Copyright and Creative Commons

In order to talk in more detail about Creative Commons licenses, we first need to review copyright. 

Reviewing Copyright

One more time!

Copyright is a form of protection granted by U.S. law to the creators of ‚Äúoriginal works of authorship‚ÄĚ including scholarly and creative works. Creators do not have to register their work or attach a copyright notice in order for copyright protection to apply to the work; the protection exists automatically from the time the work is created.

‚ÄúRights‚ÄĚ protected under U.S. Copyright Law

Copyright holders have exclusive rights to:

  1. Reproduce their work
  2. Prepare derivative works
  3. Distribute copies of their work
  4. Perform their work publicly
  5. Display their work publicly

These protections not only qualify for scholarly work; even napkin doodles are protected by copyright. Kind of counter-intuitive, right?

Copyright law has impacts on information production and especially, dissemination. Since creators automatically retain five exclusive rights under copyright, the law limits how a work can be used and distributed. This can make it challenging to integrate intellectual materials into educational settings.

Creative Commons licenses

So when did Creative Commons come onto the scene? The Creative Commons organization was founded in 2001 by legal scholars, artists, and activists to¬† develop a legal framework that runs parallel to U.S. copyright law so that authors of creative and intellectual materials could retain their copyright, and decide how others use their work. They wanted to find some middle ground between the restrictions of traditional copyright and the ‘free wheeling’ public domain. This ethos is related to the free culture movement, the open source software movement, and the open access movement in scholarly publishing.

Comparison of traditional copyright vs. creative commons licenses

Read about the three layers (legal code, human readable, machine readable) of licenses on the Creative Commons website.

The image below shows the 5 icons that represent different components of CC licenses.

Creative Commons licence icons

Types of Creative Commons licenses

You may have noticed there are six CC licenses to choose from. They are opt in, and each license gives you a range of possibilities as to how openly you want to share your work.

The 6 types of Creative Commons licenses

For a learning material to be considered O.E.R., it should allow these 5 permissions:

  1. Retain the right to own, archive, and make copies of the content
  2. Reuse –¬†content can be reused in its unaltered form
  3. Revise –¬†content can be adapted, adjusted, modified, and altered
  4. Remix –¬†original or revised content can be combined with other content to create something new
  5. Redistribute –¬†copies of the content can be shared with others in its original, revised or remixed form

This quick video provides a recap.

It’s important to recognize that not all Creative Commons licenses permit adaptation. Specifically,¬† Non-Derivative (ND) licenses, do not permit others to adapt the material.

The image below outlines the licenses on a scale of most to least permissions.

Delineating what CC licenses qualify materials to be OER

Try out the Creative Commons License Chooser.

Best Practices

As a creator of intellectual content, you can use the Creative Commons license chooser to help you decide what license works for you.

As an adopter of OERs, you always need to attribute the work of others.

Just like you cite and provide references in your scholarship, when you teach with course materials developed by someone else, you should always attribute materials by displaying the name of the author and the type of CC license that accompanies their work.

By properly attributing the author you ensure:

  • The¬†intellectual property rights of the author are preserved (all CC licenses require you to cite the author¬†to be in compliance with the¬†license…emphasis on the “BY”)
  • The provenance of the work is documented – this is¬†fundamental to tracing authority and relevance of¬† course materials
  • Clear indication of exactly how the resource can be¬†shared or customized based on the provisions of the CC license (for ex., Does the license allow commercial or non-commercial use?
  • Any non-OER materials can be distinguished from CC licensed materials (Non-OERs might be library subscribed material or newspaper articles) so as not to confuse or misrepresent information to potential adopters

You’ll notice I have a Creative Commons license for this site (on the right side of the page). It’s convenient to embed the CC license icon and URL on websites and digital files. There is also a new custom OpenLab widget, that allows you to select your CC license without leaving your site!

Take this Quiz to test your knowledge.

Creative Commons Discussion Prompt

Learn more:

OER Copyright and Fair Use Module

CUNY Fair Use and Copyright guide


Portions from the copyright and fair use sections in the Introduction are remixed from the OER Copyright and Fair Use Module by Nora Almeida, licensed under a Creative Commons (CC BY) Attribution.

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