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Copyright Basics

Introduction to copyright protections, exceptions such as fair use, public domain, Creative Commons, and more.

Copyright Expansion and Free Culture

The Battle of Copyright: a Greek warrior with a copyright icon shield is labeled Corporate Capitalism. The warrior is thrusting a spear at a prone man labeled Public Domain. The warrior's ankle is pierced with an arrow named Free Culture, causing blood to squirt out.

Image by Christopher Dombres dedicated into the public domain using CC0 dedication

Technology and law can have a contentious relationship. Advanced in technology can result in changes to law. For example, land property rights in America used to extend from the land itself infinitely into the sky, but the invention of the airplane resulted in limits on that, because otherwise airlines would need to get permission to travel over every piece of private property they flew over. However, law has also been used to try to limit and control new technologies. The development of the Internet has created the possibility for the majority of the population to share creative work on a mass scale for the first time. However, at the same time, changes to copyright law expanded copyright protections beyond what had traditionally covered, which granted copyright owners a level of power they never had before and especially benefits powerful corporate copyright holders as they sought to use the Internet to their advantage (Lessig 1-12).

In response to these changes, the free culture movement developed. Free culture, where people can use creative works extensively, is the opposite of the monopolies of copyright. Free culture advocates describe expansive copyright as creating a "permission culture" where all use of cultural works requires obtaining permissions, while historically lot of cultural works did not need permission to use. The goal of the free culture movement is to great a more participatory, open creative culture where cultural works are not as locked under permissions as they are now (Fogel).

One group trying to create a more open creative culture is Creative Commons. Creative Commons created a method of sharing your work that work with the existing copyright system but grants creators the ability to give up a level of control of their work so that it can be freely used by others without needing to ask for permissions (Lessig 282-286).

What are Creative Commons Licenses?

Creative Commons icon, two letter C's in a circle

So how does Creative Commons promote a more open creative culture? Creative Commons created a set of copyright licenses to help people share their creations without some or even all of the restrictions of copyright protections. Creatives Commons exists to provide a mechanism for engaging in the free sharing and remixing of creative works online within the framework of existing copyright law (Creative Commons [PDF] 4)

Here's how the Creative Commons (CC) licenses work: 

  • If a creator applies a CC license on their work, you give everyone in the public permission to use the work according to the license's terms at no cost.
    • Most copyright licenses are between individuals or institutions, not the entire public. 
  • The licenses lets the creator set how many, if any limits, are placed on how the work is used.
    •  All CC licenses let you share, copy, display, and perform the work so long as you give the original credit, though there may be restrictions on whether you can use it to make a profit.
    • Some CC licenses even give you permission to create derivative works, which Creative Commons usually refers to as "adapting" or "remixing." There may be limits on how these derivatives are used and shared. 
  • The licenses are irrevocable, so if you use something that is CC licensed, as long as your follow the terms, the creator can never take away permission.

The Creative Commons Licenses

Elements of a Creative Commons License

All Creative Commons licenses are made up of combinations of four elements that set limits on how a work can be used: 

  •  BY Attribution: the work can only be used if the creator is credited (follow best practices for attribution)
  •  NC Non-Commercial: the work cannot be used for commercial purposes
  •  ND No Derivative Works: you cannot make derivatives or adaptations of the work
  •  SA Share Alike: you can make derivatives or adaptations, but they must be shared under the same license or a compatible license

All Creative Commons licenses include the Attribution element. No license can include both the No Derivative Works and Share Alike elements, since you can't share a derivative work under the same license if derivative works aren't allowed.

The Licenses

There are 6 Creative Commons licenses. Links are to summaries of the license. 

  •  CC BY
    • Attribution: required
    • Commercial uses: allowed
    • Derivatives: allowed
  •  CC BY-SA
    • Attribution: required
    • Commercial uses: allowed
    • Derivatives: allowed but must be shared under same or compatible license 
  •  CC BY-NC
    • Attribution: required
    • Commercial uses: not allowed
    • Derivatives: allowed
  •  CC BY-NC-SA
    • Attribution: required
    • Commercial uses: not allowed
    • Derivatives: allowed but must be shared under same or compatible license 
  •  CC BY-ND
    • Attribution: required
    • Commercial uses: allowed
    • Derivatives: not allowed
  •  CC-BY-NC-ND
    • Attribution: required
    • Commercial uses: not allowed
    • Derivatives: not allowed

Creative Commons also has the CC0 public domain dedication, which operates differently than the 6 licenses but also exists to promote open sharing of creative works. 

Creative Commons License Spectrum

Creative Commons licenses can be organized along a spectrum from the most restrictive and like full copyright protections to the most permissive and like the public domain

Spectrum of CC licenses from least open to most open. Text equivalent in list below

Creative Commons License Spectrum by Shaddim used under a CC BY 4.0 license

Text Equivalent: Creative Commons License Spectrum

  • Most open 
    • Public domain
  • Allowing share, remix, and commercial
    • CC0
    • CC BY
    • CC BY-SA
  • Allowing share and remix
    • CC BY-NC
    • CC BY-NC-SA
  • Allowing share
    • CC BY-ND
    • CC BY-NC-ND
  • Least open
    • Full copyright protection, all rights reserved

Choosing a License

Creative Common's license chooser will ask you a series of questions to help you think through what license you should apply to your work. They will also generate language for you to use when sharing your license information. 


Creative Commons. Creative Commons for Educators and Librarians. ALA Editions, 2020,

Fogel, Karl. “What Is Free Culture?” Question Copyright, 22 July 2011,

Lessig, Lawrence. Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. The Penguin Press, 2004. Internet