The Creative Commons Series – Part 2: Creative Commons Licenses

In Part 1 of this series, you were introduced to Creative Commons, its mission and its impact. Part 2 of this series will specifically discuss Creative Commons licenses, highlighting their specific functions.

Copyright is an area of intellectual property law. It provides protection for original works of authorship by giving the copyright owner a bundle of rights to the creative works. In holding the copyright to a creative work, you can control the terms of use and distribution of the work. Creative Commons licenses enable you to publicly express such terms of use and distribution.

The Creative Commons licensing system has established a platform for collaboration between artists and creative content users while continuing to allow for the proper attribution of creative works. Creative Commons licenses serve as a standardized and simplified way to grant copyright permissions. Moreover, the permissions are free licenses that allow you to decide which, if any, portion of your works you would like to license to the public. Creative Commons refers to this process as “a pool of content that can be copied, distributed, edited, remixed, and built upon, all within the boundaries of copyright law”

Some License Facts From Creative Commons via

1. Every Creative Commons license is intended to provide the licensor (the copyright holder) with recognition for the creative work.

2. Every Creative Commons license functions internationally and lasts as long as the applicable copyright lasts.

3. Creative Commons licenses do not affect protections granted to the copyright holder under copyright law.

The Three “Layers” of Creative Commons Licenses

Creative Commons divides their licenses into three separate components referred to as “layers”. Each of these “layers” represents a particular part of the license and the audience it serves. 

1 Legal Code: This is the legal jargon layer describing the terms and conditions of the license. Thrilling for some lawyers, this layer is important because each Creative Commons license functions as a traditional legal tool. For example, this is the legal code of an Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

2.  Human Readable Layer: Creative Commons calls this layer the “Creative Commons Deed” because it serves as a reference for licensors (the copyright holders) by summarizing terms and conditions in simplified, user-friendly language. Think of this layer as the CliffsNotes of the license. For example, this is the Creative Commons Deed of an Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

3.  Machine Readable Layer: This is the software and technology-focused layer. It recognizes, according to Creative Commons, that software plays an enormous role in the creation, copying, discovery, and distribution of works. The Machine Readable layer makes it possible for the Web to know when a work is available under a Creative Commons license. Creative Commons has developed a machine-readable format to describe licenses called CC Rights Expression Language (CC REL) that software systems, search engines, and other kinds of technology can understand. In practice, when you search Flickr or Google for images under Creative Commons, for example, the search results reveal photos that are designated under Creative Commons licenses to be shared and used.

 Available Licenses

Diagram of Creative Commons liscenses

Available Creative Commons licenses via


The Four License Elements

Here are the four elements of a Creative Commons license that are essential for you to understand before choosing a license. You are allowed to pick and choose which elements you want in the license you grant.

1. Attribution (BY)

Creative Commons attribution

Attribution symbol via

The attribution feature of a Creative Commons license means that the user of your creative work must acknowledge you as the creator. If you post a photograph on your stellar photography website and license it with one of the Creative Commons attribution licenses, then anyone who posts it on their blog or website must attribute that work to you.

2. Non-Commercial (NC)

Non Commercial Creative Commons

Non-Commercial symbol via

Under the non-commercial designation of a Creative Commons license, no one else is allowed to make money from your work without your authorization. Your work cannot be used for commercial purposes without your direct permission. Some Creative Commons licenses allow for commercial usage of your creative works without your permission, so be careful when selecting a license.

3. No Derivatives (ND)

Symbol of the no derivatives Creative Commons license

No Derivatives symbol via

The no derivatives feature of a Creative Commons license prevents a user of your work from changing, altering, building upon, or transforming your original work without your direct permission.


4. Share Alike (SA)

Symbol of the share-alike Creative Commons liscense

Share Alike symbol via

If you choose a Creative Commons license with the share alike feature, anyone who transforms or builds upon your original work can only distribute this resulting work under the same licensing terms as your original work.


If you are struggling with your choice of license, have no fear! Creative Commons offers a simple selection tool. You will be asked a few simple questions regarding your usage and distribution intentions for your work. Creative Commons will then generate a recommended license for you and give you the HTML code to add the license information to your site. Be aware that this IS NOT an official registration with Creative Commons and Creative Commons will not retain any record of your selection.

Creative Commons easy chooser option

Select a Creative Commons license using the selection tool via


HTML code for Creative Commons liscense

HTML code generated for the Creative Commons license chosen using the selection tool via


Coming up next: Part 3 of our series will cover additional points to keep in mind before choosing a license for your work. Part 3 will also present a legal case study of why it is important to thoroughly understand the license you choose for your work.

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