Creative Commons: an Educational Primer

May 11, 2011 8:00 am

Over the past few weeks, I have been posting (herehere, and here)  regarding copyright and the need for educators and students to learn more about creative commons licensed material. However, many have asked:

“What IS creative commons licensing anyway?  Can’t students just provide attribution, like in standard research papers… why seek out creative commons licensed work? What is the difference?”

While the internet has opened amazing avenues for education and research, as well as providing an overall shared cultural experience, it has also come face to face with international copyright laws. For the most part, the “openness” of the internet is diametrically opposed to the explicitly closed nature of copyright laws.

The default setting of copyright law requires all of these actions to have explicit permission, granted in advance, whether you’re an artist, teacher, scientist, librarian, policymaker, or just a regular user. To achieve the vision of universal access, someone needed to provide a free, public, and standardized infrastructure that creates a balance between the reality of the Internet and the reality of copyright laws. That someone is Creative Commons. -From About

Why the need for Creative Commons?

Copyright law in the United States as well as elsewhere in the world is extremely well established and quite historic in nature. By default, it requires that any use of material (other than by the creator) needs to be granted explicitly AND prior to use by a 3rd party. However, the Internet with its abundance of information elicits the overwhelming desire to interact in some way with that information: save, copy, add to, mashup, share, embed, repost, mixup, and more. From a legal standpoint, those information interactions could not happen without the express permission of the creator… That said, from a practical standpoint, how does one know WHO the actual creator is? How do you contact those individuals? Heaven forbid, gaining the use of long tail material that even many creators have forgotten they posted… the creator has changed contact information… the creator has passed from this world… or corporate mergers, acquisitions, or businesses folding… Creative Commons creates a happy medium between copyright and the internet.

How does it all work?

[Creative Commons(1) provides everyone from] individual creators to large companies and institutions a simple, standardized way to keep their copyright while allowing certain uses of their work — a “some rights reserved” approach to copyright — which makes their creative, educational, and scientific content instantly more compatible with the full potential of the internet. – From About

Basically, creative commons licensing provides the creator with a way to from from an “all rights reserved” model to a “some rights reserved” model on copyrighted material. This way the creator of information – text, music, photos, videos, etc. – can designate (in perpetuity) how any future (unknown) user might be able to interact with the information or material they have created. Currently there are six creative commons licenses(2):

  • Attribution (CC BY) – This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation.
  • Attribution-Share-Alike (CC BY-SA) – This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use.
  • Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND) – This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC) – This license lets others remix, tweak, 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.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA) – This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-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.

For educators and students, understanding the differences between “All Rights Reserved” and creative commons licensing is really key to safely walking the fine line of copyright. To take that statement further, students and teacher should treat ANY material they find on the internet as the exclusive property of the owner unless they find that it is held under a creative commons license.(3)

On one hand, any material on the internet that does not explicitly represent that it is covered by creative commons licensing should be treated as “All Rights Reserved” by the owner / creator of that material (meaning keeps your mouses and copy/paste off it), while on the other, not all creative commons licensing is created alike… All creative commons licensed material requires attribution to the original author, works that carry a form of the NoDerivs license must be used in their original format. They cannot be cut-up, mashed up, or altered in any way. Similarly, any material that is created from a work that carries a form of the ShareAlike license must itself be re-licensed under identical terms. Finally, any work that carries a form on NonCommercial license (itself or a derivative) cannot be placed for sale.

One last point needs to be made about creative commons licensed material. Earlier in this post, I glossed over the fact that works licensed under creative commons hold that license in perpetuity. I cannot stress this enough. Creative Commons licenses are non-revokable. That does not mean an owner / creator cannot change the licensing terms of a work at some point in the future. It is his or her work to license as he or she wishes… However:

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. You can stop distributing your work under a Creative Commons license at any time you wish; but 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. – from FAQ

The Creative Commons organization is truly an amazing international group continuously working to foster and promote the use of creative commons work. The organizations also supports the Open Education Resources movement that EdReach has also provided information about in previously. The site also contains multimedia information that can help educate students in creative commons. Additionally, one of the unique features built into is a powerful search engine that locates works that hold creative commons licensing from: Google, Google Images, Flickr, (video), Jamendo (music), spinXpress (music), and Wikimedia Commons (media). Give it a try at:

Creative Commons Search

For more information on Creative Commons take a browser trip over to


(1) Creative Commons(.org) is the organization promoting, funding, supporting, and creating the legal frameworks for creative commons licenses. Creative Commons Licensing is often synonymous with

(2) All information and wording regarding creative commons licensing comes directly from

(3) I hate disclaimers, however, I feel compelled to point out that I am not a copyright lawyer. Should you have a specific concern about works you have used in the past, please seek the counsel of a qualified attorney.

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