A Beginner’s Guide to Creative Commons licenses – D. Jason Fleming

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:


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.


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.

CC0 1.0

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.

40 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Creative Commons licenses – D. Jason Fleming

  1. What? A law people misunderstand? How is that even possible!

    We send our finest representatives to Washington to craft laws governing our most trivial activities and their output is confusing? I am afraid I will need more than your word on that.

    Sheesh, next thing you’ll be saying is that a zealous prosecutor can seize a defendant’s privileged communications with his client, even if the client is not a “target” of any investigation.

        1. Two Russians walk into a bar.

          The bartender says, “Hey, what is this, some kind of joke?”

          So Mueller takes all the bartenders stuff.

            1. One of Trump’s lawyers paralegals read Red Planet while in junior high: far-right anti-government gun-loving nut collusion!

          1. Not so sure about its death, The E.E. may just be moribund, awaiting a miracle. Whatever the state of The E.E., The Evil certainly lives on.

            (Looks to Venezuela… yeah The Evil most certainly lives on.)

            1. The Empire is dead – the core is still there, and Tsar Vlad the Shirtless wants to grab a new empire.

      1. Well…..
        Years ago, I had found a site that was very inexpensive for downloading music. It seemed on the up-and-up, it took a credit card (and I never encountered any problems with that), and it had a huge library.
        Then, one day, it stopped taking my credit card. This was quite a bummer. But it was only a few weeks later I saw an article pointing out enforcement actions by the US gov’t against the site.

        Turns out it was a Russian site, and they sold songs that people (not the song writers or performers) were uploading to the site. (The top-level domain was not Russian, so this whole thing was not ‘obvious’.)

        So, see? The Russians are involved!
        (And I can probably never run for office now, as the scandal – Russia, Russia, Russia! – would simply be too great.)

        1. I miss Russian classic rock mp3 sites. Obviously one did not use a normal credit card for said sites…. They also sold Russian-made audio books in English, for comprehension practice.

          Unfortunately, Russian audio books in Russian are way too fast for comprehension practice for most of us, even if you have the book right there. My library has some, and Audible has some; and I swear they are faster than the Spanish language ones. Sigh.

          1. Anyway, it was hilarious to hear bemused English-speaking expatriates who were clearly not actors, gamely reading classic books, and doing a good job. Value for money! Librivox came along a few years later and was free, but I miss those guys.

      2. One of my student’s smart-watch malfunctioned this afternoon, and the others at the table chorused, “Russian ‘bot!”

    1. But I’m told they had to have something really, really bad on him to do this.

      I mean like stealing the Presidency from Hillary bad.

      1. a) I’ve long heard that when dealing with Federal Law Enforcement, one needs to lawyer up in order to avoid even accidentally lying. I’ve never felt that Trump was making an effort to manage this risk, and was competent to do so. I can suspect or be convinced that it is his own fault here, and at the same time:
        b) I’ve re evaluated the risks of political activity. On the one hand, political prominence should not provide immunity, the way it seems to have done for the Clintons. On the other hand, /now/ I’d have to be pretty stupid to get in very deep myself. On the gripping hand, when politics is to risky for everyone but the stupid and the confidently criminal, guess what you will get a lot of.
        c) Trump’s worst enemies are his best friends.
        d) Perhaps Trump’s friends are also his enemies?

        1. I highly recommend this book. It’s short, and an easy read. Free, if you have KU, and some libraries have it.

          I gave hard copies of it to family members this Christmas (and we did a CSI Dewberry Woods on it.) It could save your freedom, since we no longer have an effective 5th Ammendment defense.

    2. IANAL. I’ve a notion that if I were admitted to the New York bar and able to get onto Fox, I might be able to convince Mr. Trump that his best strategy is to file a pro se lawsuit against the FBI under RICO.

      My more sober judgement is informing me that if I knew anything about the practice of law, I would not be so stupid. I’m not sure of that, I can be pretty stupid.

    3. I would like to point out that Creative Commons is not “law” in the sense that it was passed by Congress and sits in the statute books. It is a private non-profit organization that was created to get around the ridiculous extension of copyright durations lobbied by Disney and others to keep their respective cash cows going (almost) forever, but also locks up and prevents our common cultural heritage from being spread if a publisher decides to deep-six a particular work. Under current copyright law they still can, but if the work has a Creative Commons License, they cannot prevent it being given away and serving as a cultural influence. That is why you often see CC licenses in works from those who are in the cultural influence business, like the Mises Institute.

  2. Thanks for a little bit of clarification. I think most people just see the CC and go nuts without digging into what they are allowed to do.

  3. Interesting. I’m curious about how derivation clauses affect parody’s of the original work.

    1. If you would have the right to create a parody of a work in the absence of any license, then you’d have the same right under any of the CC licenses, whether or not they allow derivatives. The right granted to you by the law trumps any license: unless you specifically agree to waive a given right as a condition of a contract, you still have that right. And since none of the CC licenses include a clause like “You waive the rights you would normally have under Fair Use”, you could still create parodies even of a work licensed ND. The exact same situation would apply there as would apply if you’re making a parody of, say, a Hollywood film: the “How (Film Name) Should Have Ended” series has NOT been granted any permission by Hollywood to use their stuff, but they don’t need permission, because their project truly does fall under Fair Use. Same thing would apply if they were parodying a CC-BY-ND work: even though they don’t have permission to make a derivative work, the fact that it’s a parody means that Fair Use doctrine grants them the right to make the parody anyway, with or without permission.

      1. This is what covered Weird Al’s butt in the Amish Paradise spoof. He asked Stevie, and thought he got the okay from Coolio. But even though Coolio didn’t, he still had no recourse, as Al could have made the parody anyhow.

        1. Well, Fair Use plus a “mechanical license” fee, which is paid to record the music. The mechanical license does not vary in price and is not negotiated.

  4. Another reason to like the CC BY-SA version of the license: it allows people to use your work in derivative works both commercially and non-commercially. So if you, an author, want to use that CC-licensed artwork you found in a book cover, you can. The fact that you’re going to make money from your derivative work is allowed. Whereas any artwork that’s licensed as CC BY-SA-NC (Non-Commercial) means you can’t make money from the derivative work. And even though your book is 99% your own work, and the cover is less than 1% of the work involved in putting the book together… the fact that you used a CC BY-SA-NC image for your cover would mean you could be sued if you sell your book.

    So when you’re looking at using a Creative Commons-licensed image for a cover, or a piece of music for a soundtrack to your book promo video, or whatever… make sure that you’ve checked whether it has the NC (Non-Commercial) clause in it. Because if you’re going to make any money from the thing you use it in, you’d be breaking the terms of the license.

    1. However, works can be distributed under different licenses to different licensees in different circumstances. So if you find artwork that would be *just perfect* for your book cover, but it’s CC w/ the NC clause & you want to sell your book for a profit, you might be able to contact the artist/copyright holder & negotiate a different license that allows you to use it in your cover art for a commercially sold book, possibly involving you paying a license fee. You just do need to contact them & negotiate a new licence; you can’t use the CC-NC license they already offer the work under to the public. If you can’t reach the artist or can’t reach an agreement, then you can’t legally use it.

      1. Yes, I tried to make that clear, but might have been too brief.

        Another point is that I could make a derivative work of something that is CC BY (Attribution) and release the derivative under any of the other licenses except Zero, because they all conform to the original license.

        However, if I make a derivative of a CC BY-SA work, it must go out under the same license (or a compatible license, of which there is currently one that is not Creative Commons).

  5. I stick with CC0 for everything. I also check for a model release whenever there is a human image. In some cases, such as where an identifiable private building is involved, you have to check for a site release, too. Sigh…

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