Creative Commons

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that provides copyright owners with a number of free copyright licenses, which help copyright owners manage their rights and communicate to others how their works may be used.  Creative Commons licenses provide a “some rights reserved” option for copyright owners who want to let others use their works under certain conditions.

The Creative Commons license options are: 

Display of all Creative Commons buttons
Image from “Six licenses for sharing your work” by Creative Commons, used under CC0 1.0 Universal.

In addition to the license options listed above, Creative Commons 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, placing the work within the public domain. Individuals may also affix the Public Domain Markto works that are free of known copyright around the world, helping others to discover works that are free to use.

What do the licenses mean in practice?

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

  • Attribution. All Creative Commons licenses require attribution. A user may copy and distribute the work but the copyright holder (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.

More information on attribution is available through the Creative Commons website.

What are the benefits of using a Creative Commons license?

Creative Commons licenses benefit both copyright owners and content users.

Copyright owners retain ownership in the work but choose license terms that best suit their own individual needs. Creative Commons provides these legally enforceable licenses to copyright owners free of charge. By making a work available under a Creative Commons license, copyright owners 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, copyright owners allow their work to be easily accessed and used by content users all over the world, 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. 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. 

Some important things to know about Creative Commons licenses:

  1. Creative Commons licenses only cover copyright.[1] Other rights, such as trademark or third party publicity or privacy rights, are not affected by the Creative Commons license.
  2. 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 copyright owner. A Creative Commons license helps a copyright owner to communicate how others may use their copyrighted work. It is also important to remember that only the copyright owner or someone authorized by the copyright owner may apply a Creative Commons license to a work.
  3. All Creative Commons licenses require attribution. Attribution examples are provided in our Creative Commons Attribution Guide.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. Creative Commons licenses are irrevocable. A copyright owner who has made their work available under a Creative Commons license may later chose to make the work available under a different license or may decide to stop distributing the work altogether. A copyright owner cannot, however, prevent users who have accessed the work from relying on the prior license terms to use the work. If a user has failed to follow the terms of the Creative Commons license, the license will be terminated for that particular user.
CC License Chooser
Choose a license by Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

How do I mark my work with a Creative Commons license?

A copyright owner may use the CC license chooser to produce a mark for their licensed works. This mark will serve as a notice for content users to let them know how the copyright owner would like to be attributed, the Creative Commons license that has been chosen for the work, and where to go to read the full license terms. The CC license chooser can be used to generate HTML code, which can then copied and pasted into a website, blog, or other digital work. The CC license chooser can also be used to generate a plain text notice for non-digital works. Review the Creative Commons resource “Marking your work with a CC license” for examples of marks in different media.

If a copyright owner does not own the copyright in any part of the work they are licensing, they must let others know that the Creative Commons license they have chosen does not extend to those third party copyrighted works. The copyright owner must provide a notice that clearly indicates the limits of the Creative Commons license. Creative Commons also provides additional tips for marking third party content.

Example: Suppose, for example, that an author has relied on fair use to include an image (Image A) taken by Brutus Buckeye in the digital book they have created, and the author would like to make their book available under a CC BY license. To let other know that the Image A is not available under the CC BY license, the author may include a general notice at the beginning of their book that reads: “Except as otherwise noted, this book is available under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license,” The author may then include an individual notice under Image A that reads: “© Brutus Buckeye. This image is not included under this book’s Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.” 

Creative Commons has created icons to mark CC licensed works. A copyright owner may use the Creative Commons license chooser to generate a mark for their work. Creative Commons buttons by Creative Commons are licensed under CC BY 4.0

Display of buttons for all Creative Commons licenses

How do I find Creative Commons licensed works to use?

Creative Commons licensed works are available worldwide in digital and print formats. Hundreds of millions of works are already available under a Creative Commons license, across platforms such as YouTube, Wikipedia, Scribd, and Flickr.

Users may begin their search for Creative Commons licensed works by visiting Users may also refer to our guide on finding public domain and openly licensed materials to discover additional resources for Creative Commons licensed content.


For more information on Creative Commons licenses, visit the Creative Commons Licenses page. 

[1] Creative Commons 4.0 International licenses apply to copyright and similar rights. These similar rights are rights closely related to copyright, including performance, broadcast, sound recording, and Sui Generis Database Rights.  

DISCLAIMER: The information on these web pages and that received from Copyright Services at The Ohio State University Libraries and the Health Sciences Copyright Coordinator is not legal advice, nor is either office legal counsel to the university or any members of the university community.