In the previous weeks, we’ve covered Copyright Basics and Copyright for Education, including copyright infringement and fair dealing. Creative Commons allows us to widen the scope of available materials we can use. The Commons is growing, with 1.6 billion works currently available (as of 2019).

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons (CC) is based on a process which allows authors to create and share work in a globally-accessible resource of culture and knowledge. “The Commons” is a community of millions of people (globally) who have made content available for public use. Content includes photos, videos, music, literature, and more.

How does this work with Copyright?

The creator of the work retains the copyright on their work. However, Creative Commons licensing allows creators to share their materials, which can be further built upon. It works on the premise of the works open and available for others to use. In most cases, the user just needs to provide proper attribution to the creator of the original work.

The goal is to raise the volume of openly licensed creativity in “the commons” which is freely available for legal use, sharing, repurposing and remixing. Standard Creative Commons licences have been created and are enforceable in court. Check the licence types (below), as they vary in terms of what uses are permitted with the materials. There is an ‘ideal’ attribution format ( which details the works’ Title, Author, Source and Licence.

Why is CC a good thing?

The licences are simple from a legal viewpoint and CC provides quick and easy solutions to complex licensing generally. The licences are free to use. If you contribute to CC, you’re not giving up your copyright, and the way the licences are written means that ‘permissions’ are pre-applied.

Period line-drawing of workers at a printing press.

By using the ideal attribution format, CC allows generation of links to the creator’s sites and provides commercial opportunities. Best of all, by contributing to CC, it permits easy sharing of knowledge in charity work, education and science. Kind of like the invention of the printing press.

What Licences are available?

“No rights reserved” – CC0

This effectively hands over all copyright and similar rights held in a work, pledging those rights to the public domain.

Attribution – CC BY

The most accommodating licence option, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt and build upon the work of others in exchange for credit (attribution). Works can be used for commercial purposes.

Attribution-ShareAlike – CC BY-SA

This licence option permits others to distribute, remix, adapt and build upon the original work in exchange for for credit (attribution) and the activities can be for commercial purposes. However, the ShareAlike clause means if any derivative works are created, they must be licensed using the same terms (i.e., CC BY-SA)

Attribution-NoDerivs – CC BY-ND

This licence permits the reuse of a work for any purpose, including commercially; however, adapting or reworking the material is not allowed.

Other licences exist such as:

  • Attribution-NonCommercial – CC BY-NC 
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike – CC BY-NC-SA
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs – CC BY-NC-ND

Note that these “NC” examples do not allow usage of works for commercial purposes.


This is a global playground.

What websites are Creative Commons friendly?

The following sites provide images which are licensed for use – but always check what is allowed under the licence, as well as the terms of that licence. For instance, almost all images available will require you to provide clear attribution to the author.

On a Google search, just select Tools | Usage Rights to search for licensed images (remember to attribute to the author!)

Sounds too good to be true…

There are some disadvantages to CC licensing, such as:

  • Licences under Creative Commons only apply to original works created from 2001 onwards (CC was founded 2001). Works created prior to this date remain under copyright and will be for decades to come.
  • CC licences are only available online, so locations in the world with slow/no/expensive internet access makes CC irrelevant, or at least less accessible.
  • The creator has no control over who uses their materials, although the licences they choose to apply do inform people of how the works must be used.
  • The licences are non-revocable, and copies of work released under CC cannot be withdrawn later. So as a creator, if it is your intention (in the future) to gain commercially from materials you’ve placed under CC, it may not be the best plan to open them up to the most open licence type.
  • People still need to be educated about the different licence types. Many see items listed as Creative Commons and believe this to be the same as public domain; as a result many may not adhere to the terms of individual licences. This makes it difficult to regulate.
A paper plane being thrown to the sky.
As a creator, you choose the licence terms for your work. With the right licence, who knows how far it could go?

In summary

As a contributor to CC, you need to consider the pros and cons of the arrangement.

As a user of CC works, you need to consider attributing works to their creators, as it is thanks to them that the material is available. Please do adhere to the licence types and don’t misuse it.

If you search for works that don’t appear under CC and there’s little/no copyright information, check the T&Cs, or send an email asking for permission. Nothing ventured and all that…


Tony Furnell

E-Learning Officer in the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences at Queen's University Belfast. Passionate about digital literacy, making life easier for users of technology by designing better systems, and incorporating equality, diversity and inclusivity (EDI) (including accessibility) into teaching and daily work.


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