7 Understanding Creative Commons Licences

Creative Commons licences offer creators a spectrum of choices between retaining all rights and relinquishing all rights (public domain), an approach we call “Some Rights Reserved.” [1]

The video below explains how Creative Commons licences allow creators to modify copyright terms.

Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand (5:32 mins)

(“Creative Commons Kiwi” by Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand is licensed under CC BY 3.0 New Zealand)

Copyright and Creative Commons

CC licences are copyright licences, and depend on the existence of copyright to work. CC licences are legal tools that creators and other rights holders can use to offer certain usage rights to the public, while reserving other rights. Those who want to make their work available to the public for limited kinds of uses while preserving their copyright may want to consider using CC licences. Others who want to reserve all of their rights under copyright law should not use CC licences. [2]

Using a Creative Commons licence does not negate copyright – Creative Commons licences provide a means for a creator/author to openly licence the use of their work to the public, while recognising their exclusive rights of copyright. [3]

The six licences

There are six different Creative Commons (CC) licence combinations that are a mix of four main licence conditions, all include the primary condition of Attribution. Understanding the meaning of each condition can be useful when deciding which CC licence to use on your own work or evaluating an open resource. [4]

The licence conditions

Core conditions Application of condition
Attribution BY



This applies to every Creative Commons work. Whenever a work is copied or redistributed under a Creative Commons licence, the original creator (and any other nominated parties) must be credited and the source linked to.
NC Non commercial


Lets others copy, distribute, display and perform the work for noncommercial purposes only.

ND non derivative

No Derivative Works

Lets others distribute, display and perform only verbatim copies of the work. They may not adapt or change the work in any way.

SA share alikeShare Alike

Allows others to remix, adapt and build on the work, but only if they distribute the derivative works under the same the licence terms that govern the original work.

(“About the Licences” by Creative Commons Australia is licensed under CC BY 4.0)

Combining conditions

The BY (attribution) condition is a part of all the licences, but not all of them work together. For example, the SA and ND conditions do not appear in the same licence because there is no reason to include the share-alike condition when no derivatives are being allowed. Together, the conditions form the six CC licences: [5]

Combining conditions

Licence Licence description

Attribution: CC BY

This licence lets others distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licences offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licenced materials.

Attribution-ShareAlike: CC BY-SA

This licence lets others remix, adapt, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and licence their new creations under the identical terms. All new works based on yours will carry the same licence, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. This is the licence used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licenced projects.

Attribution-NoDerivs: CC BY-ND

This licence lets others reuse the work for any purpose, including commercially; however, it cannot be shared with others in adapted form, and credit must be provided to you.

Attribution-NonCommercial: CC BY-NC

This licence lets others remix, adapt, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to licence their derivative works on the same terms.

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike: CC BY-NC-SA

This licence lets others remix, adapt, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and licence their new creations under the identical terms.


This licence is the most restrictive of our six main licences, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

(Adapted from “About the licenses” by Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0)

Choosing an open licence and combining licences for your original, remixed or adapted work

Choosing an open licence for your original, remixed or adapted work

When creating a work to share, carefully consider how you want your work to be used when considering applying an open licence . As the original creator of your work, you have choices.

  • Do you want to allow derivatives?
  • Do you want to allow for commercial purposes?
  • Do you want the same licence to be applied on derivatives?
  • If this work was made using openly licensed material, are there any licence conditions you must abide?

Remember, when sharing your work, selecting and displaying the licence with it ensures the work can be adopted and adapted how you want downstream! If you don’t select a licence, others must assume the work is all rights reserved even if you intended it to be openly licenced. Creative Commons licences are designed to provide more options to the creator than copyright all-rights reserved.

The CC License chooser is a simple tool designed to help creators decide which licence is best for their work. Remember, when remixing content to create something new, if any of your adapted content includes the SA (share alike) condition – you must apply the SA condition to your newly remixed finished work.

Visit the CC licence chooser. With two questions, the tool will prompt you to select conditions for sharing your work. A licence icon, statement, and code to embed is generated for you to easily copy and paste into your work. [6]

Combining licences within a remixed or modified work

As you find different types of OER to reuse in an OER you are creating, you may find the need to remix and modify the content. Understanding how the different licenses can or cannot be combined is a critical step in reusing openly licensed material. The licence compatibility chart below is a great resource in determining which licences work together. [7]

Choose two works you wish to combine or remix. Find the licence of the first work on the first row and the licence on the first column. You can combine the works if there is a check mark in the cell where the row and column intersect. Use at least the most restrictive licensing of the two (use the licence most to right or down state) for the new work. If there is a cross at the intersection of the row and column then you can not combine these works. This probably indicates that one of the two licences may not be used for commercial purposes, or one of the licences does not allow for derivative works to be created[8]

Licence Compatibility Chart

Public Domain-No known copyright CC0 Public Domain-No rights reserved CC BY CC BY-SA CC BY-NC CC-BY-ND CC BY-NC-SA CC BY-NC-ND
Public Domain-No known copyright
CC0 Public Domain-No rights reserved

(Adapted from “License Compatibility Chart” by Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0)


Match The Licence Game
In the exercise below match the scenario with the Creative Commons licence.

(Adapted from Busbee_CC_Attribution_Licenses_Ver2.doc Kenneth Leroy Busbee under a Creative Commons Attribution License CC-BY 3.0)

Giving attribution

All six Creative Commons licences include the BY or attribution condition. This is a requirement of reuse. The original creator has explicitly informed the user of this requirement through the use of the BY condition. Providing attribution is the legal requirement of the open licence.

Attribution: Title, Author, Source, & Licence (TASL) 

When creating attribution statements a good rule of thumb is to remember the acronym TASL:

  • Title of the work
  • Author (creator) of the work
  • Source (link) or where the work can be found
  • Licence of the work

For some examples, take a look at the reference list at the bottom this section [9]

While some tools, like CC Search, include the attribution in the resource, there are other tools available to help users easily create attribution statements for work they reuse, remix, or modify.

The Open Attribution Builder – Adopted and adapted by RMIT and located on the RMIT Library website, was created by Open Washington. This tool, similar to a citation generator, builds attribution statements that can be copied and pasted into documents and websites. Note: all the attribution statements for these parts were created using this tool.[10]

Citation v. Attribution

Others’ ideas and information provide evidence that build an argument or lay the foundation for a piece of written work. A strong work will appropriately reference these sources, showing the reader where the information and ideas originate from. This should be done for both restricted and open works through citations and attribution statements. Use this as an opportunity to show students by example how a scholar respects and shares information from other sources.

Even though they share characteristics, citations and attributions play different roles and appear in different places. This section defines citation and attribution, explains how and when they should be used in an open textbook, and discusses their purposes, similarities, and differences.


A citation allows authors to provide the source of any quotations, ideas, and information that they include in their own work based on the copyrighted works of other authors.

Citation is a common and long-time practice among scholars used to indicate where a resource is from and who the author is. Unlike an attribution, citation is typically used for copyrighted works with restricted rights or “all rights reserved.” In other words, it is used in works for which broad permissions have not been granted.

As an academic and potential author of an open textbook, we assume that you are familiar with the rules around citation. The Referencing guide at the RMIT Library Learning lab provides some great tips and tools.


Attribution is the cornerstone condition when using a resource or text released with an open licence. This legal requirement states that users must attribute — give credit — to the creator of the work. (See above, The licence conditions, Attribution BY). An attribution statement is used to provide credit to the original creator; its purpose is similar to a citation. Best practice says that the statement should include the Title, Author, Source, & Licence (TASL)

In a CC BY licence, the “CC” stands for “Creative Commons” and the “BY” stands for “Attribution,” or who the work is “by.”

BY = attribution

CC BY 4.0. BY Attribution highlighted in red

(“Self publishing guide” by Laurie M. Aesoph, BCcampus is licensed under CC BY 4.0)

When using text from another open educational resource, be clear in your attribution statement what section of your textbook contains this information.

Citation and attribution serve different purposes.:

  • Citation is used for academic purposes in order to give credit to a colleague for their work as part of academic integrity. It’s also used for legal reasons. Attributing an open work fulfils the legal requirement of the open-licence, which requires you to give credit to the creator of the work.
  • Citation is used for “all rights reserved” works where the copyright holder does not share the rights of the copy with the general public. The opposite is true for cases where attribution is used.
  • Citation legally protects an author who wants to refer to someone else’s work and to avoid plagiarism and copyright infringement. The author of an open work has given advanced permission for others to use their work. (See the Plagarism guide at the RMIT Library Learning Lab
  • When referencing a restricted work with a citation, one must be careful about the amount referenced. Both direct quotations and paraphrasing are permitted. All of an open work may be used with no limitations; attribution is used to give the author of this work credit.
  • The closest one can come to altering a restricted work is to paraphrase the original author’s ideas and expression of these ideas. Whereas the author of an open work has provided advanced permission to use AND change their work (except in cases where ND — NoDerivatives licence — has been applied).
  • Citation styles are varied and established. They dictate how to cite or reference a paraphrase or quotation within text (e.g., with an in-text citation or footnote) and how and where to provide the full reference, whether it be in a reference list, a works cited, or a bibliography and the end of a book.
  • The styles for attribution statements are still emerging. Current best practice for an attribution statement states it should reside on the same page (digital or printed) as the resource it refers to. Statements can stand alone, e.g., within the caption of an image, or in a list at the bottom of the page.

The following table summarizes the differences between citations and attributions.

Citation vs. Attribution

Citation Attribution
Academic and legal purposes (plagiarism and copyright infringement). Legal purposes (e.g., rules of Creative Commons licences).
The rights of the copy (meaning copyright) are NOT shared with the general public by the copyright holder. Permission IS shared with the general public by the copyright holder by marking the work with an open-copyright licence.
Protects an author who wants to refer to a restricted work by another author. Author of an open work has given advanced permissions to use their work.
Used to quote or paraphrase a limited portion of a restricted work. Used to quote (or paraphrase) all or a portion of an openly licensed work.
Can paraphrase, but cannot change work without permission. Author has given advanced permission to change work.
Many citation styles are available: APA, Chicago, MLA. Attribution statement styles are still emerging, but there are some defined best practices.
A reference list of cited resources are typically placed at the end of the book. Attribution statements are found on the same page as the resource.

(“Self publishing guide” by Laurie M. Aesoph, BCcampus is licensed under CC BY 4.0)


There are also similarities between a citation and attribution.

Both can be, and often are, applied to copyrighted works (See section Distinguish between materials that are all rights reserved, in the public domain, and openly licensed an open licence)

Both give credit to the creator of the original work

For both restricted and open works, the author or creator of a work might be different from the copyright holder. For example, if a faculty member writes an open textbook, their institution might hold copyright. However, it’s standard practice to attribute the creator – not the copyright holder – in the attribution statement.

Both can be used for either a newly created work or a revised work

Both can be used when referring to a portion of another work, though the amount that can be cited from a fully copyrighted work is substantially less than what can be used from an open work

Both can be used when building an argument or the foundation of a textbook Aesoph, L. M. Self publishing guide  BCcampus. https://opentextbc.ca/selfpublishguide/ CC BY 4.0/footnote]


  1. Creative Commons. (2021). Frequently asked questions. https://creativecommons.org/faq/ CC BY 4.0
  2. Creative Commons. (2021). Frequently asked questions. https://creativecommons.org/faq/  CC BY 4.0
  3. Moist, S. (n.d). Faculty OER toolkit. BC Campus. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/facultyoertoolkit/    CC BY 4.0
  4. Gits, C. (2020). Texas Learn OER. DigiTex  https://sites.google.com/austincc.edu/texaslearnoer/ CC BY 4.0
  5. Gits, C. (2020). Texas Learn OER. Digitex.https://sites.google.com/austincc.edu/texaslearnoer/module-7-creative-commons-licensing-in-depth CC BY 4.0
  6. Gits, C. (2020). Texas Learn OER. DigiTex. https://sites.google.com/austincc.edu/texaslearnoer/  CC BY 4.0
  7. Gits, C. (2020). Texas Learn OER. DigiTex. https://sites.google.com/austincc.edu/texaslearnoer/  CC BY 4.0
  8. CC Wiki. (2013). Wiki/cc license compatibility. https://wiki.creativecommons.org/wiki/Wiki/cc_license_compatibility CC BY 4.0
  9. "Texas Learn OER" by Carrie Gits, Digitex is licensed under CC BY 4.0
  10. Gits, C. (2020). Texas Learn OER. DigiTex  https://sites.google.com/austincc.edu/texaslearnoer/ CC BY 4.0


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OER Capability Toolkit Copyright © 2022 by RMIT University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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