Creative Commons Licences

Learning Objectives

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

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


CC Logo by Creative Commons, used under the CC Trademark Policy

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


Attribution: Cable Green explaining Creative Commons and OER in 2 minutes [Youtube]” by Global Digital Library is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0 licence.

The Four Components of Creative Commons Licences

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 licence.
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 licence 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.

The four components, or elements, of Creative Commons Licences are expressed using the icons above.  These elements can be mixed and matched to create a total of six Creative Commons licences. [1] These licenses are often expressed in graphic form using CC buttons. [2]

The Four “Open” CC Licences

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

CC BY license image  CC BY (Attribution)


  • The CC BY licence is the most popular and open licence 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 licence 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 licence, 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 (Attribution, Share-Alike)


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


  • Because the CC BY SA licence requires that adapted content be shared under the same licence, it can be difficult to adapt or to remix works licensed CC BY SA.[3]

CC BY NC license image CC BY NC (Attribution, Non-Commercial)


  • The CC BY NC licence 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 (available March 2023).

CC BY NC SA license image CC BY NC SA (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-Alike)


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


  • Because of its requirements, the CC BY NC SA licence is the hardest to adapt, remix, or build upon.
  • If you hope to leverage the open community to promote and share your content, this licence may be a deterrent for potential partners as there is often confusion about what constitutes commercial use.

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


Choosing a Licence for Your Work

Choosing a CC licence can be confusing at first, but the online Choose a License tool from Creative Commons can help. This tool generates a licence 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 licence.

Before you choose a licence, 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 licences meet this definition. Specifically, the CC-BY-ND and CC-BY-NC-ND licences 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 Licence

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

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

Dig Deeper: How comfortable are you making your work “open”?  After reviewing this section and the Choosing and Applying a CC License chapter in the Creative Commons Certificate Course, reflect on the following questions[4]:

    • Am I OK with someone using my work without attribution or is it important I get credit?
    • Am I OK with other people copying and distributing my content without asking my permission?
    • What is the definition of “noncommercial” and “commercial” when used in the context of a CC licence? Am I OK with “commercial use” of my content? How might this limit the sharing of the work?
    • What is the definition of “non derivative” when used in the context of a CC licence? Am I OK with  other people changing and adapting the content? How might this limit the sharing of the work?

Attribution vs Citation when Using Other’s Work

Although there are different rules for each licence, every CC licence includes the Attribution component which requires that users provide proper attribution for an original work being shared or adapted.  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 Dealing or with advance permission
(e.g., under most CC licences)
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)

One easy way to remember the requirements for attribution is the acronym T.A.S.L.:

  • T = Title of work
  • A = Author or creator. Link to a page with their contact information, when possible.
  • S = Source. Where can you find the original work?
  • L = Licence. This can be expressed using the abbreviated form (e.g., CC-BY 4.0) and then linked to the full statement.

If the final work is digital, each of these elements can be linked to the original source to provide additional information. If the final work is in print or is an audio/visual file, consider posting the attribution information in a separate online page or mentioning the attribution as part of the credits within the media itself.

In this chapter, we have discussed how Creative Commons licences work and how you can use these licences 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 licence.
  2. All icons and buttons found within this and subsequent chapters are created by Creative Commons under a CC-BY 4.0 Licence.
  3. TheOGRepository. (2012, Sept 5). Creating OER and combining licenses [YouTube video]. Retrieved from
  4. Adapted from the Which Creative Commons Licence is Right for Me? fact sheet by Creative Commons Australia, used under a CC BY 2.5 Licence.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Foundations of Open Educational Resources Copyright © 2022 by Southern Alberta Institute of Technology is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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