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Creative Commons: CC Licenses

License Elements

Creative Commons licenses apply to materials for which copyright exists. It gives users permission to use materials in ways that would not be permitted by copyright. With that said, Creative Commons licenses do not reduce, limit, or restrict any rights under exceptions and limitations to copyright. These exceptions include fair use or fair dealing (see the Fair Use Worksheet on the Copyright Basics page). 

There are four elements or sets of conditions that can be combined to create six Creative Commons licenses. The set of conditions or elements are:

CC Attribution Attribution (BY) Others may use the work but must give the creator credit. All CC licenses require attribution, but the attribution does not imply endorsement of how the work is used.

CC non commercial icon NonCommercial (NC) Work may copied, distributed, performed for any purpose other than commercial unless permission is granted by the creator.

CC No Derivatives​ NoDerivatives (ND) Work may not be modified unless the creator grants permission.

CC ShareAlike icon ShareAlike (SA) Work may be used so long as its shared under the same terms.

According to Creative Commons, "if your use of a CC-licensed material would otherwise be allowed because of an applicable exception or limitation, you do not need to rely on the CC license or comply with its terms and conditions." 

Learn more in thCreative Commons FAQs.

Additional Tools


"No Rights Reserved" 

CCO allows creators the choice to opt out of copyright and database protections. By voluntarily waiving any protections, the work is placed in the public domain. While this seems like a simple concept, it is not always easy because some legal systems actually prohibit this choice. CCO is a tool meant to be used only by the author or  creator of a work in order to waive copyright and database rights "to the fullest extent allowed by law," according to Creative Commons. Do not apply CCO to someone else's work.


Public Domain mark  Public Domain Mark (PDM) 

"No Known Copyright" 

"The public domain is not a place. A work of authorship is in the “public domain” if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection," according to "Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner." The Public Domain Mark (PDM) is a label for works that are in the public domain. The PDM can be used by anyone as a label for works known to be free of copyright restrictions.


Creative Commons Considerations
Art Supplies by Khara Woods on Unsplash (cropped)

As a creator or author, you have several options when considering how or if you want to license your work.

Original Abstract Art by Anni Roenkae

Copyright is automatic and begins when a creative work -- such as a work of abstract art -- is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. 

Gallery by Juhasz Imre from Pexels (abstract art added as central image).

As the artist, you might choose to display it in a gallery. You might choose to make prints and sell them.

Frame image by BUMIPUTRA from Pixabay (colors changed).

The person who buys your art -- whether it's the original art or prints -- is free to display it in their home, but there are limitations to what the buyer can do with the art. The copyright remains with the artist.

Artist at work

Creative Commons licenses have four conditions or elements that can be used to create six licenses to give artists and other creators options for sharing their work. The first element is Attribution (BY) which means the creator must be given credit for her work. All licenses require attribution.

NonCommercial (NC) is another element. Work may be copied, distributed, or performed for any purpose other than commercial unless permission is granted by the creator.

Derivative of abstract art

A NoDerivatives (ND) designation means the work may not be modified unless the creator grants permission.

Duplicates of abstract art

ShareAlike (SA) means the artwork may be used so long as it's shared under the same terms has the licensed work.

Illustration of abstract art as a bird in flight

Copyright means "all rights reserved." This guide is an introduction to Public domain, CCO, and CC licenses, all of which create terms of use that range from "some rights reserved" to no restrictions at all.  

Slideshow licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International CC license

Image Sources: Art Supplies by Khara Woods on Unsplash (cropped). Abstract art by Anni Roenkae from Pexels. Gallery by Juhasz Imre from Pexels (abstract art added as central image).  Frame image by BUMIPUTRA from Pixabay (colors changed).T-shirt Art by Marcel on Unsplash (cropped and abstract art added to T-shirt). Artist by Burst from Pexels (cropped). Bird by pralea vasile from Pixabay (cropped and  colors changed).

CC Licenses


Attribution (CC BY) 

This license if the most open and is especially useful if you want the most people to see your work. It lets licensees freely duplicate or share, remix, and build upon your work in any format and for any purpose -- including commercial -- so long as you receive credit for the original work. Credit or attribution includes linking to the license and indicating if any changes to the original work were made.



Attribution (CC BY-SA) 

This license builds on the CC BY requirements but adds one new requirement. A licensee may use the work with appropriate attribution, however, any new work created from the original must also offer the same license as the original work. 



Attribution (CC BY-ND) 

The work may be reused for any purpose so long as the author/creator receives credit. However, it cannot be shared in an adapted form.



Attribution (CC BY-NC) 

The work may be reused for any purpose so long as the author/creator receives credit, and it can be adapted or remixed. However, it cannot be used for commercial purposes. This stipulation applies to the use, not the user. So a commercial entity might use the work for a non-commercial purpose. Likewise, a nonprofit organization would not be able to use the work for a commercial purpose. 



Attribution (CC BY-NC-SA) 

This license includes and additional share-alike stipulation to the CC BY-NC license. The work may be reused and remixed with attribution, cannot be used for commercial purposes, and the new work must be licensed under the same conditions.



Attribution (CC BY-NC-ND)  

The most restrictive CC license allows for sharing with attribution, however, nothing about the work can be changed, and it cannot be used commercially.

Sources: Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0)

Layers of a CC License


Creative Commons licenses have three layers. The Legal Code layer, as the name implies, includes legal language and text formats.

The Commons Deed -- or Human Readable version -- is another license layer. It is in a user-friendly format in everyday language, and serves as a reference or guide for licensors and licensees. 

The third layer is a Machine Readable version of the license. It includes a summary of the license written in a format that software systems, search engines, and other kinds of technology can understand.

Source: Layers of Licenses by Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0)