Creative Commons Licensing Explained

Posted on March 28, 2022

Scholarly publications (any publications for that matter from blogs to books) must adhere to some form of legal ownership structure. For us in the USA we follow the US Copyright Law (Title 17, 1-8, 10-12). Copyright was established in the US Constitution to support the progress of arts and sciences. Whenever you see the “c” copyright symbol and often when you don’t it means ALL rights reserved. The “rights” that are reserved are what’s known as the “bundle of rights.” These rights include the exclusive right to produce, distribute, make derivatives, and perform/display the work. Often when we publish, publishers require a contract that details a transfer of rights. These can range from a full transfer where all the copyrights for a work are given over to the publisher or a partial transfer which could include only the right to distribute (which is what W&M ScholarWorks does).

The Fair Use exemption attempts to strike a balance within the application of “all rights reserved,” which are incredibly limiting. The four factors of fair use are purpose (as in yours), nature (of the work), amount of work used (or if it’s the heart), and the market effect. These factors are not ranked and would be weighed and balanced when determining fair use. Exemptions can only be determined in a court of law and on a case-by-case basis. That’s what makes copyright law so tricky as well as fun.

One solution to the “all rights reserved” strictness of copyright was the creation of the Creative Commons Licenses. There are six licenses ranging from very open to relatively closed. There are three layers to each license: human readable, machine readable, and legal code. Each license can be easily read and understood by the average person, can be read by computers, and is grounded in legal standards.

CC BY or Attribution is the most open of the licenses. This license lets others distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.

CC BY-SA or ShareAlike allows to others remix, adapt, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to “copyleft” free and open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. This is the license used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects.

CC BY-ND or No Derivatives lets others reuse the work for any purpose, including commercially; however, it cannot be shared with others in adapted form, and credit must be provided to you.

CC BY-NC or NonCommercial lets others remix, adapt, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

CC BY-NC-SA or NonCommercial/ShareAlike lets others remix, adapt, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.

CC BY-NC-ND or Noncommercial/No Derivatives is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

The beauty of these six licenses is that they are highly readable. They are human-readable, machine-readable, and lawyer-readable. Built into the coding is the ability for you and me and your mom to understand and know how to use these licenses. We can tell what we can do with a work based on the CC image and explanation of the image. A machine (like your computer) can read it because the code is broken into bits that allow the machine to know what can be done with this work. And finally, it provides the legal verbiage necessary to protect the rights of the innovators and creators of the content. 

It is worth mentioning too that not everything can be copyrighted or licensed. Copyright, thereby CC licenses, apply to creative-ish works in a fixed format. The “ish” in “creative-ish” maintains that some level of innovation or transformation or creativity must occur for a work to be protected by copyright. Facts, like the numerical height of Mount Everest, cannot be copyrighted or licensed, neither can names. But names can be trademarked, which is a whole other kettle of fish!