Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
CofC Logo

Copyright, Fair Use, & Creative Commons: Creative Commons

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons makes it possible to freely share intellectual property on a large scale.

Creative Commons refers to a set of intellectual property licenses, and the organization behind those licenses. Creative Commons (CC) licenses build on copyright law and enable creators to release their creative work with automatic sharing permissions.

The Four Elements and Their Symbols

Creative Commons licensing consists of 4 distinct elements that can be combined to make 6 different licenses, allowing creators to choose how they want to license their work for reuse.

Attribution (BY): This element is part of all six CC licenses. It requires that anyone using a CC-licensed work provide attribution to the original creator.
NonCommercial (NC): This element means that a work cannot be used for primarily commercial purposes. NC applies to the reuse of a work, not the creator--the creator may still monetize their work as they wish. The nature of the reuse, and not the entity reusing, determines whether it is commercial. For example, a for-profit business could engage in a non-commercial reuse, and vice versa.
ShareAlike (SA): This element means that any adapted works (derivatives) must be shared with the same CC license as the original.
CC ND NoDerivatives: This element means that adapted works (derivatives) cannot be shared. 

The Six Licenses

These four elements can be combined to make six distinct licenses. All six licenses require attribution.

Can Be Shared

Derivatives Can Be Shared ONLY IF
You Share Alike 

CANNOT Be Shared 

Commercial Use Allowed

 CC-BY logo  CC BY-SA logo  CC BY-ND logo

Commercial Use
NOT Allowed

 CC BY-NC logo  CC BY-NC-SA  CC BY-NC-ND logo

CC license chart is adapted from Creative Commons, the 5Rs, and OER, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY).


Three Elements of CC Licenses

Each CC license consists of 3 layers:

  • Legal code
  • Commons deed
  • Machine-readable language

The legally-enforceable terms and conditions are the legal code--a long text document that lawyers and courts would scrutinize in case of a legal dispute. Example: CC-BY legal code

To make these codes more user-friendly, they are summarized in the commons deeds

Each license also includes machine-readable language (computer code) that identifies to search engines and other programs that a particular work has a CC license.

What about fair use and public domain?

CC licenses only apply when copyright applies, so CC licenses do not interfere with other legally permissible uses of intellectual property. 

This means when something is fair use or public domain, a Creative Commons license is unnecessary and would serve no legally enforceable purpose.

Note: Creative Commons does offer a Public Domain mark, CC0, for creators to more easily signify that a work is in the public domain. This is a related tool, but not one the CC licenses.

Using CC-licensed works in your own work

Besides licensing your own original Creative Commons works, you may decide to reuse or adapt an existing CC-licensed work or works. It is always okay to use and share a CC-licensed work, but the license specifies what you can do beyond that--whether and how you can share your own adaptations, and whether you can use the work for commercial purposes. 

If you are using more than one CC-licensed work in your work, you will need to consider the individual license of each work to determine:

  • Are the works you are using are compatible with each other, based on how you intend to use them?
  • Which compatible license can you assign to your new work?

Before you can answer these questions, you must decide whether your use of a particular work counts as an adaptation.

Creative Commons License Copyright Guide by Gretchen Scronce is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY).