You’ve probably already come across online content that includes the Creative Commons designation or the CC logo followed by cryptic abbreviations and symbols.
What does the expression Creative Commons even mean? By definition, the noun “commons” refers to the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society.
In this article, we’ll explain this relatively recent cultural invention, its four levels of permission and the seven resulting distribution licences, together with the legal requirements for each one.
What are we talking about?
Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organization founded in 2011 by three Americans: Lawrence Lessig, lawyer and activist, Hal Abelson, university professor and free software movement advocate, and Eric Eldred, programmer, writer and technical analyst.
Their goal in creating the organization was to promote the free flow of creative content without infringing copyright legislation.
Creative Commons offers standardized licences for copyright owners who want to pre-clear certain intellectual property rights that apply to their creative content.
A Creative Commons licence is a legal tool that enables authors to retain their copyright while making it easier for their content to be used more widely by others. It provides a way to move beyond the dichotomy of copyright-protected content (where almost no use is possible) and copyright-free content (where everything is allowed).
Authors have the freedom to choose how to put together their licence by combining the available options. For example, they could specify in advance that all types of use are allowed, that commercial use is not allowed, that derivatives and adaptations are allowed, etc. Depending on the options selected, users will have a wider or narrower range of leeway in how they use the content. [Translation]
— HEC Montréal, Savia : Distribution numérique de matériel pédagogique (in French)
Creators can therefore decide which conditions affect how their content is reused or redistributed while remaining protected by the Copyright Act.
In reality, there’s no dichotomy at all, only a range of options that authors can choose from as they manage the rights that apply to their content.
They may decide to opt for a CC licence that allows their works to be reproduced without receiving compensation.
Or they could decide to go with collective licensing, a solution that generates compensation and is convenient for both creators and users.
They could also choose to create licences themselves and define all the parameters based on their needs. That approach could be useful for adapting a novel into a play, for instance.
The Act sets up a framework for the use of copyrighted artistic and literary content — including websites, intranets, blog posts, computer programs and text compilations such as press reviews — in order to make sure everyone respects those rights.
In general, copyright means the sole right to produce or reproduce a work or a substantial part of it in any form.
— Government of Canada, A guide to copyright
In other words, the Act prohibits the unauthorized reproduction of content that doesn’t belong to us.
It’s also important to remember that copyright is granted automatically, as soon as the content is stored on physical media (“fixed in any material form”).
Creative Commons licences are a direct application of copyright
The Act says to authors: you have rights and can make arrangements involving those rights; you can use licences to decide whether or not, and how, those rights are granted to others.
CC licences have simply formalized the various ways that copyright has always regulated how creative content is used, shared among individuals or distributed to the general public.
What are Creative Commons licences used for?
CC content distribution licences are a tool that enables creators to make it clear to others that their content can be used but there are specific conditions to be met.
Does a CC licence mean the content is copyright-free?
Not really. The content remains protected by the Copyright Act; if it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be any need for a licence.
Even though CC licences are a legal alternative to the traditional copyright or “all rights reserved” designations, they still come with conditions.
Except in rare cases, content covered by a CC licence isn’t copyright-free. In fact, most CC licences require users to acknowledge the content’s creator (the source), which is one of the moral rights that copyright entails.
Am I complying with copyright if I use content under a CC licence?
There’s no guarantee. The licences aren’t issued by a body that oversees or controls them. Technically, anyone can add any logo they want, whether it’s CC or another, to any content they want.
Be careful when you use CC content because there’s no authority checking that whoever added the CC logo or licence abbreviations actually owns the copyright.
As a result, unless the content comes from a trustworthy source, individuals and businesses run the risk of non-compliance with copyright legislation.
Who can use the Creative Commons logo and abbreviations?
You should never add the logo to content that you didn’t actually create, unless the logo was already displayed and the source gave you specific permission to share the content.
4 permissions — Creative Commons abbreviations and symbols
BY — Silhouette: Attribution
The copyright owner authorizes the content to be used as long as the author/creator is mentioned.
NC — Dollar sign crossed out: Non-commercial use
The copyright owner authorizes the content to be used for non-commercial purposes.
ND — Equal sign: No derivatives
The copyright owner authorizes the original content to be used but does not authorize derivative works to be made from the original.
SA — Counter-clockwise arrow: Share alike
The copyright owner authorizes the original content and any derivatives to be used as long as distribution is done under a licence identical to the one that applied to the original content.
7 Creative Commons licences
By combining the four permissions described above, seven licences are possible for seven different uses. Each licence is described below, listed in order from the most restrictive (closest to copyright or “all rights reserved”) to the least restrictive (closest to the public domain).
Here are the meanings of the letters associated with the seven CC licences.
1. CC BY-NC-ND licence
Attribution — Non-commercial use — No derivatives
This CC licence allows the content to be downloaded and shared, as long as the author’s name is cited. Only non-commercial use of the work is permitted. You cannot alter the content (e.g. by cropping or reframing an image).
2. CC BY-NC-SA licence
Attribution — Non-commercial use — Share alike
This CC licence allows the content to be downloaded and shared, as long as the author’s name is cited. Only non-commercial use of the work is permitted. You can alter the content, in which case the derivative work can only be shared under the same terms as the original content.
3. CC BY-NC licence
Attribution — Non-commercial use
This CC licence allows the content to be downloaded and shared, as long as the author’s name is cited. Only non-commercial use of the work is permitted. You can alter the content without restrictions.
4. CC BY-ND licence
Attribution — No derivatives
This CC licence allows the content to be downloaded and shared, as long as the author’s name is cited. Commercial use is allowed. You cannot alter the content (e.g. by cropping or reframing an image).
5. CC BY-SA licence
Attribution — Share alike
This CC licence allows the content to be downloaded and shared, as long as the author’s name is cited. Commercial use is allowed. You can alter the content, in which case the derivative work can only be shared under the same terms as the original content.
6. — Licence CC BY
This CC licence allows the content to be downloaded and shared, as long as the author’s name is cited. Commercial use is allowed. You can alter the content without restrictions.
7. CC 0 (zero) licence
This CC licence allows the content to be downloaded and shared without having to cite the author’s name. Commercial use is allowed. You can alter the content without restrictions. This is the licence closest to the public domain.