Creative Commons Licenses

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe the four different Creative Commons License components.
  • Explain why some CC-licensed content might not be considered OER.

As we mentioned in the previous chapter, Creative Commons (CC) licenses allow you to explain, in plain language, how your creative works can be reused. These licenses act as explicit, standing permissions for all users.

The Four Components of Creative Commons Licenses

A small, genderless human icon inside a white circle with a black border. This icon is used to denote the Attribution CC license. Attribution (BY) Proper attribution must be given to the original creator of the work whenever a portion of their work is reused or adapted. This includes a link to the original work, information about the author, and information about the original work’s license.
An icon of an arrow pointing toward its tail in a circle. The arrow is within a white circle with a black border. This denotes the ShareAlike CC license. Share-Alike (SA) Iterations of the original work must be made available under the same license terms.
A dollar sign with a line crossing it horizontally. This represents the Noncommercial CC license. Non-Commercial (NC) The work cannot be sold at a profit or used for commercial means such as for-profit advertising. Copies of the work can be purchased in print and given away or sold at cost.
An equal sign within a white circle with a black border. This represents the No Derivatives CC license. No Derivatives (ND) The work cannot be altered or “remixed.” Only identical copies of the work can be redistributed without additional permission from the creator.

These elements can be mixed and matched to create a total of six Creative Commons licenses.[1]

Choosing a License

Choosing a CC license can be confusing at first, but the online Choose a License tool can help. This tool generates a license based on which rights you want to retain and which you would like to give to users. For example, if you want to share your work and allow others to adapt it, but you do not want others to be able to sell your work, you might consider using the CC BY NC license.

Before you choose a license, keep in mind that an OER should be able to exercise all the 5 Rs of open content we discussed in the previous chapter. Not all of the CC licenses meet this definition. Specifically, the CC BY ND and CC BY NC ND licenses do not allow revising or remixing content, two of the most significant freedoms of OER for many instructors.

A table titled "Wiley's 5 Rs and Creative Commons Licensing is pictured, with the 6 Creative Commons licenses (and the public domain) labeled on the left and the 5 Rs labeled across the top of the table. Within the table, each license is rated on whether it meets the R listed at the top or not. On the right side of the table, it is sectioned into two pieces: "OER" and "Not OER."
Attribution: “Wileys 5Rs and Creative Commons Licensing” is by Krysta McNutt, CC-BY 4.0. To view the full version, visit the Google Drawing.

Implementing a CC License

Creative Commons has an online Marking Guide that demonstrates how to mark your CC license on different types of media. Making your license obvious on whatever item you are sharing is an important part of the dissemination process for OER: otherwise, users won’t know what license you’ve chosen! No matter the format, there are some standards you can follow:

  • Make it clear
  • Make it visible
  • Provide links (to the license and the work)

The Four “Open” CC Licenses

There are strengths and weaknesses to each Creative Commons license you might apply to your OER. To help you make an informed decision, a short description of each license that can be applied to OER is provided below.

CC BY license image  CC BY


  • The CC BY license is the most popular and open license provided by Creative Commons.
  • By requiring attribution and nothing else, your CC BY work will be easy for others to adapt and build upon.
  • CC BY is often the default choice for open publications. Youtube uses the CC BY 3.0 license as their single “Creative Commons” option.


  • Because CC BY allows for easier sharing and adaptation, it also leaves the creator with less power over their work. When you use a CC BY license, you cannot be certain that your work will remain open or that your work will be reused for projects you support.

CC BY SA license image CC BY SA


  • The CC BY SA combines the openness of CC BY license with the caveat that an item remains open under the same license when adapted.
  • The CC BY SA license is the second most popular license, and the license used by Wikipedia for their articles.


  • Because the CC BY SA license requires that adapted content be shared under the same license, it can be difficult to adapt or to remix works licensed CC BY SA.[2]

CC BY NC license image CC BY NC


  • The CC BY NC license gives the creator of a work complete control over any commercial reuse of their work.
  • As a user, you can adapt and remix CC BY NC works so long as your new works provide attribution to the original author and do not turn a profit.


  • Some users may be concerned about what they are allowed to do with your CC BY NC work and where the commercial “line” is drawn. This topic is addressed in more depth in our OER in Print chapter.

CC BY NC SA license image CC BY NC SA


  • CC BY NC SA is the most restrictive license that can be used for OER and gives you the most control over its adaptations.
  • Some creators apply this license out of concern for their works being “scooped” by commercial publishers.


  • Because of its requirements, the CC BY NC SA license is the hardest to adapt, remix, or build upon.
  • If you hope to leverage the open community to promote and share your content, this license may be a deterrent for potential partners.

You can learn more about the individual CC licenses on the Creative Commons website.

If you want to reuse an existing OER, there are some aspects of CC licenses you should keep in mind. Although there are different rules for each, every CC license includes the Attribution component which requires that users provide proper attribution for an original work being shared or adapted.

Attribution vs Citation

Attribution is a similar process to citing academic works in a paper, but there are some key differences. The following table outlines some of the ways in which citations and attribution are similar and different:

Attribution: This table was adapted by Abbey Elder from “Citation vs. Attribution” by Lauri Aesoph, licensed CC BY 4.0.
Citation Attribution
Purpose is academic (e.g. avoiding plagiarism) Purpose is legal (e.g. following licensing regulations)
Does NOT typically include licensing information for the work Typically includes licensing information for the work
Used to quote or paraphrase a limited portion of a work Used to quote or paraphrase all or a portion of a work
Can paraphrase, but cannot typically change the work’s meaning Can change the work under Fair Use or with advance permission
(e.g., under most CC licenses)
Many citation styles are available
(e.g., APA, Chicago, and MLA)
Attribution statement styles are still emerging, but there are some defined best practices
Cited resources are typically placed in a reference list Attribution statements are typically found near the work used
(e.g., below an image)

In this chapter, we have discussed how Creative Commons licenses work and how you can use these licenses for publishing or sharing open content. In the next chapter, we’ll explore how you can find existing OER to use in your course.


  1. The No Derivatives and Share Alike components are incompatible and cannot be combined under one license.
  2. TheOGRepository. (2012, Sept 5). Creating OER and combining licenses [YouTube video]. Retrieved from


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

OER Starter Kit Copyright © 2019 by Abbey K. Elder is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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