A Beginner’s Guide to Creative Commons licenses – D. Jason Fleming
I’ve been listening to Creative Commons-licensed music for over a decade at this point, and everything I write goes out under a CC license. In addition, my social media bios describe me as a Creative Commons advocate.
So, while I am in no way associated with the Creative Commons nonprofit organization in San Francisco, I do know a thing or two about how the licenses work, and I sometimes get a bit distressed at how less experienced people misunderstand CC licenses and what they mean.
The two biggest misunderstandings I see usually go hand in hand: that there is one single Creative Commons license, and that it means you can do whatever you feel like doing with the licensed content. The usual tell is a phrase along the lines of “used under the Creative Commons license”. Since there is actually a set of CC licenses, the definite article is a giveaway that somebody is either ignorant, or being deceptive. (Usually the former.)
There are, in fact, seven CC licenses; and only three of them are “Free Culture” — that is, you can do what you want with the licensed work, with no restriction, provided you follow the terms of the license. (Technically, one of those three gives you permission to do whatever, without following any terms, but we’ll get to that.)
The shorthand for Creative Commons licenses is simple: CC followed by one, two, or three two-letter abbreviations and the license version number. The CC stands for Creative Commons, naturally, and the other abbreviations tell you which terms apply. There are four, one of which is present in all licenses. (Again, there is one exception, which will be the last one explained.)
Let’s start with the most restrictive license:
CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives License 4.0. This is sometimes referred to as the “listen and share” license. This gives you the right to acquire the work for free, make copies, and give those copies to anyone. However, the license must remain intact, you cannot use it to make money or aid you in making money, and you cannot change the work in any way.
So, if it’s a work of music, you can listen to it, and share it, and that’s it. If it’s a book or a story, you can read it and share it, but that’s all.
CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike License 4.0. This is much more free, in that you are permitted to use the artwork in your own work. The terms of the license do limit you, of course. You have to give the original artist credit, at a minimum naming and linking to their site. You can’t make money off of your derivative work or your copy of the original work. And any derivatives you make must be shared under this same license.
This brings us to the question: What is a derivative work? Basically, it’s anything that is transformative to the original work. If you burn a CD with music on it, but don’t change the music, that’s not derivative. If you put some music into a video, that is transformative, and therefore derivative.
CC BY-ND 4.0
Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives License 4.0. Here we get toward freedom in one way, but not others. You can copy, share, and sell the licensed work, provided you give attribution and do not alter the work or create works that derive from it.
CC BY-NC 4.0
Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial License 4.0. And freedom in other ways comes in here, but not fully. With this license, you can make any changes or derivatives you want, but you must give attribution to the original creator, and you can’t profit from your derivative works.
With those out of the way, we now enter into the realm of Free Culture. There is an official definition of what makes a work free culture, but what it amounts to is that the conditions of the license do not limit your ability to alter or build upon the work, nor do they prevent you from profiting from your own derivative of that work. There are, however, still conditions that you must follow.
CC BY-SA 4.0
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License 4.0. This license lets you do what you want, to any extent that you want, but you must give attribution to the original creator, and you must share the resulting work under this same license. I think of this license as the sweet spot, because using it is guaranteed to grow the pool of Free Culture works in the world.
CC BY 4.0
Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0. Do what you want, to any extent that you want, but you must give attribution to the original creator. There is one musician who has been releasing his work exclusively under this license for about a decade, and if you watch Youtube at all, you have heard his work. Kevin MacLeod has thousands of credits on the IMDb and even got his music in a Martin Scorsese movie.
And finally, we have the real outlier, the CC Zero License, which is a dedication of the licensed work to the public domain.
Creative Commons Zero License 1.0. If something is released under this license, do what you want, no restrictions, no attribution necessary. However, I personally hold that it’s simply good form to give attribution if there is a means to do so.
So, now you have a better idea of the range of freedoms and restrictions that the Creative Commons gives you. I focused on how you would look at them as an end user, but I think you can see, at least implicitly, how using them can benefit you as a creator as well.