Open Content and the Creative Commons

Listen to the Creative Commons podcast (transcript)

What Is Open Content? 

Open content is material such as texts, images, audiovisual resources, software, etc. that others are free to copy, use and repurpose without asking for permission or paying royalties. Open software is usually published under a GNU Public LicenseNonsoftware open content usually is published under a Creative Commons license. 

Creative Commons

The Creative Commons is a series of ready-made open licenses that have been accepted as legally valid by the U.S. Supreme Court. They are also "portable" to many other countries. 

Creative Commons licenses operate according to the motto "some rights reserved." The copyright owner does not give up his or her copyright, but others are licensed to use the content without asking permission or paying royalties, under conditions that the license specifies. There are a half-dozen different licenses, each granting different kinds and levels of freedom, including:

  • attribution: anyone can do anything with the content, but has to cite the original creator
  • attribution, noncommercial: any noncommercial entity can do anything with the content as long as it's not for profit, and has to cite the original creator; there is some debate about whether works that are licensed with noncommercial can be used in an educational institution that charges tuition 
  • attribution, no-derivs: anyone can use the content as is, but cannot create derivative works, and must cite the original creator
  • attribution, sharealike: anyone can do anything with the content, but must cite the original creator, and must apply a Creative Commons license to what he or she creates; there is some debate about whether derivative works based on works that are licensed with ShareAlike can be used behind a password
  • attribution, noncommercial, no-derivs; there is some debate about whether works that are licensed with noncommercial can be used in an educational institution that charges tuition
  • attribution, noncommercial, sharealike; there is some debate about whether works that are licensed with noncommercial can be used in an educational institution that charges tuition; there is some debate about whether derivative works based on works that are licensed with ShareAlike can be used behind a password
  • CC0: the copyright owner cedes his or her work to the public domain; this license has not yet been tested by the Supreme Court, so its validity is uncertain.

Go to Creative Commons: About the Licenses for more information.

Attributing a Creative Commons work

It is vitally important that you properly attribute a Creative Commons work, because not doing so voids the license. In other words, if you don't attribute properly, you're infringing. What you need to do is:

  • link back to the original work
  • link back to the English language version of the Creative Commons license
  • cite the original work (you don't need to be formal about it, but the title and author are essential) 

How To Attribute a Creative Commons Licensed Work

Creating Content and Combining Licenses

Putting Your Work Under a Creative Commons License 

If you are creating an open educational resource, or would simply like to put your article, story, movie, or other copyrighted content out there for people to use freely, you can put it under a Creative Commons license.

First, you need to make sure you are within your legal rights to put an open license on your work. Check that:

  • it is your own copyright, not a work for hire
  • you have not ceded your copyright or granted an exclusive license (sometimes this happens when you publish - you will need to read your contract and possibly consult a lawyer)
  • you have cleared all the copyrights for works you used within your work
  • if you negotiated a license for a more limited use, you renegotiate the license; if you were using something under the doctrine of fair use, you might need to consider negotiating a license now.

Once you've made sure you have the right to give your work an open license, it is a very simple process. Go to Creative Commons: Choose A License, complete the form and follow the instructions.

  • If your work will be online, copy and paste the code nugget into the HTML of your webpage. This will make the appropriate Creative Commons license logo display on the page for viewers, and make it so that search engines index the page as open content.
  • If your work will be an offline document, you can copy and paste the logo and appropriate Creative Commons statement. 

Watch the Creative Commons: License Chooser demo.

Can you revoke a Creative Commons license? 

No. Once you have put your work under a Creative Commons license, you can't take it back. You can stop distributing the work and take it down off the Web; however, you can't stop others from continuing to share their copies and derivative works.

Finding Creative Commons Works

There are repositories of open content. We maintain links to many of them, including:

Another way to find content licensed under the Creative Commons is to use CC Search. It has multiple tools for searching for open content in the form of text, audiovisual and image resources.

Open Educational Resources