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Open Educational Resources: Creative Commons and Copyright

Creative Commons Licenses

The Creative Commons LogoWhat are Creative Commons licenses and how are these licenses different than copyright?

One common misconception is that Creative Commons (or CC) licenses replace copyright. CC is just a modifcation of copyright. Copyright means that all rights are reserved. CC licenses allow you to decide which rights are reserved, enabling you to share your work more broadly without giving up full control of how your work is used. 

Why are Creative Commons licenses used for OER?

Because these licenses allow users to freely distribute, and sometimes to remix or reformat, they are very popular for open educational resources. 

Are all Creative Commons licenses considered OER friendly? 

No. For something to be considered a true OER it has to comply with the 5 Rs*. It can be Reused, Retained, Redistributed, Revised, and Remixed. Some licenses and some license combinations prevent items from being redistributed, revised, or remixed, and thus items published under these licenses are not considered true OERs. Although there is debate about which licenses are too restrictive, NonDerivative, NonCommercial, and ShareAlike licenses can all in different circumstances limit users abilities to openly and freely reuse a work. That doesn't mean you can never use items under these licenses. Learn how on the Creative Commons Remixes page.

Where can I learn more about Creative Commons licenses? 

Learn about the licenses here. And look at FAQ about the Creative Commons here

*The 5Rs are an adaptation of "Defining the 'Open' in Open Content and Open Educational Resources, originally written by David Wiley and published under CC BY 4.0

Public Domain and Fair Use

Two terms you have probably heard in association with Creative Commons or with copyright are Public Domain and Fair Use. 

Public Domain

undefinedPublic Domain refers to items on which the copyright has expired, like the "Happy Birthday" song or the works of Shakespeare. Currently in the U.S., an item enters the public domain 70 years after the creator's death. Creators can also choose to release their works to the public domain upon creation by applying the CC0 license. 

Fair Use

undefinedFair use refers to the use of copyrighted materials that is considered to not be a violation of copyright. Copyright law lays out certain situations and use cases that would qualify as fair use for purposes like education, scholarship, and research. University of Minnesota has developed a tool to help you think through whether a particular situation is fair use, you can use the tool Thinking Through Fair Use here (please note that this form is not legal advice). You can also inquire with the library's copyright expert, Federico Martinez-Garcia, listed on this page.


The GNU FDL license logoAnother license you may come across in looking for open content is GNU-FDL, or GNU Free Documentation License. Although this license is typically associated with open software documentation, it can be used for any open text. This license requires that future adaptations or reproductions include: attribution; documentation of any changes; any derivative works must be licensed under the same terms; invariant sections (as defined by the author), the warranty, the full text of the license, and any warranty disclaimers must be included unchanged; and technical measures must not be used to control or obstruct future editing or distribution. To learn more view the GNU-FDL site.

GNU-FDL is not wholly compatible with CC licenses at present. Although you could redistribute a CC-BY or a CC-BY-NC item under a GNU-FDL license, SA (share alike) and ND (non-derivative) licenses are not compatible with GNU-FDL. For more on compatibility, visit the GNU License Compatibility Page. 

The Six Licenses

This page only provides a brief overview of the Creative Commons licenses. For more information, please visit the Creative Commons Licenses page and the Creative Commons frequently asked questions. All license descriptions come from the Creative Commons Licenses Page by CreativeCommons.org (CC-BY).

undefinedAttribution (CC BY)

This license lets others distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation.

undefined​Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)

This license lets others remix, adapt, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.

undefined​Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND)

This license lets others reuse the work for any purpose, including commercially; however, it cannot be shared with others in adapted form, and credit must be provided to you.

undefined​Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC)

This license lets others remix, adapt, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

undefined​Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA)

This license lets others remix, adapt, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.

undefined​Attribution-NonCommerical-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)

This license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

Test Your Knowledge

Copyright Questions?

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Federico Martinez-Garcia Jr
He, Him, His
EPC 210
Kraemer Family Library - UCCS
1420 Austin Bluffs Pkwy
Colorado Springs, CO 80918

How to Apply a CC License to Your Work

You may already know which license you'd like to apply to your work, but it's important that you apply it the right way. Although it appears that all you need to do is add some letters or a logo, it's important that you get the license from the Creative Commons site.

Each license has three layers. One is obvious, it's the "human readable" layer, this is the logo you see and the rights you understand from the license. Beyond this layer, each license also has a legal layer, the legal code for lawyers and courts to use in cases of dispute about CC licensed works. Finally each license also posesses a machine readable layer. This is what allows tools like Google to discover your work when people search for items with a CC license. 

To pick and acquire your CC license with all three layers, visit the Creative Commons Share Your Work page and use the Choose a License workflow. 


Librarians are not lawyers and no content on this page is a substitute for legal advice.