A Guide to Copyright and Creative Commons

The When I Have Time A Guide to Copyright and Creative Commons is a guide to help you understand your copyright options as an online content creator and publisher as well as how you can share and protect your work with the online world in a way that’s comfortable for you. This guide is not meant to be a legal guide or documentation.

  • What is Copyright?
  • What is Creative Commons?
  • Types of Creative Commons Licenses
  • How to Use Others’ Creative Commons Content
  • A Video Introduction to Creative Commons
  • Copyright and Creative Commons Resources

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a way to protect the “original works of authorship” of published and unpublished work, usually expressed in a tangible way. On a high level these types of works are protected (from Copyright Basics, copyright.gov):

  • literary works
  • musical works, including any accompanying words
  • dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • pantomimes and choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

Several of these categories are directly applicable to content made available online. When you create something truly original: a song, a photo, a story, a blog post or a video, you automatically have an all-rights reserved copyright for that work.

Note that copyright is different from a patent, which is attributed to an original method of doing something, a process or a physical invention; or a trademark, which is almost exclusively a visual combination of a logo, slogan, and/or image.

There is no “international copyright” though most countries respect and protect copyrights through international agreements such as treaties and conventions. Copyright is a delicate issue and if you are serious about protecting your rights you might want to speak to an intellectual property lawyer in your country.

But what if you’d like to make your work available for people to enjoy, share, re-use, adapt or modify?

Let’s look at something that is being used all over the world, and in fact is being translated and adapted to local countries’ legal requirements: Creative Commons.

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons, while a relatively new term since its birth in 2001 is by definition is a non-profit organization, but the name is more widely associated with the concept of Creative Commons as a way to extend copyright to promote legal sharing and modification of original works. Here’s the goal of the organization:

increase  the  amount  of  creativity  (cultural,  educational,  and scientifc  content)  available  in  “the  commons”  —  the  body  of work that is available to the public for free and legal sharing, use repurposing, and remixing.

Creative Commons is a way for you to take your intellectual property – original content like photos, writing, designs, videos and more, and assign rights to it to be shared with the community and the world. It is not an alternative to copyright: it works in parallel with copyright.

Creative Commons licensing can protect the original copyright and level of permissions the author chooses. It can also perpetuate these rights (or not, depending on the author’s choice) and encourages and facilitates re-use and sharing. Most importantly, it helps the author retain rights if they so choose, and it helps the user to know exactly what the author wants done with his content and how they can utilize it. As CC calls it, “Some Rights reserved.”

If instead you prefer to give up all rights to your work, it becomes “No Rights Reserved” and part of Public Domain in which no law restricts the way the works are used. Public domain is more commonly attributed to works whose copyright licenses have expired, usually dozens of years after the author’s death. Each country has its own laws and validity lengths for patents, trademarks and copyrights.

Here are the Creative Commons licenses. The licenses are iterations of “living licenses” that are updated frequently and the version of the license attributed to that work will be depicted with a number like 2.5. Attributing the most current form of the license available is always recommended.

Each license has three components:

  • a “Commons Deed” which briefly explains the rights and rules of the license
  • the “Legal Code” which should suffice as legal backing in the case you need to go to court and is available in several languages
  • and the accompanying license image “button” that you can display on your site or where you’re publishing your content.

The most basic Creative Commons license chosen by authors is that of “Attribution” – being credited for the work if it’s re-used. Other attributes are then added and mixed depending on the author’s desire.

Here are those elements directly from the Creative Commons license page:

AttributionAttribution. You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work — and derivative works based upon it — but only if they give credit the way you request.

NoncommercialNoncommercial. You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your work — and derivative works based upon it — but for noncommercial purposes only.

No Derivative WorksNo Derivative Works. You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of your work, not derivative works based upon it.

Share AlikeShare Alike. You allow others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs your work.

For example, an author combining the desire to make work available for non-commercial means but would like others to continue sharing their creations as well might offer choose the following license:

  • Attribution Non-commercial Share Alike (by-nc-sa)by nc nd

Be sure to read and understand the full list of Creative Commons licenses made by combining the elements above.

Ready to choose a Creative Commons License?

  • Not sure which license is best for you? Use the Creative Commons License builder to help you figure that out.
  • Once you’ve decided which license you’re interested in, get that license’s image button and copy the HTML code
  • and insert the code on your website or where you’re publishing the work.

How to Use Others’ Creative Commons Content

Not publishing any work to be shared through Creative Commons, but you’d like to utilize, share or build upon others’ work? Here are a few tips:

  • Look for Creative Commons Licenses: Most authors that are using Creative Commons will know you know – here are a few key places to look: in the sidebar, at the bottom of the page, in the About page, or even on the Contact page. If you don’t see the information you’re looking for, don’t hesitate to write the author about the type of license they have on their work. They will appreciate your respect and effort.
  • Understand the License Details: You found the license, but make sure you understand each component of the license by clicking-through and reading the details of the license so you know the work’s opportunities and limitations before you start using it.
  • Re-use, Modify and/or Distribute Accordingly: The author has gone to the trouble to select and display the ways their work can be shared and modified, now respect it! Make sure to re-distribute the work with the same license that was given to the original if “Share Alike” is specified.
  • Let the Author Know: Let the author know with more than just a link back or listing their name – tell them you enjoyed their work and appreciated the fact that they made the available to the community.
  • Make Your Own Work Available: Now that you’ve shared or modified someone else’s work, why not contribute to the cycle by distributing some of your own work via Creative Commons?

A Video Introduction to Creative Commons

Still want to know more about Creative Commons? This video is a great introduction to it:


Copyright and Creative Commons Resources

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

5 replies »

  1. Sara, very interesting info! I am presently working on a Terms of Use page for my website and will incorporate some of the info you have shared. (WITH credit of course to you, lol!)

  2. Hi Sara,

    Jessica from BootsNall tipped me off to this site. Its incredible and this post is especially useful. “When I Have Time”…I’m going to try to emulate your site!


  3. Hi Sarah! I actually came across your “Ms Adventures in Italy” blog today – my partner and I just spent 5 months in Italy as part of the long-term-motorhome-lifestyle thing we’re doing. As a software developer I was curious about your tech blog too and as a photographer who’s partner is an artist I appreciated your article on creative commons. My partner often finds it frustrating when she wants to include a painting from an artist in a blog article but needs to get their permission first – most times she just won’t bother to write the article at all! So the vast majority of artists our there who are still using the old “no-reproduction without artist’s permission” thing are actually shooting themselves in the foot! Don’t make it difficult for people to share your work online and thus give you some free promotion!

    If anyone’s interested, here are a couple of links to artists talking about why they use an “Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike” creative commons license.


  4. Sarah, you have provided an answer to my copyright vs Creative Commons question. I was getting a headache trying to figure out if there was any way to keep my works “safe” without retaining a bank of attorneys and now the headache is gone… thank you!!

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Director of Product Marketing @ HubSpot. Early hire @ Automattic / WordPress.com. Founder World Nutella Day. MBA Alumni Advisory Board @ Santa Clara University.

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