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Creative Commons Licensing

How does a Creative Commons license operate?

Creative Commons license are based on copyright. So it applies to all works that are protected by copyright law. On the Open Architecture Network, Creative Commons Licenses apply to all project files as well as all information located in the Resources section.

Creative Commons licenses give you the ability to dictate how others may exercise your copyright rights—such as the right of others to copy your work, make derivative works or adaptations of your work, to distribute your work and/or make money from your work. They do not give you the ability to restrict anything that is otherwise permitted by exceptions or limitations to copyright—including, importantly, fair use or fair dealing—nor do they give you the ability to control anything that is not protected by copyright law, such as facts and ideas.

Creative Commons licenses attach to the work and authorize everyone who comes in contact with the work to use it consistent with the license. This means that if Bob has a copy of your Creative Commons-licensed work, Bob can give a copy to Carol and Carol will be authorized to use the work consistent with the Creative Commons license. You then have a license agreement separately with both Bob and Carol.

One final thing you should understand about Creative Commons licenses is that they are all non-exclusive. This means that you can permit the general public to use your work under a Creative Commons license and then enter into a separate and different non-exclusive license with someone else, for example, in exchange for money.

What does a Creative Commons license do?

A Creative Commons license is a signal to you that you can use the work without having to seek out the individual creator or licensor and ask for permission—provided you use the work in the manner permitted by the Creative Commons license. The Commons Deed sets out the key terms governing your use of the work.

What should I think about before choosing a license for my project?

There are many things to take into account before choosing your project’s creative commons license. You need to make sure your work falls within the Creative Commons license; make sure you have the rights; and make sure you understand how Creative Commons licenses operate. For a more detailed explanation of things to think about before licensing, click here.

What are the terms of a Creative Commons license?

The key terms of the core suite of Creative Commons licenses are: Attribution, NonCommercial, NoDerivatives and ShareAlike. These license elements are succinctly described as follows:

Attribution=you must attribute the author and/or licensor in the manner they require.
NonCommercial=you may not use the work in a manner primarily directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation.
NoDerivatives=you may only make verbatim copies of the work, you may not adapt or change it.
ShareAlike=you may only make derivative works if you license them under the same Creative Commons license terms.

Which Creative Commons license should I choose?

The Open Architecture Network offers eight different Creative Commons licenses. We strongly suggest that you read more about each license, and choose one before starting a project. You can find an overview of all the Creative Commons licenses in human language here, or click below to read the legal code of each.

Public Domain
Developing Nations
Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives (by-nc-nd)
Attribution Non-commercial Share Alike (by-nc-sa)
Attribution Non-commercial (by-nc)
Attribution No Derivatives (by-nd)
Attribution Share Alike (by-sa)
Attribution (by)

Each license offers different alternatives for rights and distribution. You should choose the license that meets your preferences. The license is a statement as to what others may do with your work, so you should select a license that matches what you are happy for others to do with your work.

You can also participate in creative commons’ email discussion lists and/or review the discussion archives to see if their community is able to respond to your questions and concerns and/or has already addressed them.

Finally, you can also consult with a suitably qualified lawyer to obtain advice on the best license for your needs.

What if I change my mind?

You can change your license at any time, but Creative Commons licenses are non-revocable. This means that you cannot stop someone, who has obtained your work under a Creative Commons license, from using the work according to that license – so choose wisely.

Although you can stop distributing your work under a Creative Commons license at any time you wish, this will not withdraw any copies of your work that already exist under a Creative Commons license from circulation, be they verbatim copies, copies included in collective works and/or adaptations of your work. So you need to think carefully when choosing a Creative Commons license to make sure that you are happy for people to be using your work consistent with the terms of the license, even if you later stop distributing your work.

What happens if someone misuses my Creative Commons-licensed work?

A Creative Commons license terminates automatically if someone uses your work contrary to the license terms. This means that, if a person uses your work under a Creative Commons license and they, for example, fail to attribute your work in the manner you specified, then they no longer have the right to continue to use your work. This only applies in relation to the person in breach of the license; it does not apply generally to the other people who use your work under a Creative Commons license and comply with its terms.

You have a number of options as to how you can enforce this; you can consider contacting the person and asking them to rectify the situation and/or you can consider consulting a suitably qualified lawyer to act on your behalf.

I don’t like the way a person has used my work in a derivative work or included it in a collective work; what can I do?

If you do not like the way that a person has made a derivative work or incorporated your work into a collective work, under the Creative Commons licenses, you may request removal of your name from the derivative work or the collective work.

In addition, the copyright laws in most jurisdictions around the world (with the notable exception of the US) grant creators “moral rights” which may provide you with some redress if a derivative work represents a “derogatory treatment” of your work. Moral rights give an original author the right to object to “derogatory treatment” of their work; “derogatory treatment” is typically defined as “distortion or mutilation” of the work or treatment, which is “prejudicial to the honor, or reputation of the author.” All Creative Commons licenses (with the exception of Canada) leave moral rights unaffected. This means that an original author may be able to take action against a derivative work that infringes the moral right that protects against derogatory treatment. Of course, not all derivative works that a creator does not like will be considered “derogatory.”

What happens if I want to make a different use of the work?

If you want to use a Creative Commons-licensed work in a manner that is not permitted under the terms of the Creative Commons license, you need to contact the creator and/or licensor and ask for their permission. If you use a Creative-Commons licensed work contrary to the terms of the Creative Commons license, your right to use the work terminates and you could be sued for infringement of copyright.

How do I use a Creative Commons-licensed work?

If you come across a work that says it is made available under a Creative Commons license, you are authorized by the licensor to use it consistent with those license terms. You should satisfy yourself that the scope of the license covers your intended uses. Since there are a number of versions of the Creative Commons licenses, you should read the particular license carefully to ensure that the license meets your needs. All Creative Commons licenses require that you attribute the author, licensor and/or any other parties specified by the author/licensor. To correctly use a Creative Commons licensed work, you must provide proper attribution. This is explained in the answer below.

To get an understanding of the key terms of the license, check out the Commons Deed for the license and/or review this page, which has links to the Commons Deed and basic explanations of all of our licenses.

Does using a Creative Commons-licensed work give me all the rights I need?

You should be aware that all of the licenses contain a disclaimer of warranties, so there is no assurance whatsoever that the licensor has all the necessary rights to permit reuse of the licensed work. The disclaimer means that the licensor is not guaranteeing anything about the work, including that she owns the copyright to it, or that she has cleared any uses of third-party content that her work may be based on or incorporate.

This is typical of so-called “open source” licenses, where works are made widely and freely available for reuse at no charge. The original version 1.0 of the Creative Commons licenses contained a warranty, but we ultimately concluded that, as with “open source” licenses, warranties and indemnities are best determined separately by private bargain, so that each licensor and licensee can determine the appropriate allocation of risk and reward for their unique situation. One option thus would be to use private contract to obtain a warranty and indemnification from the licensor, although it is likely that the licensor would charge for this benefit.

As a result of the warranty disclaimer, before using a Creative Commons licensed work, you should satisfy yourself that the person has all the necessary rights to make the work available under a Creative Commons license. You should know that if you are wrong, you could be liable for copyright infringement based on your use of the work.

You should learn about what rights need to be cleared and when a fair use or fair dealing defense may be available. It could be that the licensor is relying on the fair use or fair dealing doctrine, but depending on the circumstances, that legal defense may or may not actually protect her (or you). You should educate yourself about the various rights that may be implicated in a copyrighted work, because creative works often incorporate multiple elements such as, for example, underlying stories and characters, recorded sound and song lyrics. If the work contains recognizable third-party content, it may be advisable to independently verify that it has been authorized for reuse under a Creative Commons license.

The result of this is that you should always use your informed good judgment, and you may want to obtain legal advice.

How do I properly attribute a Creative Commons licensed work?

The proper way of accrediting your use of a work when you're making a verbatim use is: (1) to keep intact any copyright notices for the Work; (2) credit the author, licensor and/or other parties (such as a wiki or journal) in the manner they specify; (3) the title of the Work; and (4) the Uniform Resource Identifier for the work if specified by the author and/or licensor.

You also need to provide the Uniform Resource Locator for the Creative Commons license that applies to the work, together with each copy of the work that you make available.

If you are making a derivative use of a work licensed under one of our core licenses or under the Developing Nations license, in addition to the above, you need to identify that your work is a derivative work, ie. “This is a Finnish translation of the [original work] by [author]” or “Screenplay based on [original work] by [author].”

What is a derivative work?

A derivative work is a work that is based on another work but is not an exact, verbatim copy. What this means exactly and comprehensively is the subject of many law journal articles and much debate and pontification. In general, a translation from one language to another or a film version of a book are examples of derivative works.

Under U.S. law, generally, changing the format of a work—ie. from print to digital—where the content of the work has not otherwise been changed, would also constitute a derivative work; however, the Creative Commons licenses allow the user to exercise the rights permitted under the license in any format or media. This means that, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license, for example, you can copy the work from a digital file to a print file consistent with the terms of that license.

If I use a Creative Commons-licensed work with other works, do I have to Creative Commons license everything else as well?

With the exception of those of our licenses that contain the ShareAlike element, the Creative Commons licenses do not require everything else to be Creative Commons licensed as well. We specifically designed the Creative Commons licenses so that they would not turn all other works they were combined with into being Creative Commons-licensed. If you combine any work with a Creative Commons-licensed work that is licensed with a ShareAlike license provision, then, because of the way that the ShareAlike license element operates, the resultant work will need to be licensed under the same license as the original work.

If you include a Creative Commons licensed work in a “collective work” (ie. a collection of works in their exact original format, not adaptations), then you only need to continue to apply the Creative Commons license to that work (even if the work was licensed under a Creative Commons Share-Alike license provision). You do not need to apply it to the entire collection.

Can I combine two different Creative Commons licensed works? Can I combine a Creative Commons licensed work with another non-CC licensed work?

Generally yes; you can combine one Creative Commons licensed work with another Creative Commons licensed work or with another work.

The one big caveat is for Creative Commons licenses that contain the ShareAlike license element (ie. Attribution-ShareAlike, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike). These licenses require derivative works (ie. the result of two combined works) to be licensed under the same license elements. So, you cannot, for example, combine an Attribution-ShareAlike license with an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. If you are combining a work licensed under a ShareAlike license condition, you need to make sure that you are happy and able to license the resulting work under the same license conditions as the original work.

I used part of a Creative Commons-licensed work, which Creative Commons license can I relicense my work under?

There is a chart located at the bottom of the Creative Commons FAQ page which will explain the relicensing combinations in detail.

What if I still have questions about Creative Commons?

You should make sure that you are comfortable with the creative commons license you are choosing to apply to your project. If you still have questions, please feel free to visit the Creative Commons FAQ page, where you will find more information. Alternately you can participate in their email discussion lists or email