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Creative Commons and the Public Domain

This guide explains how to find scholarly and creative work that can be reused in educational materials, theses, and the like. It also explains how to license one's own work for reuse.

What Is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons (CC) licenses are a set of statements that authors can apply to their work to indicate how others may use it. CC licenses indicate whether you as an author would like your work to be cited, adapted, redistributed, and/or used for commercial purposes. You may wish to select a more or less conservative CC license depending on how you see others building on your work. For instance, if you've created an educational resource or piece of software code and you'd like to see others adapt and improve over time,, you may want to choose a more liberal CC license. Note that, regardless of the CC license that you select, you will retain copyright for your work - unless you explicitly choose to transfer or relinquish these rights.

The Licenses

Creative Commons provides a set of basic licenses that dictate how others can and cannot use your work. Specifically, the licenses indicate whether your work can be used by others for commercial purposes, whether others can create derivatives of your work, and whether others must use the same CC license after adapting your work. The most liberal of these licenses (CC-BY) tells others that they can use your work however they like as long as they give you credit. In contrast, the most conservative license (CC-BY-NC-ND) indicates that your work cannot be adapted and cannot be used for commercial purposes. Don't forget also that if you want to dedicate your work to the public domain, you can use a CC0 license. This, of course, is your most liberal option for sharing work.

Parts of the License Statement

Creative Commons suggests that you include three elements in your license statement: author, license, and machine-readability. For help with CC citations, see this Creative Commons Attribution Builder by OpenWashington.

Author: Who created the work?

License: How can the work be used? Include the name of the license and the link to it. Consider including the appropriate CC icon as well.

Machine-readability: Websites like Flickr allow you to search for material that is licensed with Creative Commons, and this works properly because that material has a machine-readable version of the CC license attached to it. Use the license chooser tool to get the code you'll need to add to webpages to make your CC license searchable. You can achieve the same effect by uploading to a platform like Vimeo, Flickr, SoundCloud, etc., and attaching a CC license to your upload.

Considerations before Licensing

Before applying a Creative Commons license to your work, you should consider the following:

  • Be sure you have the rights to license the work - do you own the copyright?
  • Make sure you understand how Creative Commons licenses work - do you understand the conditions?
  • Be specific about what you are licensing - are you permitting reuse of an entire piece of work, or only part of it?

Read more about these considerations on the Creative Commons site.

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