Using Creative Commons Licensed Material

(Do you want to learn how to use Creative Commons licenses on your own work? See that guide instead!)

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that created a set of simple, easy-to-understand copyright licenses. These are legally enforceable licenses that allow creators to mark a work with permission to make a variety of uses, with the aim of expanding the range of things available for others to share, quote, adapt, and build upon. Creative Commons licenses do two things: They allow creators to share their work easily, and they allow everyone to find work that is free to use without permission. As long as you obey the terms of the license attached to the work, you can use Creative Commons licensed material without fear of accidentally infringing someone’s copyright. We encourage the use of Creative Commons licenses because they effectively help communicate information about copyright holdersholders’ intentions and thus help everyone know with clarity what may be used and how – and what requires permission. They help authors and creators manage their copyrights and share their creative work without losing control over it.

It is easy to find Creative Commons licensed material through search engines like Google's Advanced Search and Creative Commons' own search engine

What do the Creative Commons licenses mean?

When you see a Creative Commons license, you know that the copyright holder is telling you what uses they want to permit - and which they don’t. The licenses can be applied to any work that is covered by copyright law including books, scholarly articles, movies, musical arrangements, and artwork.

Some explanation: a work of authorship is protected by copyright from the moment of creation (‘fixation’), and those rights are owned by the author of the work. So, the starting assumption for a work protected by copyright is "All Rights Reserved." a whole range of rights. Copyright is often referred to as a bundle of rights, including the right to authorize (or not) copying, performance, display, distribution of copies, or making derivatives; effectively anything other than just viewing the original copy. There are some exceptions like fair use, but these are applicable only in certain circumstances. Unless the copyright holder indicates otherwise, you have to assume that he or she controls all of the rights in that ‘bundle’. This means that anyone who wants to make any use of a work needs to get permission from the copyright holder. The copyright holder can however license some, all, or none of those rights depending on their goals - that’s where Creative Commons licenses can help both copyright holders and people who want to use copyrighted materials.

The licenses

The six core Creative Commons licenses of vary in openness/restrictiveness. They are (in order of increasing restrictiveness):

Attribution - "CC BY"

This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon a work, even commercially, as long as they credit the original author for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered, in terms of what others can do with a work licensed under Attribution.

 Attribution ShareAlike - "CC BY-SA"

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon a work even for commercial reasons, as long as they credit the original author and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to open source software licenses. All new works based on a work licensed this way will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use.

 Attribution-NonCommercial - "CC BY-NC"

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon a work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge the original author and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

 Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike - "CC BY-NC-SA"

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon a work non-commercially, as long as they credit the original author and license their new creations under the identical terms. Others can download and redistribute this work just like the by-nc-nd license, but they can also translate, make remixes, and produce new stories based on the work. All new work based on the original will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also be non-commercial in nature.

 Attribution NoDerivatives - "CC BY-ND"

This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to the original author.

 Attribution NonCommercial NoDerivatives - "CC BY-NC-ND"

This license is the most restrictive of the six main licenses, allowing redistribution. This license is often called the “free advertising” license because it allows others to download works and share them with others as long as they mention the original author and link back to them, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

Proper Attribution for Creative Commons Licensed Material

If you use a work licensed under one of the six Creative Commons licenses, the proper way to provide credit when you are making a verbatim use is (unless the licensor indicates otherwise):

To keep intact any copyright notices for the Work;
Credit the author, licensor and/or other parties (such as a wiki or journal) in the manner they specify; and state the title of the Work; the URL for the work if provided; and The URL for the specific license the work is provided under.

An example if you were giving attribution to a photo from Greg Grossmeier:

"Copyright Camp" by Greg Grossmeier from, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license:

Note: It is fine to use hyperlinks instead of writing out the full URL if space is a concern.

Additionally, if you are making a derivative of a work you need to include a statement indicating that your work is a derivative and you are not the author of the original work.

All Creative Commons licenses require attribution, so be sure to make a note of the author name, a URL where you found the work, and also the specific license that the work is licensed under in all cases.

Example attribution methods for various media types.

For all of the below examples it is best to use the standard attribution form as outlined above.

Text Document or Webpage

It is customary to put a works cited or bibliography at the end of a work. This is a fine location to put attributions when using textual work just like you would other citations.

If you are using an image within a document it is best to put the attribution information in the caption of the image.


Many videos and movies include a credits section at the end and this is the logical location for a list of attribution notices for other works used such as audio or video clips.


If the audio file is something that would aesthetically allow an audio statement of the attributions at the end (such as a podcast) then simply reading aloud the suggested information from the Text Document example for each work is suggested.

If the audio file would be harmed from such an addition (such as a normal-length song) then making sure to include the attribution information in any description of when you post the file online is recommended.

More Information

If you have any questions regarding Creative Commons licenses feel free to contact the Library Copyright Office at


Creative Commons license descriptions are slightly modified versions of what is found on the Creative Commons About Licenses page.

Page maintained by Melissa Smith Levine
Last modified: 03/25/2013