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Copyright: Creative Commons

This guide provides information (not legal advice) to support NWC community decision-making in the use of copyright protected material in research, learning, and teaching.

Purpose of Guide and Disclaimer

This guide intends to refer NWC community users to accurate information. However, information received from the NWC Library or the NWC Copyright Librarian is neither legal advice/opinion nor legal counsel to the college or any members of the NWC community. Please contact the NWC Office of General Counsel or NWC Staff Judge Advocate's Office for NWC-related legal advice and interpretation of the law, or personal counsel for personal legal advice. The appearance of hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by NWC of sites or the information, products, or services contained therein, nor does NWC exercise editorial control over the information found at these locations. Such links are provided consistent with the stated purpose of this guide. U.S. copyright law is subject to change.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that provides rightsholders with a number of free copyright license options, which help rightsholders manage their rights and universally communicate to others how their works may be used. Creative Commons licenses provide a “some rights reserved” option for rightsholders who want to let others use their works under certain conditions. Creative Commons licenses help content creators share their work more freely than copyright law allows. 

Copyright law protects an original work the moment it is put into a fixed form (so the moment the words are written, the video is recorded, or a picture is snapped) and states that there are certain exclusive rights with regards to the work that only the creator holds. See the Copyright Law page for more information.

Fortunately, some authors and creators are willing to share their work more freely than U.S. copyright law currently allows. In order to make their wishes clear to both users and the law, they often license their work. A license details the terms and conditions the author has established with regards to using their work without each user having to seek permission directly from the rightsholder. There are many different types of licenses but some of the most common and useful in an academic setting are Creative Commons Licenses.

Please keep in mind, attribution is an integral step for using any work with a CC license. If you don’t include an attribution, you’re in violation of the license. 

Please see this YouTube video from 2002 explaining why Creative Commons was founded and what it aims to do.

*Helpful Tool: Microsoft has a CC licenses plug-in that can be downloaded and used to embed CC licenses into Word and PowerPoint documents.

Shaddim; "Creative Commons License Spectrum," CC-BY 4.0

When using materials for a course or for academic research and publication, you may see work with a Creative Commons license attached to it. What does that mean?

A Creative Commons license is a grant of permission from the author to the public (or a segment of the public) to use portions of work otherwise protected by copyright without first obtaining permission from the rightsholder (within certain established international guidelines).

This may be a good way for educators, as well, to share their work freely if they wish to do so. Just remember that if an author puts a Creative Commons license on their work, they are permitting others to use the work only under the conditions designated in that license. 

The Creative Commons website contains descriptions of their different types of licenses. Depending on the specification(s) in the license, the user may be permitted to do only certain things with the work (for instance a CC-NC license designates that only non-commercial uses are permitted).

Creative Commons also provides a public domain waiver tool (CC0) and a Public Domain Mark tool. Copyright owners may use the CC0 tool to waive all rights to their work, essentially placing the work within the public domain. Individuals may also affix the Public Domain Mark to works that are free of known copyright around the world, helping others to discover works that are free to use.

Some important things to know about Creative Commons licenses:

  • Creative Commons licenses only cover copyright. Other rights, such as trademark or third party publicity or privacy rights, are not affected by the Creative Commons license.
  • A Creative Commons license does not remove copyright. Creators still own a copyright in their work and may continue to exercise their exclusive rights as a rightsholder. A Creative Commons license helps a rightsholder communicate how others may use their copyrighted work. It is also important to remember that only the rightsholder or someone authorized by the copyright owner may apply a Creative Commons license to a work.
  • All Creative Commons licenses require attribution. A full citation is required (along with writing the CC license abbreviation, e.g., CC-BY-NC)
  • Users may still rely on statutory exceptions. Creative Commons licenses do not limit an individual’s ability to rely on fair use or other statutory exceptions under the Copyright Act, including exceptions for the display or performance of works in face-to-face classroom settings or distance learning settings.
  • Users of a Creative Commons licensed work cannot prevent others from doing anything the license otherwise permits. Users cannot, for example, impose additional legal terms or use technical measures such as encryption to prevent others from copying a CC-licensed work. Users may, however, limit access to the work (e.g., place the work on a password-protected website, such as a course management system).
  • Creative Commons licenses are irrevocable. A rightsholder who has made their work available under a Creative Commons license may later choose to make the work available under a different license or may decide to stop distributing the work altogether. A rightsholder cannot, however, prevent users who have accessed the work with the prior license terms from using the work under the prior license terms If a user has failed to follow the terms of the Creative Commons license, the license will be terminated for that particular user.

The following descriptions of the Creative Commons licenses come from About the Licenses by Creative Commons and are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.
  • CC BY License Deed
  • CC BY Legal Code

Attribution-ShareAlike: 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. This license is often compared to “copyleft” free and open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. This is the license used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects.
  • CC BY-SA License Deed
  • CC BY-SA Legal Code

Attribution-NoDerivs: CC BY-ND

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.
  • CC BY-NC License Deed
  • CC BY-NC Legal Code

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike: CC BY-NC-SA

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs: CC BY-NC-ND

  • This license is the most restrictive of the 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.
  • CC BY-NC-ND License Deed
  • CC BY-NC-ND Legal Code

Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication

CC BY Icon

  • Creative Commons also offers a Public Domain Dedication, known as CC0. You can use CC0 to waive your copyright in a work.
  • For more information about CC0, consult Creative Commons' CC0 FAQ.

Benefits of licensing your work under one of the Creative Commons licenses

Licensing your work under one of the Creative Commons licenses provides many benefits, including:

  • You don't have to handle individual permissions requests. 
    • Once you've applied one of the Creative Commons licenses to your work, you can refer all potential users to the License Deed. If the license you chose permits what a user wants to do, they do not need further permission from you.
  • Your work is easier to discover. 
    • The Creative Commons licenses can be machine readable. If you mark your licensed works with HTML code provided by Creative Commons, search engines know how it can be reused. They can communicate that to their users.
  • Your work is easier to access. 
    • Releasing your work under a Creative Commons license decreases financial barriers to access. It can also help decrease technical barriers. Organizations working to increase access will be able to aggregate and reformat your work.
  • Others can build upon your work. 
    • When others can copy your work freely, it's easier for them to build on it. If you choose a license that permits derivatives, users can also distribute adaptations they make of your work.

Checking that you hold the copyright

Before applying a license to a work, be sure that you hold the copyright. Under U.S. law, the initial rightsholder is the author of the work. In most cases, copyright law treats the creator(s) of the work as the author(s). Authors who create a work jointly share copyright in it. If someone creates a work as an employee (or in certain cases, as a contractor), that person’s employer is considered the author of the work (this will depend on the employee's contract with their employer). More information about who holds a copyright is available on the Copyright Law page.

If you were the initial rightsholder, consider whether you have transferred or licensed some or all of your exclusive rights of copyright to others (like a publisher). If you have, the terms of that agreement may impact your ability to license the work now under a Creative Commons license.

Selecting and applying a Creative Commons license

The Creative Commons License Chooser can help you select a license for your work. It asks you about your licensing preferences. Based on that information, it selects a license. It also provides HTML code or text that you can use to mark the work with the license. If you provide attribution information for the work, the HTML code includes that information as machine-readable metadata.

  • Marking Works Online 
    • If you will be posting the work on a website you edit, mark your work with HTML code generated by the License Chooser. This makes the license machine readable. It also includes the icon associated with the license and a link to the License Deed.
  • Marking Works Offline
    • To use the License Chooser to generate text you can use to mark offline works, click on "Help Others Attribute to You!" For "License Mark," select "Offline" from the drop-down menu. This will generate text that includes a URL for the License Deed. It will also give you a link to download the license icon, which you can include when you mark the work. To mark other types of works offline, follow the examples laid out on Creative Commons' page on Marking your work with a CC license
  • Marking Works on Online Platforms 
    • Creative Commons maintains a list of Publishing Platforms that allow users to upload their work and mark it with a Creative Commons license. These licenses are usually machine readable.
  • Marking Works with the Public Domain Dedication 
    • CC0, the Public Domain Dedication, is not included in the License Chooser. To mark a work with the Public Domain Dedication, use the CC0 Waiver Tool.

If you are considering licensing works that you create under Creative Commons licensing, be sure to browse through's FAQ page. This page addresses questions regarding international rights, dual licensing, print works, and more. Once you have decided that a Creative Commons license is right for you, adding one to your work is straight-forward. You simply have to decide what rights you would like to grant to users to your work. Do you want them to be able to remix your work? Share it? Use it commercially? provides a license chooser tool that walks you through these decisions. For more information about each, look through the About the Licenses page on

Where can I find more information on Creative Commons? 

Visit for a basic overview. If you're looking for in-depth information or have a specific question, visit the Creative Commons FAQ page.

What types of works use Creative Commons licenses? 

Any work that can be copyrighted can be licensed under Creative Commons. However, there are a few types of works that might be better served by a different type of license (e.g., computer software). For more information, see General License Information on the CC FAQ page.

What are the parts of a Creative Commons license? 

When you use choose a license using the Creative Commons website, the resulting license is made up of three layers. The first layer is legal language; it is the legal description of the permissions you are granting to users of your work. Typically, people can access this layer by clicking on a Creative Commons image located within your work. The second layer is an image with symbols and letters that are easily recognizable by users. Here is an example of an Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA) image:

Creative Commons License
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike.

The final layer is not visible to the user, only to computers. This machine-readable portion of the license allows your image to be categorized as Creative Commons by search engines like Google. That way, when someone searches for images that are licensed, your work is quickly recognized and returned in that search. To read a more complete explanation, visit the About the Licenses page on the Creative Commons website.

Creative Commons licenses provide copyright owners with different options to allow others to copy, distribute, and make use of their works. These options include the following:

  • Attribution. All Creative Commons licenses require attribution. A user may copy and distribute the work but the rightsholder (licensor) must receive credit for the original work. In addition to providing credit, a user must indicate any changes they made to the original work. 
  • Non-Commercial. Under the terms of a non-commercial license, a user cannot use the work in a way that is primarily intended for monetary compensation or commercial advantage.
  • No Derivatives. Under the terms of a no derivatives license, a user may copy and distribute a work (in any format) but they may not make any modifications to the work.
  • ShareAlike. A ShareAlike license allows users to remix, transform, or build upon the original work. Any new work or contribution that is created based on the original must be made available under the same (or compatible) Creative Commons license. 

How do I provide attribution when using a Creative Commons licensed work? 

Attribution is a term found in all Creative Commons licenses. In general, your attribution should include:

  • Title of the work, if supplied
  • Author
  • Source of the work
  • Text or link to CC license under which the work is shared
  • Any copyright notice and disclaimer of warranties, if supplied
  • Modifications made

Attribution can be made in any reasonable manner based on the medium, means, and context in which you plan to share the work. The elements listed above can be incorporated into the citation style for your discipline. The Best Practices for Attribution are outlined on the Creative Commons wiki.

What are the benefits of using a Creative Commons license? 

Creative Commons licenses benefit both rightsholders and content users.

Rightsholders retain ownership in the work but choose license terms that best suit their own individual needs. Creative Commons provides these legally enforceable licenses to rightsholders free of charge. By making a work available under a Creative Commons license, rightsholders easily communicate the terms under which their work may be used. They may use the CC license to prohibit (or allow) commercial use, prohibit (or allow) remixes or adaptations of their work (derivatives), and/or require new derivative works to be made available under similar open license terms. By making their work available under an open license, rightsholders allow their work to be easily accessed and used by content users all over the world, a decision which promotes a sharing culture, supports education, and encourages the creation of new works.

Creative Commons also offers great benefits for content users. Individuals may use CC-licensed works for free so long as they follow the terms of the license applied to each work. This open license removes the need for individual negotiations and permissions. A Creative Commons license clarifies for users what they are permitted to do with the work and the terms under which the work may be used. All licenses are available in a “human readable” format, which reduces ambiguity and minimizes uncertainty surrounding use. 

Can Creative Commons licenses be revoked? 

No.  CC licenses are irrevocable, so you should be sure that the license you select is the one that best suits your needs.

What constitutes a derivative work? 

It largely depends on which local copyright laws apply to the work. Under U.S. law, a derivative work is defined in 17 U.S.C. § 101. In general, if you have changed a work so much that it would warrant its own copyright privileges, it is considered an adaptation or derivative work, which would generally require permission of the original author (note that if the cc license does not contain a "no derivatives" prohibition, derivative works are permissible).

How does Creative Commons work internationally? 

There are two general types of Creative Commons licenses: unported and ported. Unported licenses are broad and considered acceptable for international use. The Creative Commons organization has worked with a variety of jurisdictions and examined international agreements regarding copyright to ensure that these licenses allow creators to grant permission to use their works. Unported licenses are great for granting use privileges to as many people as possible all over the world.

What about public domain? 

Works that are in the public domain are not copyrightable and therefore cannot be covered by Creative Commons licenses. Should you find a work that is in the public domain and want to make sure others know, Creative Commons has created a public domain mark that can be applied to the work. However, this mark is not intended for works that are under copyright that you wish to waive your rights to. When you apply a Creative Commons license to your work, some of your rights are reserved. If you wish to give up all of your rights and place your work directly into the public domain, Creative Commons offers a public domain license, known as a CC0.

Does Creative Commons offer training opportunities? 

Yes. Please visit: 

The following websites have the option to search for Creative Commons licensed works or are largely devoted to freely useable works. Before using a work, always review the terms of use for the source you are using as well as the copyright status of each individual item you would like to use. Some collections include a mixture of public domain, openly licensed, and other copyrighted material. Some sites may contain third party postings or require the creation of an account.


  • Europeana: Digital media provided largely by the museums, libraries, and archives of Europe.
  • Internet Archive: Provides access to videos, images, sounds, and more from all over the web. Not everything is Creative Commons licensed but much is free to use under a variety of licenses. Please verify copyright status independently.

Find Images

  • Creativity103: Backgrounds and textures that can be reused.
  • Flickr: A huge collection of images uploaded by users (not all are Creative Commons licensed).
  • Google's Advanced Image Search: Offers the option to search for Creative Commons licensed works.
  • Open Clip Art Library: A large collection of clip art images.
  • Openverse: Allows users to browse over 500 million images, available for reuse.
  • Pixabay: A collection of public domain images (not Creative Commons licensed).

Find Video, Music, and Sounds

  • ccMixter: A community music remixing site featuring remixes and samples licensed under Creative Commons licenses.
  • Freesound: Creative Commons licensed sound effects created by users and uploaded.
  • Jamendo: Collection of Creative Commons licensed music from all genres.
  • YouTube: Use YouTube's advanced search to find licensed works. Please verify copyright status independently. If a site does not look like an official site, do not link to it.