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Copyright Guide: Creative Commons

This guide explains the basics of copyright, creative commons, fair use, and the public domain.

CC Search Tools

Finding Images & Media

About Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a nonprofit corporation dedicated to making it easier for people to legally share and build upon the work of others. Since 2002, Creative Commons has provided free licenses and other legal tools to mark creative work with the freedom a creator wants it to carry, such that creators can retain copyright while allowing certain specified uses of their work. In this way, the licenses help make it possible for people to share and remix media online without needing to ask permission or go through a lawyer. Creative Commons licenses are now widely used in both the US and abroad. On its website, Creative Commons states that as of 2008, there were approximately 130 million licensed works available online, and the number has only continued to grow since then. Increasingly, people have also found interesting ways to use Creative Commons licenses in combination with commercial licensing arrangements.

If you create something and put it online—such as a video, a photo, a podcast, a poem, or a short story—you may choose to give your work a Creative Commons license. With a Creative Commons license, you keep your copyright but allow people to copy and distribute your work provided they give you credit, and only on the conditions you specify. For example, you may choose to allow people to adapt and build on your work, but only for noncommercial purposes. Alternately, you may choose to allow people to share your work online, but not to use it to make derivative works. For a more complete description of the licenses available, visit Creative Commons About Licenses. To see an example of what a license looks like, view this Attribution 3.0 Unported License, and note how it explains the license in 'human-readable' text, with links to the legal text and various translations of the license.

How To License Your Work

6 Main Creative Commons Licenses


Creative Commons offers an online tool that you can use to license your work. This tool takes you through the steps of choosing a license and generating the code you need to include with your work, to let your visitors know what license applies to your work. You can include this code on your website and/or in other places where you might post your work, such as a blog post. When you include this code with your work, it generates 'machine-readable' metadata that search engines can identify. The code also generates a small icon (of your license) that will be displayed with your work, and a link to the license itself.

Some websites also include tools for associating a Creative Commons license with the media you host on their sites. Some popular and well-established examples include: Flickr for photos, Blip.tv for videos, CC Mixter for music and spoken word, and the Internet Archive for media (e.g. audio, video, & text).

Finally, some websites license all of their content under a specific Creative Commons license. For example, the Freesound Project is a huge, collaborative database of sounds (e.g. audio snippets, samples, recordings, bleeps... but not music), released under the Creative Commons Sampling Plus License. With websites like this, you agree to the terms of the license when you upload or post your media to the site.

How to Find and Use Creative Commons Licensed Media

There are several search tools (see below) available online for finding Creative Commons licensed media. Some websites offer tools for searching the web, whereas other sites focus on searching a particular site or group of sites.

When browsing or searching for Creative Commons licensed media, always double check to see if the media you find does indeed have an appropriate license given how you intend to use it. For example, if you want to adapt the work, make sure it has a license that allows derivatives. If you want to use the work for commercial purposes, make sure it has a license allows commercial uses.

A Creative Commons license will typically be represented by a small CC icon somewhere on the page where the media is posted. Clicking on the icon will allow you to read the terms of the license, and may also contain specific instructions about how to give attribution to the author (or licensor) of the work. If the author does not provide instructions about how to provide attribution, a good practice is to include credits (somewhere in your project) with the following information:

  • the author's name (or username)
  • the title of the work
  • a link to the work (if possible)

If you have any questions or doubts about the validity of a particular license, or its terms of use, you should contact the copyright holder directly, or try to contact the site where you found the content.

Videos About CC

Learn More...

  • Review the six main licenses offered when you choose to publish your work with a Creative Commons license.
  • Watch the video Get Creative (2002), which covers the basics of why they formed, what they do, and how they do it (6:37 min).
  • Watch the video Wanna Work Together (2006), which explains in practical details how creators expose, share, and remix their works using Creative Commons free public licenses (3:00 min).
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