Copyright, Creative Commons, and attribution on the web

Some colleagues were asking about Creative Commons, so I pulled together these notes. I am not a lawyer, and this post is based on a brief overview of published sources. Do not rely on this information as a substitute for legal advice

Copyright is a broad term covering the legal protections given to the creators of written and other work, allowing them the sole right to reproduce or exploit the work for a set period, after which the work transfers to the public domain. Philosophically it is a trade-off between allowing individuals or companies to profit from their ideas, whilst ensuring that eventually ideas become part of the intellectual and cultural commons from which all humanity benefits, and thus ensuring that in the long run there is general progress in the “sciences and arts”.

In 2014 a number of changes were introduced to English law to clarify the “fair use” provisions, and to extend the law to treat digital media in a manner consistent with older forms in which copyright work are expressed. Nevertheless, the position remains that the majority of uses of copyright materials continue to require permission from copyright owners.

After a landmark legal case in the USA that retrospectively extended the term of copyrights by 20 years, Stanford Law School (now Harvard) professor Lawrence Lessig published “Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity“.

The core argument of the book was that as large media corporations used their political and financial muscle to lobby for ever-longer copyright periods, and lock down media with anti-copying technology, they were increasing their profits at the expense of cultural freedom and the future creativity of the USA.

At about the same time, the Creative Commons Foundation started to create new forms of copyright licences that creators could choose to apply to their work. These new licences allow the creator of a work to choose exactly which copyright protections they wish to retain, and which they wish to set aside, in the interests of a wider usability of their work. The vision of Creative Commons is:

“realizing the full potential of the Internet — universal access to research and education, full participation in culture — to drive a new era of development, growth, and productivity”
From <>

The main protections that Creative Commons (CC) licences allow creators to release or keep, as they choose, are:


Attribution All CC licences require you to attribute the work to the original author
Share-Alike This characteristic, if applied, means that any derivative works must be licenced on the same terms as the original work
NoDerivs This characteristic means that the creator is NOT licensing the creation of derivative works from their work
NonCommercial This characteristic means that you cannot re-use or re-purpose the work for commercial purposes, although you may be allowed to do so for non-commercial purposes if the other characteristics of the licence allow it

Earlier versions of Creative Commons licences have been ported into over 50 legal systems. The legal documents underpinning the latest (4.0) licences are adapted to be universally usable.

A key point when using CC material is proper attribution – see the CC guidance. There is similar advice on marking your work to indicate that it is released under a CC licence.

The last word on attribution, in cartoon form, should go to Nina Paley, via (found via Harold Jarche).


CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Copyright, Creative Commons, and attribution on the web by Julian Elve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.