Understanding Creative Commons Licenses: Rights & Restrictions You Need to Know

Business July 10, 2019 5 min read

One of the most progressive and open advancements in copyright came with the creation of Creative Commons 2001 and the release of the first Creative Commons licenses in 2002.

The Creative Commons organization is a non-profit organization created by Lawrence Lessig, Hal Abelson, and Eric Eldred to help creators share their work with others under a simple and free license system. They also give creators options for seven different levels of usage rights to apply to their works under Creative Commons.

Today, we are going to review what each of the different Creative Commons licenses allows for and restricts against. You’ll get a better understanding of how you can use any work under Creative Commons or how you may choose the right license for your own work.

Creative Commons Licenses Explained

Creative Commons Zero (CC0)

Creative Commons Zero (CC0)

The most open of all of the Creative Commons licenses is known as Creative Commons Zero or CC0. Under this license, a work is essentially considered to be public domain.

Using a work under the CC0 license comes with no restrictions for personal or commercial use. Basically, if a work is classified as CC0, you can post it, change it, add to it, share it, and do whatever you’d like without having to attribute the creator or get permission.

It’s as free and open as you can get. Sites like VideoMonkey.co and Unsplash.com incorporate this license for all of their free stock video and photography.

Attribution Alone (BY)

Attribution Alone (BY)

The next level of license from Creative Commons is called Attribution Alone or BY for short. The basic Attribution Alone license comes with all of the same rights as the above CC0 license except the end-user is required to attribute the copyright owner when using the work. This is a good way as a creator to make sure you get your name out or have people know the work you created.

There are multiple ways to attribute the original work based on how it is used. With the newest version of Creative Commons 4.0, the requirements break down like this.

Attribute the author if supplied and attribution parties is designated. If supplied, you should also list copyright notices, Public Notices, and disclaimers of warranties.

You should add a URI or link to the original if supplied, and if the work is altered or changed by you, you should indicate that you modified it and retain an indication of any previous modifications.

This may sound like a lot, but remember, you are getting to use the work for free. And generally, most of those things aren’t supplied. Many times a name and link are all that’s required.

Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA)

Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA)

The Attribution-ShareAlike or BY-SA license is almost identical to the above BY license. The only extra requirement is the “share alike” which requires that when you share the work, particularly if you change or update it, you must apply the same license to the work.

In other words, you can’t take the original, alter it, and then put the altered work under a CC0, or worse, under a rights-managed copyright.

This license is sometimes called “copyleft” as a mirror to “copyright”. It’s used commonly for things like open-source software that will often get updated and changed repeatedly moving down the line. This would keep one programmer from making changes to the work, then claiming that they created the work and not attributing the previous contributors, or changing the license for their own gain.

Attribution-NoDerivs (BY-ND)

Attribution-NoDerivs (BY-ND)

The next version of the Creative Commons Attribution license is the “NoDerivs” variant, also called BY-ND.

This version has the same requirements as the standard Attribution license, but it doesn’t allow for changes or derivative versions. Under this license, a user is free to use the work for whatever personal or commercial uses they’d like, but they can’t alter the work.

This license could work well for a piece of photography or a song that you want to share, but keep intact, whereas, it wouldn’t be good for open source software or anything that stands to be made better by the audience.

Attribution-NonCommercial (BY-NC)

Attribution-NonCommercial (BY-NC)

The Attribution-NonCommerical license, shortened to BY-NC, is exactly like it sounds.

Here a user can use the work and they can alter it or make derivatives in any way they’d like. What makes this license different, is that they can’t use the work for commercial purposes.

You will find this version of Creative Commons used often for photos on Flickr and other sites where people upload personal works. They may feel like it’s a good thing to share, but they don’t want you to profit from their contributions.

Be extra careful to look for this when creating commercial products and be respectful to those who are sharing their creations.

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (BY-NC-SA)

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (BY-NC-SA)

The last couple of Creative Commons license options are basically combinations of the above licenses. The first one is Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike or BY-NC-SA.

This license takes the standard attribution requirements and adds in the non-commercial clause as well as the sharealike clause. So, here a user can use the work and make derivatives and changes, but they can’t use the work or changed work for commercial purposes and they must pass forward the same license.

You might commonly find or use one of these licenses for an open-source piece of software that is meant to be used for personal reasons only or a similar artistic piece of work.

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (BY-NC-ND)

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (BY-NC-ND)

The last in the line of Creative Commons license options is the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license, which is a mouthful but is shortened to BY-NC-ND.

Although this still allows you to use a work for free, it is the most restrictive license. In order to use a piece of work under this license, you must follow the standard attribution rules from above, you must limit your usage to non-commercial projects, and you are not allowed to change or make derivatives of the work.

Imagine finding an image that you like and wanting to place it on a party invitation just as it is. As long as you don’t change it, and you attribute the creator, this would be perfectly fine to do.

Remember, the creators of these works are letting you use them for free, so be respectful of their license requests.


There are millions of works currently housed under some variant of Creative Commons license. And there are even sites like VideoMonkey and Unsplash mentioned above who only upload CC0 work for open use.

With a little research and proper attribution, you are bound to find plenty of options for work that will help your project. And maybe you’ll think about incorporating a Creative Commons license into some of your own work.

For more information on Creative Commons licenses and links to the deeds for your own use, visit creativecommons.org.