How does Creative Commons Work?

Jurisdiction – International

Note – The following information has been assimilated from the wonderfully informative website of Creative Commons.

Creative Commons (“CC”) is an organization that creates licenses for copyright-protected works. The creators of such works can choose one of these licenses (making him the “licensor”), allowing others (“licensees”) to use their works according to the terms of the license. A Creative Commons license fosters public sharing and usage on terms that the licensor is free to decide.

Some Rights Reserved

Copyright is generally understood as “all rights reserved.” This means that the copyright holder has the exclusive right to distribute, reproduce, translate, make an adaptation of or to perform/communicate his work to the public (e.g. section 14, Indian Copyright Act, 1957; 17 U.S. Code § 106).[1] This absolute exclusivity restricts the ability of the copyright holder to share his work freely. This is where Creative Commons steps in – it converts the “all rights reserved” to “some rights reserved.” The creator gets to decide which part of the rights he/she retains and can use a license accordingly. When the licensor has licensed his work as per a CC License, the same can be used on the terms of the license without seeking permission from the creator before use.

Types of CC Licenses (available here)

1. Attribution 4.0 International (license deed; legal code) – CC BY


Things you can do – An Attribution license allows licensees to share (copy, redistribute) and adapt (remix, transform, build upon the original) the work of the licensor for any purpose. The licensee is also free to use the licensor’s work commercially. Hence this is the most “open” of all CC licenses.

Things you need to do – If you have changed the original work in any manner, you must indicate the same. Furthermore, attribution is mandatory when using a work that has an Attribution license. Attribution comprises of[2]

  1. Name of the creator(s) and any person that is designated to receive attribution (including pseudonym, if given). But if the licensor requests the licensee to remove any of the information in this clause, the licensee must comply with the request to the “extent reasonably practicable;
  2. Copyright notice;[3]
  3. Notice referring to the CC License;
  4. Disclaimer of warranties – It limits the liability of the licensor for any infringements, defects, accuracies or issues in the licensed work (general definition here);
  5. URL or hyperlink to the licensed work; and,
  6. If any changes are made to the work, you must indicate the same.

It is important to remember that these requirements only have to be reasonably complied with, which would vary across the medium and means used to share the licensed material. E.g. For a book that uses the CC attribution license, it would not be possible to give a URL or hyperlink. In such a case, providing the book’s title, name of the author and any other copyright information provided in the book would be sufficient to constitute proper attribution.

Things you cannot do

Licensee –

  1. While using a work that has been licensed under this license, the licensor is prohibited from imposing any measures (legal, technical or others) that would restrict anything that the license allows;
  2. Violate the work’s moral rights. While the applicability of moral rights varies across countries, it generally means that –
  • You must give credit to the author for his work;
  • Not falsely credit the work to someone else; and,
  • Not distort, mutilate or alter the work in a manner that would impact the creator’s reputation (see a brief guide here). These moral rights are retained by the licensor even when the work itself has been licensed.

Licensor – 

  1. Since the licences are irrevocable, licensors cannot withdraw the license once it has been granted.
  2. Licensors also cannot introduce additional terms and conditions unless expressly agreed to by the licensee(s).

Termination – If the licensee violates the terms of the license, his/her rights terminate automatically. However, these rights can be reinstated in two cases –

  • If the violation is removed within 30 days of the licensee discovering about it, then the rights will be restored automatically; and,
  • The licensor can expressly restore the rights of licensee if he wants.


If I were to use an attribution license for the following photograph, then this is how the license would operate –

Original Photograph


Use by Licensee – If you decide to use this image in any manner within the specified limitations, you would attribute it as: photograph by Yours Intellectually under CC BY 4.0.

2. Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (license deed; legal code) – CC BY-SA


Everything that applies to the Attribution license will apply to the Attribution-ShareAlike, with additional ShareAlike conditions.

Additional condition – If the licensee remixes, transforms or builds upon the original in any manner, he must share his thus changed work on the same conditions as this license.


If you have edited the above original image in the following manner, then you the license will work as –

Original Photograph


Use by Licensee – If you decide to use this image in any manner within the specified limitations, you would use: This work is a derivative of this photograph by Yours Intellectually under CC BY-SA 4.0.

If another person chooses to use your edited image for any purpose, he may do so on the same conditions as the parent license.

3. Attribution-NoDerivs 4.0 International (license deed; legal code) – CC BY-ND


All the rights and conditions of the Attribution license apply, except the right to tweak, remix or change the work in any manner. This license allows licensees to copy and redistribute the work without making any changes to it, i.e. without making derivatives of it.


If the following is the original image licensed under a CC BY-ND license, then –

Original photograph


Use by Licensee – The licensee can use this work without making any changes to it, in the following manner – photograph by Yours Intellectually under CC BY-ND 4.0.

4. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (license deed; legal code) – BY CC-NC


All the terms other Attribution license would apply, except the right to use the licensed work commercially. The licensee can copy, redistribute and even modify the work, provided he/she does not distribute the new work commercially.


If the following are the licensed work [left] and the derivative created by the licensee –


Use by Licensee – The licensee cannot distribute his derivative work commercially, and must use it as – photograph by Yours Intellectually under CC BY-NC 4.0.

5. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (license deed; legal code) – CC BY-NC-SA


All terms of Attribution license apply, except –

  1. The derivative work cannot be distributed commercially; and,
  2. The derivative work must be shared under the same conditions, i.e. the CC BY-NC-SA license.


Original Photograph     


Use by Licensee – The licensee must distribute his work non-commercially, and under the same conditions as the original license – photograph by Yours Intellectually under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

6. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (license deed; legal code) – CC BY-NC-ND


Follows all terms of the Attribution license, except –

  1. The work cannot be used commercially. Thus if the original is shared or reproduced in any manner, it must be on a non-commercial basis; and,
  2. The original work cannot be tweaked or changed in any manner, i.e. no derivatives are allowed.


Original Photograph


Use by Licensee – The licensee cannot make any changes to the original and neither can he use it commercially. License – photograph by Yours Intellectually under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.


Understanding CC licenses can be a little difficult at first, but you figure out the pattern, you will see that the licenses are wonderfully logical.

The kind of license a licensor should use depends entirely on the nature and extent to which he/she is comfortable with his/her work being shared.

Licensees must be wary of the license being used and must abide by their terms and conditions.

Useful Links

For licensors, CC’s website has a helpful guide for deciding which license best suits your needs.

For licensees, here’s a neatly illustrated poster that would make understanding this easier.

Image from here.

[1] With slight variations in different countries.

[2] Note that only the information that is available needs to be provided. Reasonable compliance is expected; and not strict compliance.

[3] CC states – “When you accessed the material originally did it come with any copyright notices; a notice that refers to the disclaimer of warranties; or a notice of previous modifications? …best practice is to just retain all of that stuff by copying and pasting such notices into your attribution. Don’t make it anymore complicated than it is — just pass on any info you think is important.”


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