Understanding Creative Commons

May 30th, 2013 by Monika Jankowska-Pacyna

How often do you find yourself wondering whether the image you found online and are about to use on your website, document or class activity is free to use or is covered by some kind of copyright?

You should always assume that an image found online is copyrighted and should always look for information on when and how you can use it – that’s when knowing about and understanding Creative Commons licensing can be useful.

Creative Commons (CC) is a:

  • non-profit organization founded by Lawrence Lessig
  • movement to provide alternatives to “all rights reserved” copyright.

Easily recognizable by specific licensing images and terms, CC licenses give everyone a simple, standardized way to keep the copyright but allow people to copy and distribute their work provided they give the creator(s) credit (attribute) – and follow the conditions they specify.



Every license helps creators (called licensors if they use CC tools):

  • retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make some uses of their work – at least non-commercially
  • ensure licensors get the credit they deserve for the work
  • make the license available and valid around the world and make it last as long as applicable copyright lasts (because they are built on copyright).

Click here to explore a list of things to think about before licensing.

Click here to explore License Chooser.

If the author wants to offer the work with no conditions attached, or wants to mark a work that is already free of known copyright restrictions and in the public domain, choose one of the CC’s public domain tools.

Click here to learn more about public domain content.


Types of licenses

1. Attribution

cc by



This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.

2. Attribution-NoDerivs

cc by nd



This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.

3. Attribution-ShareAlike

cc by sa



This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to “copyleft” free and open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. This is the license used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects.

4. Attribution-NonCommercial

cc by nc



This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

5. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

cc by nc sa



This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.

6. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs

cc by nc nd


This license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

Click here to learn more about the six licenses.


What does it mean for the literacy community?

The notion of “a picture is worth a thousand words” is very well known in the literacy community, and we use images often to convey specific messages and/or ideas to students, colleagues and the community.

Knowing and understanding licensing and ensuring that images and other content is used according to the conditions specified by the authors (often simply mentioning the author is enough) not only makes it easier for practitioners to look for and use specific content, but it also puts them at ease and ensures that they aren’t infringing copyrights – even unintentionally or unknowingly.

Did you also know that this licensing also applies to various reports and documents?  For example, we started adding Creative Commons licenses to the reports we publish at AlphaPlus to clarify how they can be shared, used and adapted.

It is also a good practice to teach and discuss copyright and Creative Commons with students to ensure that they know how they can use images and other content they find online.


Where can I find material offered under a CC license?

If you are looking for materials offered under a Creative Commons license, CC Search is a good starting point. CC also maintains a directory of organizations and individuals who use CC licenses. Some media sites, such as Flickr, have search filters for material licensed using CC’s licenses. Please note that you should not assume that your search results only contain works available under a CC license. You should verify that the works you intend to use are governed by a CC license.

What does it mean for a search engine to be CC-enabled?

Some search engines (like Google) allow you to filter your search results by usage rights so that you can limit your search results according to the particular CC license you seek. For example, if you are looking for a photo to adapt, you can filter your search to return photos that have a CC license that permits creation of adaptations. You can generally find this search feature on the advanced search page of your selected search engine. You can also use CC Search, which offers a convenient interface for searching and a list of content providers that support searches for content based on usage rights.


Want to learn more? Check out http://creativecommons.org and this page with examples and case studies or join us for a Tech Tuesdays webinar on June 4.