Infographic" by ricardo56 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


CC-BY: must give credit to creator

CC-BY-SA: must give credit to creator, adaptations must be shared under same terms

CC-BY-ND: credit must be given to creator, no derivatives/adaptations permitted

CC-BY-NC: credit must be given to creator, only noncommercial uses permitted

CC-BY-NC-SA: credit must be given to creator, only noncommercial use permitted, adaptations must be shared under same terms

CC-BY-NC-ND: credit must be given to creator, only noncommercial uses permitted, no derivatives/adaptations permitted


Alternate Options:

CC0: This indicates a work known to be in the public domain.  Under this license, the work is released into the public domain immediately.  All use is permitted.


Licensing Your Work

In order to attach a license to a work, you must own the copyright.  If you're not sure what Creative Commons license you want to apply, use the CC license chooser:

About CC Licenses. Retrieved from

Yergler, Nathan and Alex Roberts. Three "layers" of licenses. Retrieved from

CC BY Unless otherwise noted, content on this page is licensed under an Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license.