What Makes Up A CC License

You have seen how in some works under copyright have ‘All Rights Reserved’ as part of a bunch of legal text that appear somewhere near the bottom in really small text? CC sometimes goes with ‘some rights reserved’, which you may run into if you’ve been using material from, say, Flickr, that has a lot of images that use at least a CC-BY license. The reason that CC goes with this approach is because, to be short, the want creators to be able to tell the public that they can use their creations under certain conditions. It’s a great solution for a public to have legal tools without all the legal language.

“Screenshot of CC-BY-NC-ND-40 Legal Code Page.” (2022). Creative Commons, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/legalcode, CC-BY-40.

That’s not to say that there is not any legal language – after all, matters of copyright can head to court so that it can be legally enforced, you never know. That’s why CC licenses are built on layers, the first one being the ‘Legal Code’. Each license has its own legal code that provides definitions for each condition in the license. Here’s the header for the 4.0 license that requires you must credit the creator, you cannot change this in any way, and you cannot use it for anything that can be monetized. You can imagine that this has an extremely long code that includes moral rights, how rights can be terminated, words like sui generis and a couple of herebys and hereafters – you know what kind of legal language I’m talking about.

“Screenshot of CC-BY-NC-ND-40 License Deed Page.” (2022). Creative Commons, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/, CC-BY-40.

Which is why there is the second layer, the ‘License Deed’. You can look at it as the ‘too long, didn’t read’ version of the Legal Code; CC tells us that this is the ‘human-readable’ license, which means that it’s a version of the legalities of a license but meant to inform those of us that are not legal experts just what kind of license we are trying to use for our works or seeing in someone else’s. If you click on a CC license link for things like Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, and any place that aggregates CC-licensed material, this is the language you get. Specifically, this is the human-readable language for the same license I showed earlier, which you can find on Creative Commons when you click on ‘View License Deed’ under any license in their “About the Licenses” page.

“Screenshot of CC-BY-NC-ND-40 Buttons and Machine-Readable Language.” (2022). Creative Commons, https://creativecommons.org/choose/results-one?license_code=by-nc-nd&jurisdiction=&version=4.0&lang=en, CC-BY-40.

The last layer of a CC license is for a very much non-human reader – search engines and apps. This ‘machine-readable’ layer uses a specialized language, the CC Rights Expression Language, as metadata attached to a work so that you can start doing searches for media and can filter in material that have CC licenses attached to them. Youtube has a good example of this, but I’m not going to apply the screenshot because I don’t know what rights I have for that, but anyway – search for any kind of video and by default it would show you all images with any kind of license. However, there is a drop-down menu on the page called ‘Filters’ that allows you to show only results that only Creative Commons licenses; that clip of the TV color bars that showed up like twice in this video already? That’s how I found it. Anyway, you don’t have to figure out the machine code yourself; Creative Commons has code you can copy-paste, and online apps attach code whenever you upload anything and tell it to put a CC license on it. I’ve been putting up videos on Vimeo with a CC license when I recorded my class livestreams and I didn’t have to put the code in myself because Vimeo can do that for me, complete with what I as the creator how to use and share what I’ve done.

The Four License Elements

Presskit vector images (BY, SA, NC, ND) by Creative Commons, CC-BY-40.

There are four elements to each license that may be used separately or in some combination to tell the public how this work can be shared, and how you the user can, you know, use it. The first one is Attribution, usually shortened to ‘BY’. It’s the default element, and it means that the user must credit the author the way the author wants to be credited; from here the user can use or even adapt it as they like; remixes, copying, displaying, sampling, even performing it, for examples. We should also note that, according to the West Virginia University Libraries, this does not mean that the author actually endorses the use unless the author grants it.

Another element, the Share-Alike or SA condition, allows any use mentioned with the Attribution conditions. Here’s the catch: if the user adapts it, it must be shared under the same terms, which means it has to be shared with the same kind of license, hence the name. It looks like CC is trying to prevent someone from putting an ‘all rights reserved’ copyright on a work that was modified from something with a Share-Alike license; hey, remember, CC exists along with copyright, not in spite of it.

The non-commercial, or NC, condition is mostly straightforward – it explicitly states that the user cannot use a creator’s work for any way that gets monetized. My guess would be don’t use any material with an NC element for your next YouTube video or Twitch stream, especially if you’re trying to make bank on it. You can still use and adapt it the same was as the Attribution and Share-Alike conditions, though.

Finally, the ‘no derivatives’ condition, ND. The user can do almost anything to a creator’s CC-licensed work, just as with the other conditions, except for one: you cannot adapt it in any way if you intend to share it. This would also be a good time to talk about what would not count as ‘adapting’ someone’s work – some examples include resizing images, fixing spelling or punctuation errors in text, including CC-licensed images in text-based works like blogs and maybe in a way this video, which has a script involved, and putting together CC-licensed works as a collection like a lot of open educational resources. These are fine, but anything further than that and I suggest you find a lawyer. Preferably one who specializes in Creative Commons, probably.

Of course, you can get permission from the creator if they can hook you up with exceptions for any or all of these conditions, but…remember ‘some rights reserved’? Yeah, they reserve the right to turn you down. Hey, it’s their work, it’s their license, and when it comes to creative work, it do be like that sometimes.

The Six Licenses

“Screenshot of ‘Six licenses for sharing your work'”. (2022). Creative Commons, https://wiki.creativecommons.org/images/6/6d/6licenses-flat.pdf, CC-BY-40.

There are six CC licenses mostly because they are a combination of the above conditions. For example, the most basic one, CC-BY, is just the Attribution license, which as a reminder means you must credit the author. Meanwhile, the most restrictive one, CC-BY-NC-ND, or its full name Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivatives, means you must attribute the author, you cannot make any changes to it if you intend on sharing it with the public, and you cannot make money off of it. Any other combination would be somewhere between them, like CC-BY-NC means you can use it and even adapt it as long as you credit the creator and don’t use it as part of a product that makes money.

Interestingly, there’s no Attribution-Share Alike-No Derivatives. I guess that makes sense since Share Alike implies you adapted it for sharing, but that ND would just stop you right there.

Public Domain vs. The Other Licenses

“Zero”. (n.d.) Creative Commons, CC-BY-40.
“Public Domain”. (n.d.) Creative Commons, CC-BY-40.

As discussed in the previous post, CC has two public domain licenses – CC Zero and the Public Domain mark. Clearly, because of the nature of public domain, one would expect that putting something straight into public domain would be much different than applying a CC license to something.

“Screenshot of CC0 Waiver page header.” (2022). Creative Commons, https://creativecommons.org/choose/zero/waiver, CC-BY-40.

“Screenshot of CC0 Waiver page bottom.” (2022). Creative Commons, https://creativecommons.org/choose/zero/waiver, CC-BY-40.

Applying a CC license means, at least one way to go about it, is to hit up Creative Commons, go to the License Chooser, and decide how you want to share your work. It even generates the machine code that you can embed in your work so that the internet can recognize it as a CC-licensed work. With a bit more information, it can even add your name and other URLs to the metadata so even the license zeroes in on you. On the other hand, while Creative Commons can generate CC0 licenses with metadata just as for the other types of licenses, you do have to check off a couple of boxes that attests that you are volunteering your work to be dedicated into the public domain by waiving all copyright and related actions, as well as having read and understood the Legal Code regarding what CC0 means for you and your work. By the way, once you’ve dedicated your work to public domain, no backsies.

“Screenshot of Public Domain Mark page data entry.” (2022). Creative Commons, https://creativecommons.org/choose/mark/details?lang=en_US, CC-BY-40.

The Public Domain mark is itself different from CC0. For one, you as the applicant for a Public Domain mark can call yourself the ‘Identifying Individual or Organization,’ not the author. This is definitely something useful for things like, say, really old photographs in which you or an organization like a library or a museum can not identify who took it – it’s public domain because there was no copyright declared, and it’s so old it would have already expired anyway. At least it can prevent others from falsely claiming it as their own.

Photograph of afternoon stroll in Mukojima, Tokyo. (1882-1897). Photographer unknown. Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, retrieved from Gordenker, A. (2020) “Captured history: A collection of milestones in early images of Japan.” [italics]The Japan Times[/ita]. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2020/12/10/arts/history-of-early-japanese-photography-kanto-region/.

For example, this picture that was taken in Tokyo, Japan sometime between 1882 and 1897, which has an unknown photographer and/or colorizer, is archived by the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum. While it’s not obvious if this has PDM from Creative Commons, this would be an example what one could apply this license to.

How Copyright Exceptions Affect CC-licensed Works

“Fair use SXSW 2014- (15813435921).” (2014) Hanks, Anna. Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-20.

According to Creative Commons, no – what is normally allowed for works under copyright (so not patents and trademarks) is also allowed for works under CC licenses. That makes fair use fair game. After all, CC licenses are copyright licenses, but the more recent version, the 4.0 International, makes for allowances for others to perform, record, and broadcast your work – you cannot do this as easily with material under copyright. This is why permissions have to be signed and hammered out by contract in order to perform cover songs, put songs on a radio playlist, and to anyone who still watches TV – yes, even in the age of streaming, I know – this is where all that talk of ‘syndication’ comes from. And oh yes, this costs money; creatives have to get paid somehow.

“100 Us Dollar Banknotes.” (2014). John Guccione (www.advergroup.com). Pexels License.

Works Cited

“Anatomy of a CC License.” https://certificates.creativecommons.org/cccertedu/chapter/3-anatomy-of-a-cc-license/ by Creative Commons, CC-BY-40.
“CC0.” (n.d.) https://creativecommons.org/choose/zero/. CC-BY-40.
“Choose a License.” (n.d.) Creative Commons. https://creativecommons.org/choose/. CC-BY-40.
“Frequently Asked Questions.” (n.d.) Creative Commons. https://creativecommons.org/faq/. CC-BY-40.
“The 4 License Elements of Creative Commons – Creative Commons and the CC Licenses – Research Guides at West Virginia University.” (2019, Oct. 17) WVU Libraries. https://libguides.wvu.edu/c.php?g=888682&p=6388554. Attribution unknown.

Featured/Opening Image credit: “Hammer Books Law.” succo. https://pixabay.com/photos/hammer-books-law-dish-lawyer-719062/. Pixabay License.

This post as well as all others in this blog are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license. (CC-BY-NC-40)


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