UKOLN AHDS An Introduction To Creative Commons

What is a Creative Commons?

Creative Commons (CC) [1] refers to a movement started in 2001 by US lawyer Lawrence Lessig that aims to expand the collection of creative work available for others to build upon and share. The Creative Commons model makes a distinction between the big C (Copyright) meaning All Rights Reserved and CC meaning Some Rights Reserved. It does so by offering copyright holders licences to assign to their work, which will clarify the conditions of use and avoid many of the problems current copyright laws pose when attempting to share information.

What Licences?

There are a series of eleven Creative Commons licences available to download from the Web site. They enable copyright holders to allow display, public performance, reproduction and distribution of their work while assigning specific restrictions. The six main licences combine the four following conditions:

Icon for Attribution Attribution - Users of your work must credit you.
Icon for Non-commercial Non-commercial - Users of your work can make no financial gain from it.
Icon for Non-derivative Non-derivative - Only verbatim copies of your work can be used.
Icon for Share-alike Share-alike - Subsequent works have to be made available under the same licence as the original.

The other licences available are the Sampling licence, the Public Domain Dedication, Founders Copyright, the Music Sharing licence and the CC Zero licence. Creative Commons also recommends two open source software licences for those licensing software: the GNU General Public licence and the GNU Lesser Public licence.

Each license is expressed in three ways: (1) legal code, (2) a commons deed explaining what it means in lay person's terms and (3) a machine-readable description in the form of RDF/XML (Resource Description Framework/Extensible Mark up Language) metadata. Copyright holders can embed the metadata in HTML pages.

International Creative Commons

The Creative Commons licences were originally written using an American legal model but through the Creative Common international (CCi) have since been adapted for use in a number of different jurisdictions. The regional complexities of UK law has meant that two different set of licences have had to be drafted for use of the licenses the UK. Creative Commons works with the Arts and Humanities Research Board Centre for Studies in Intellectual Property and Technology Law at Edinburgh University on the Scotland jurisdiction-specific licenses and the Information Systems and Innovation Group (ISIG) to create the England and Wales jurisdiction-specific licenses.

Why Use Creative Commons Licences?

There are many benefits to be had in clarifying the rights status of a work. When dealing with Creative Commons licenced work, it is known if the work can be used without having to contact the author, thus allowing the work to be exploited more effectively, more quickly and more widely, whilst also increasing the impact of the work. Also in the past clarification of IPR has taken a huge amount of time and effort, Creative Commons could save some projects a considerable amount of money and aid their preservation strategies. More recently, because Creative Commons offers its licence in a machine-readable format, search engines can now search only CC licenced resources allowing users easier access to 'free materials'.


Although Creative Commons has now been in existence for a while there are still issues to be resolved. For example in the UK academic world the question of who currently holds copyright is a complex one with little commonality across institutions. A study looking at the applicability of Creative Commons licences to public sector organisations in the UK has been carried out [2].

Another key area for consideration is the tension between allowing resources to be freely available and the need for income generation. Although use of a Creative Commons license is principally about allowing resources to be used by all, this does not mean that there has to be no commercial use. One option is dual licensing, which is fairly common in the open source software environment.


  1. Creative Commons,
  2. Creative Commons Licensing Solutions for the Common Information Environment, Intrallect,