Creative Commons, summarized

The Creative Commons initiative has been incredibly transformative for how people make things, and has been a huge boon to content creators the world around.

Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of confusion around what their licenses are and how they work. I see some very common mistakes with using them, both from creators and from users, especially in the game development and YouTube communities.

My hope is to help clear some of these misunderstandings up.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, I’m just a content creator who has found it necessary to know more about copyright law. This is also not an exhaustive guide by any means.

Common clauses, and what they mean

Creative Commons licenses are mostly based on simple, straightforward clauses that can be combined in various ways. Not all combinations make sense. But here are the most common clauses you’ll find:

0: Public Domain

Things with a 0 designation are released into the public domain. They can be used by anyone, for anything, in any way. There is no need to credit the creator, they can be sold commercially, and so on.

If you’re looking for assets for something that’s going to make money in any way (including advertising or sponsorship), this is the license you’ll want to seek out, as it’s the easiest and most straightforward to abide by.

Basically it means “do whatever you want with it.”

by: Attribution

Pretty much every CC license (except 0) is going to have by in it. This just means that the creator of the original work needs to be credited, and a best effort must be made to point people to the original work.

A good place for this? The credits of the new work. On YouTube you can (and should!) also put it into the detailed description of the video. Basically, however you distribute the new work, the credits must go along with it.

nc: Non-Commercial

This one is pretty common, and also the one that I see abused the most by far.

A non-commercial license means that this can’t be used in anything which is being used commercially. For example, it can’t be sold for money, but it also can’t be used in advertising. Arguably it can’t be used in anything that will receive advertising either (for example, a monetized YouTube video or an advertising-supported website).

This also means that nc content can’t be used in, say, a free-to-play game with microtransactions, even if the content only appears in the free part (since the game is essentially advertising for the DLC).

If something has an nc clause on it, be very careful about how you use it!

sa: Share-Alike

You don’t see this one quite as often, but it, too, is abused quite a lot. In particular I see a lot of by-nc-sa content be misappropriated in works which aren’t themselves by-nc-sa.

A sa clause means that anything that uses this thing must be put under the exact same license. For example, if you use a backing vocal that’s released by-sa, then you must also release your work as by-sa.

This also means that you can’t use items with different sa licenses. Are you using one sample that’s by-sa and one that’s by-nc-sa? Then your work will have to be under one or the other, and you’ll have to get specific permission from the author of the conflicting work.

nd: No Derivatives

This is the most restrictive, but also the most straightforward, license type. Basically, it means that you can’t use this content in anything else, you can only share it exactly as it was before.

If something is by-nd you must share the original item, and if it’s by-nc-nd you aren’t allowed to make money off its distribution, either.

Basically, nd means “you cannot use this in anything else.” You’re allowed to directly redistribute the content (for example, making copies of a ‘zine) but you can’t make any changes to it.

It also implies sa. For example, if Bob puts up a manifesto under by-nd, Sally is allowed to put the manifesto behind a paywall (or on a site that’s advertising-supported), but cannot change the license of the manifesto, so others are free to purchase from Sally and then put the content on their own websites for free. And all credit must go to Bob; there is no requirement to credit Sally.

Creative Commons licenses are a default permission

When someone releases something under a Creative Commons license, that’s granting default permission to others to use it in a particular set of circumstances. It is not the only way something can be used. A license just means that anyone can use a thing without asking as long as they stick to these specific requirements.

If you’re using a piece of CC content in a way that fits the license, great! No need to ask the creator.

If you want to use it in a way which doesn’t fit the license? Ask the creator and work out some other arrangement. Just because someone released something as by-nd doesn’t mean you can’t sample it in your own work; you just have to get permission for it.

CC is in addition to standard copyright, not instead of.

Things can be released under multiple licenses simultaneously

It might make sense for someone to release an item as both by-nc and by-sa simultaneously. This would, for example, allow noncommercial things to use their work freely (meaning, in things which are then licensed by-nc or by-nc-sa), but commercial things must also be licensed by-sa.

An artist might also decide to change their default license, which effectively means that the item is multiply-licensed; if an artist releases a work as by but then later changes their mind, anyone who obtained the work when it was still by is allowed to continue using it that way. (They need to somehow demonstrate that they obtained it at that time, of course.)

Derived works must follow all of the original licenses

This is where things get even trickier.

Let’s say that the song “I Want To Hug You” by Fred Exampleman is released as by-nc. It has a very recognizable vocal hook, and becomes a smash hit (that makes nobody any money, obviously).

Now Deborah Sampleworth remixes it into “I Want To Kiss You,” reusing just the vocal hook. Deborah must release the remix under a license that’s at least by-nc (meaning by-nc, by-nc-sa, or by-nc-nd). For the sake of simplicity, let’s say it also gets released as by-nc.

Now let’s say that Connor McMemeface uses a part of “I Want To Kiss You” in a YouTube video. What does Connor need to do?

First of all, Connor needs to release the video under a by-nc-compatible license, and turn off monetization.

Secondly, Connor definitely needs to credit Deborah in the video.

Third, if the parts that Deborah sampled from Fred appear in Connor’s video, Connor also needs to credit Fred.

You must have the right to relicense

Let’s say that you need to use some content in a way that isn’t granted by its default license. For example, you’ve made an arrangement to use a sample from a traditionally-copyrighted thing, or something released under by-nd, in your own work.

Unless that arrangement includes releasing that derived content under the Creative Commons license of your choice, you do not have the right to release your own work under Creative Commons!

Releasing an illegal work under a CC license doesn’t make it magically legal, after all. Copyright is still a thing.

The fair use doctrine still applies

But it goes both ways! Remember that Creative Commons licenses are just a permission grant on top of standard copyright. If something is being used under fair use, standard copyright still allows for it.

If you use a by-nc-sa photo in a commercial documentary and can demonstrate that the photo is used according to fair use, it still applies.

If someone else takes a clip from your documentary for the purpose of criticism or discussion? That is also legal, and they also don’t have to release their work as by-nc-sa either. (But they still should credit the original photographer, if the photo appears in the clip.)

That said, “fair use” is a very tricky situation that is also very commonly misapplied or misunderstood, and it also varies a lot by country of origin.


Copyright is complicated.

Creative Commons helps by granting default permissions for the use of things, but it isn’t magical. Copyright still applies, and you need to understand which permissions you have before you use someone else’s work as part of your own.

If you’re using anyone else’s content in your work, you need to keep track of its license and ensure that you’re following the license terms.

If in doubt, ask.


Before commenting, please read the comment policy.

Avatars provided via Libravatar