How to Read a Creative Commons License

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Creative Commons (the less restrictive alternative to copyright) is meant to be understood by the everyday average person. It’s licenses are pretty straight forward and include easier to read versions of otherwise complicated legal jargon. This article will guide you through the components of a license an help you understand the implications of using one.


The main difference between creative commons and copyright is that creative commons allows individuals to share your work. No matter what license you choose, individuals are free to pass around what you’ve created. Three are four conditions of a creative commons work that make up a license. They are most easily noted by their icons which are displayed on the creative commons license graphic. It is important to note that these icons represent restrictions. If the icon is present, note the limitation. If it is not present, you a free of the limitation.

No Derivative Works(nd). The work may not be adapted in any way. It must be presented exactly as the original version.

Share Alike(sa). Any derivative works must carry the same license as the original. The license must be exact: no more or less restrictive than that of the original. For instance if the original work allows commercial use, the new work has to.

Non-commercial (nc). Copies (and derivations) of the original may only be distributed, performed, and made public for non-commercial purposes. You can “remix” and redistribute an author’s work, but you can’t sell it.

Attribution (by). Copies (and derivations) must include credit to the original author. This is usually in the form of a named source and a link to the source’s chosen URL.


There are six basic licenses. Each one requires attribution to the original source. If you don’t really need people to link your work back to you, you should consider using Public Domain (more on that below). If you want attribution and the additional rights granted by creative commons you can select one of the six.

  • Attribution (by)
  • Attribution Share Alike (by-sa)
  • Attribution No-Derivatives (by-nd)
  • Attribution Non-Commercial (by-nc)
  • Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike (by-nc-sa)
  • Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives (by-nc-nd)

Each license represents some combination of restrictions. In Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike, copies and derivations are allowed as long as they are non commercial. Derivations must also carry the by-nc-sa license. In Attribution No-Derivatives, the work can be copied as long as it is not altered in any way. Note that there is no option for Attribution No-Derivatives Share Alike. Because derivatives are not allowed the share alike restriction would have no implications.


Creative commons is associated with several other licenses that have slightly different sets of rules than their main ones.

Public Domain. When you issue something into public domain, you relinquish any rights you may hold as the creator and owner of a work. People can do literally anything they want with it.

GNU GPL is a software license. It is similar to Share Alike in that derivations must also carry the same license.

GNU LGPL is a slightly modified version of GPL. In this licensee, derivations themselves may have a different license than the original work.

BSD is a software license that allows unlimited redistribution for any purpose, as long as the license notice and disclaimers are intact.

Kopimi (also spelled and pronounced as copyme) is the only item in this section that has no affiliation whatsoever with Creative Commons. Kopimi is a growing “copyleft” declaration simply showing that you encourage your work to be copied and altered, whether used commercial or not.


Additional Tips

  • Note that creative common liscenses are requests for how someone’s work is to be used. Laws like fair use still apply. For instance, someone may not want a small sample of their work used outside of the full context of the piece, but the law may protect a journalist wishing to do so in order to criticize or examine it.
  • The conditions or a license may be waived on a case by case basis. Contact the author to get permission to do something the license says you can’t.
  • Creative Commons licenses are non-exclusive and non-revocable.

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