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Creative Commons: Anatomy of a CC license

This page discusses the Creative Commons and the relationship between copyright and the Creative Commons licenses

License Design

  1. Although the licenses are legally enforceable tools, they were designed in a way that was intended to make them accessible to non-lawyers.
    1. The legal code is the base layer. This contains the “lawyer-readable” terms and conditions that are legally enforceable in court.
    2. The commons deeds are the best-known layer of the licenses. These are the web pages that lay out the key license terms in “human-readable” terms. The deeds summarize the legal code. 
    3. The final layer of the license design is a “machine- readable” version of the license. This is a summary of the key freedoms granted and obligations imposed, and is written into a format that applications, search engines, and other kinds of technology can understand. When this metadata is attached to CC-licensed works, someone searching for a CC-licensed work using a search engine (e.g., Google Advanced Search) can more easily discover CC-licensed works.

What Content Can Be Licensed?


You can apply a CC license to anything protected by copyright that you own, with one important exception.

CC urges creators not to apply CC licenses to software. This is because there are many free and open-source software licenses which do that job better; they were built specifically as software licenses. For example, most open-source software licenses include provisions about distributing the software’s source code—but the CC licenses do not address this important aspect of sharing soft- ware.

The Elements


by.xlarge.png Attribution (BY) Allows licensees to copy, distribute, display and perform the work and make derivative works and remixes based on it ONLY if they give the author or licensor attribution. Since version 2.0, all Creative Commons licenses require attribution to the creator and include the BY element.


 Noncommercial (NC) Three of the licenses (BY-NC, BY-NC-SA, and BY-NC-ND) limit reuse of the work to noncommercial purposes only. It is important to note that CCs definition of NC depends on the use, not the user. A nonprofit or charitable organization's for-profit use of an NC licensed work could violate the NC restriction. A for-profit entity's use of an NC-licensed work does not necessarily violate the license terms, if the use is non-profit

 No Derivatives (ND)  The other differences between the licenses hinge on whether, and on what terms, re-users can adapt and then share the licensed work. One of the exclusive rights granted to creators under copyright is the right to create adaptations or modified versions of their works or, as they are sometimes called, derivative works.” Examples of these adaptations include creating a movie based on a book or translating a book from one language to another. 

 ShareAlike Two of the licenses (BY-SA and BY-NC-SA) require that if adaptations of the licensed work are shared, they must be made available under the same or a compatible license. For ShareAlike purposes, the list of compatible licenses is short. It includes later versions of the same license (e.g., BY-SA 4.0 is compatible with BY-SA 3.0) and a few non-CC licenses designated as compatible by Creative Commons (e.g., the Free Art License). The most important thing to remember is that ShareAlike requires that if you share your adaptation, you must do so using the same or a compatible license. 

Mark Work With A TASL

The best practice for marking your work or for giving attribution is to follow the TASL approach. This applies to both your own portions of the content, as well as for the portions of the content created by others:

  • T = Title
  • A = Author (tell reusers who to give credit to)
  • S = Source (give reusers a link to the resource)
  • L = License (link to the CC licence deed)

When providing attribution, the goal is to mark the work with full TASL information. When you don’t have some of the TASL information about a work, do the best you can and include as much detail as possible in the marking statement.

Note, that starting with Version 4.0 the licenses no longer require a reuser to include the title as part of the attribution statement. However, if the title is provided, then CC encourages you to include it when attributing the author.

CC Only Applies If (c) Would Apply

Creative Commons licenses are only applicable where copyright protections would apply. If a work is in the public domain, then copyright does not apply, so a creative commons license cannot apply.

If an exception to copyright, like fair use or the educational exception applies, then a the terms of a creative commons license do not apply. When copyright doesn't apply to a work, then there are no rights for the CC License to control. 

CC License Video

Licenses Are Irrevocable

It is very important to carefully consider the options before deciding to use a CC license on a work. The licenses and CC0 are irrevocable. A CC license applies to a work until the copyright on the work expires. This safety feature assures reusers that the creator can’t arbitrarily pull back the rights granted them under the CC license.

Copyright ownership is another important consideration. Does the work only have one creator? Two? A team? A company? If the material was created within the scope of employment, the creator(s) may not be the holder of the rights and may need to get an employers permission before applying a CC license.

Links and Resources

Creative Commons Licenses - Basic information flyer - As long as commercial actors are not acting independently for their own commercial gain but solely on behalf of noncommercial actors, they are protected by the license granted to the noncommercial actors.



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