Understanding Creative Commons

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Title Understanding Creative Commons
Overview Open source applies to more than just software, and the Creative Commons family of licenses provide a good solution for open sourcing creative works. This module helps students understand the purpose of Creative Commons licenses and be comfortable with the different license choices available.
Prerequisite Knowledge Students should be familiar with the basics of copyright.
Learning Objectives Student should be able to choose, apply, and understand how to comply with a Creative Commons license.


* Want to let people share and use your photographs, but not allow companies to sell them?
* Looking for access to course materials from the world’s top universities?
* Want to encourage readers to re-publish your blog posts, as long as they give you credit?
* Looking for songs that you can use and remix, royalty-free?

If you answered 'yes' to any of the questions above, then you should learn more about Creative Commons.
-- About - Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that was created to provide a set of copyright licenses for creative works. Specifically, these licenses are intended to provide the legal framework so that others can easily use, share, and build upon the creative works.

[This video https://vimeo.com/13590841] provides a quick 3 minute overview of Creative Commons.

Each (current) Creative Commons license has a set of base rights, specifically:

  • ensuring that the author's copyright on a work is retained
  • requiring that the authorship of a work be attributed
  • allow others to distribute the copyrighted work worldwide

These set of base rights make up the Creative Commons Attribution license (known as CC-BY). It allows for people to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work, and make derivative works based on it, as long as they give the author or licensor the credits in the manner they specify. Creative Commons provides a [human readable summary of CC-BY http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/] as well as [the actual legal license text http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode]. They do this for each of their licenses. Students should be encouraged to read the summary as well as the "legalcode" and consider how they are similar, but different.

There are a number of additional rights and restrictions that can be applied to the base rights:

  • Share-Alike (SA) - This requires that if you make and distribute a derivative work, you must do so under a license identical to that applied to the original work. To put it simply, if you make a change to a Creative Commons work with the SA clause, your work must also be under that same Creative Commons license (with the same clauses).
  • Non-Commercial (NC) - This restricts the permissions to copy, distribute, display, perform and make derivative copies of the Creative Commons work only for noncommercial purposes.
  • No Derivative Works (ND) - This removes the permission to make derivative works from the Creative Commons work.

The ND and SA clauses are mutually exclusive, so this means there are six possible licenses:

License Acronym Human-readable explanation Legal code
Creative Commons Attribution CC BY http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial CC BY-NC http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/legalcode
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode
Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives CC BY-ND http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/4.0/legalcode
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike CC BY-NC-SA http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/legalcode
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives CC BY-NC-ND http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/legalcode

Creative Commons provides a useful license chooser tool on their website: http://creativecommons.org/choose/ The tool also generates an attribution statement (and license logo) to help other people be aware of the license and understand how to properly attribute. Keep in mind that all Creative Commons licenses require attribution, which means that if you use a Creative Commons work in any of the ways permitted by the license, you must provide the name of the creator (or owner), a copyright notice, a license notice, a disclaimer notice, and a link to the original material. The actual method of doing this is left up to you, as long as it is "reasonable" and does not suggest that the original creator (or owner) endorses you or your use.

There are many good ways to find Creative Commons licensed materials, and most of these are listed at http://search.creativecommons.org/

What is the rational for this activity?

Many students have the belief that anything they find on the internet can be used however they see fit. This is simply not the case. The idea of "fair use" is very limited in scope (and probably merits its own activity). Some useful reference materials for "Fair Use" are:

Creative Commons licenses allow for students (and educators) to be able to identify creative works that they can use and build upon. This is generally useful as a tool for creating new creative works, but also for leveraging creative works in assignments. They are also useful in programming projects which require art, music, and/or documentation.


  1. The students should be able to choose the correct license(s) for these situations.
    1. Ruth is a sculptor. Using a 3d scanner, she makes a 3d model representation of her latest artistic creation. She wants people to be able to make their own copies of her art, but not to be able to sell or remix her art. What CC license(s) would be a good fit for Ruth?
    2. Steve created a series of comic strips about cynical talking dinosaurs. Several people have asked Steve about making shirts with his characters, but Steve doesn't have the time to do it himself. Steve is fine with the idea of people having shirts with his comic strips on them, but also doesn't want to see his dinosaurs doing naughty things or saying things he didn't make them say. What CC license(s) can he put on his comic strips to allow this?
    3. Sabine took an awesome picture of lightning striking the beach. She wants to put it on the internet, but she wants to make sure she gets credit anywhere it is used. What CC license(s) can she put on her picture to requires this?
      If she uses a NC or ND license, give an example of a situation where someone would not be able to use her picture?
    4. Carlos wrote a fantastic guide on how to track your daily diet and exercise. He wants other people to use it, but he doesn't want anyone (besides him) to make any money on it. What CC license(s) can he put on his guide?
    5. Sam is a DJ, and she finds a great sample on Jamendo that she wants to use in her new remix. The sample is licensed CC-BY-SA, what CC license(s) can Sam put her work under? If the sample was NC or ND licensed, how would that affect Sam?
  2. Make and present a short "lightning talk" presentation that utilizes creative commons licensed works, on a topic of their choice. Be sure that they correctly comply with the terms of the license(s)!


  1. Answers and explanations for the license scenarios
  2. A short lighning talk presentation that clearly illustrates a correct and attributed use of CC materials.


How will the activity be graded?

How will learning will be measured?

Include sample assessment questions/rubrics.


What should the instructor know before using this activity?

The instructor should be familiar with the six different Creative Commons licenses, as well as a general understanding of copyright. An awareness of Fair Use is helpful, but not required.

Additional Information:

Knowledge Area/Knowledge Unit Social Issues and Professional Practice (SP) / Intellectual Property
Topic Intellectual property rights
Level of Difficulty Easy
Estimated Time to Completion 1) 15-30 minutes 2) 1 hour at most
Materials/Environment Internet access, some sort of presentation tool.
Author Tom Callaway
License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Suggestions for the Open Source Project:

If your project uses materials licensed under a Creative Commons license, explain to the students why you chose the license that you did for those materials.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

CC license.png

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