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This is a selection of some frequently asked questions taken from the Creative Commons website and the Cape Town Declaration Open Education website. This FAQ is designed to help in raising awareness about the use of the Creative Commons licences. It is not a substitute for legal advice. It may not cover important issues that affect you and you may wish to consult with a lawyer.

Questions for people thinking about applying a Creative Commons licence to their work

Questions for people thinking about using a Creative Commons-licenced work

Are Creative Commons licences enforceable in a court of law?

The Creative Commons Legal Code has been drafted with the intention that it will be enforceable in court. That said, we can not account for every last nuance in the world's various copyright laws and/or the circumstances within which our licences are applied and Creative Commons-licensed content is used. Please note, however, that our licenses contain "severability" clauses -- meaning that, if a certain provision is found to be unenforeceable in a certain place, that provision and only that provision drops out of the license, leaving the rest of the agreement intact.

How do I apply a Creative Commons licence to my work?

For online works, you apply a Creative Commons licence to a work by selecting the licence that suits your preferences. Once you have selected your licence, and if you are applying it to an online work, follow the instructions to include the HTML code in your work. This code will automatically generate a licence button and a statement that your work is licensed under a Creative Commons licence, or a CC0 or public domain button if you choose to dedicate your work to the public domain or certify that a work is in the public domain via one of our public domain tools. These buttons are designed to act as a notice to people who come in contact with your work that your work is licensed under the applicable Creative Commons licence or is in the public domain. The HTML code will also include the metadata that enables your work to be found via Creative Commons-enabled search engines.

What happens if someone misuses my Creative Commons-licensed work?

A Creative Commons licence terminates automatically if someone uses your work contrary to the licence terms. This means that, if a person uses your work under a Creative Commons licence and they, for example, fail to attribute your work in the manner you specified, then they no longer have the right to continue to use your work. This only applies in relation to the person in breach of the licence; it does not apply generally to the other people who use your work under a Creative Commons licence and comply with its terms.

You have a number of options as to how you can enforce this; you can consider contacting the person and asking them to rectify the situation and/or you can consider consulting a lawyer to act on your behalf. For information about how you may be able to locate a suitably qualified lawyer, please refer to this question and answer.

What does the Creative Commons “Some Rights Reserved” button mean? What does a Creative Commons licence do?

A Creative Commons licence is a signal to you that you can use the work without having to seek out the individual creator or licensor and ask for permission—provided you use the work in the manner permitted by the Creative Commons licence. The Commons Deed sets out the key terms governing your use of the work.

What happens if I want to make a different use of the work?

If you want to use a Creative Commons-licensed work in a manner that is not permitted under the terms of the Creative Commons licence, you need to contact the creator and/or licensor and ask for their permission. If you use a Creative-Commons licensed work contrary to the terms of the Creative Commons licence, your right to use the work terminates and you could be sued for infringement of copyright.

How do I properly attribute a Creative Commons licensed work?

All current CC licences require that you attribute the original author(s). If the copyright holder has not specified any particular way to attribute them, this does not mean that you do not have to give attribution. It simply means that you will have to give attribution to the best of your ability with the information you do have. Generally speaking, this implies five things:

  • If the work itself contains any copyright notices placed there by the copyright holder, you must leave those notices intact, or reproduce them in a way that is reasonable to the medium in which you are re-publishing the work.
  • Cite the author's name, screen name, user identification, etc. If you are publishing on the Internet, it is nice to link that name to the person's profile page, if such a page exists.
  • Cite the work's title or name, if such a thing exists. If you are publishing on the Internet, it is nice to link the name or title directly to the original work.
  • Cite the specific CC license the work is under. If you are publishing on the Internet, it is nice if the licence citation links to the licence on the CC website.
  • If you are making a derivative work or adaptation, in addition to the above, you need to identify that your work is a derivative work i.e., “This is a Finnish translation of the [original work] by [author].” or “Screenplay based on [original work] by [author].”
  • In the case where a copyright holder does choose to specify the manner of attribution, in addition to the requirement of leaving intact existing copyright notices, they are only able to require certain things. Namely:
  • They may require that you attribute the work to a certain name, pseudonym or even an organization of some sort.
  • They may require you to associate/provide a certain URL (web address) for the work.

If you are interested to see what an actual licence ("legalcode") has to say about attribution, you can use the CC Attribution 3.0 Unported licence as an example. Please note that this is only an example, and you should always read the appropriate section of the specific licence in question ... usually, but perhaps not always, section 4(b) or 4(c): http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/legalcode.

What is a derivative work?

A derivative work is a work that is based on another work but is not an exact, verbatim copy. What this means exactly and comprehensively is the subject of many law journal articles and much debate and pontification. In general, a translation from one language to another or a film version of a book are examples of derivative works. Under Creative Commons’ core licences, synching music in timed-relation with a moving image is considered to be a derivative work.

It's important to note, however, that the Creative Commons licenses allow the user to exercise the rights permitted under the licence in any format or media, even in the No Derivatives licences. This means that, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence, for example, you can copy the work from a digital file to a print file consistent with the terms of that licence.

Can I change the terms of a CC licence or waive some of its conditions?

You can change any of our licences, but if you do so you should know that your modified licence is not likely to be compatible with CC’s licences. Also, if you change our licenses then you cannot say that your work is licensed under a CC license.

This doesn’t mean, however, that if a user of your work comes to you and asks permission to do (or not do) something the licence says she must not do (or do), that you can’t agree to that. Our licences anticipate that a licensor may want to waive compliance with a specific condition, such as attribution. Our 3.0 licences specifically allow this to happen, so long as the waiver or consent is in writing and signed.

If I am required to give 'appropriate attribution', what does this mean?

The type of attribution that is appropriate depends on the creator of the work. In the open educational resource community, simply specifying the source of the version of the work used is usually sufficient, although creators and co-creators of works are able to specify what attribution they deem to be appropriate, whether they wish to be named as authors of a work, credited in a way required by a particular discipline or setting, or that a work be anonymous.

If I am allowed to 'share derivative works', what does this mean?

The phrase 'share derivative works' means that all reproductions or derivative works of a copyright work should be re-released under the same or a similar licence. Licences such as the GNU General Public Licence and the Creative Commons Share Alike license include this requirement.

I don't want people to make money on my open educational resources. I am going to use the noncommercial (NC) term. Is this a good idea?

Imposing restrictions on commercial activity requires careful thought. There are a few cases in which the use of the NC term is justifiable. For example, if there are a lot of third-party materials from for-profit entities in your educational resources, it may well be that the only way to release these materials in a more open format is to apply the NC term. However, in most cases, the NC term is likely to have undesired repercussions for your work. If you are thinking of restricting commercial activity, ask yourself the following questions: What is the goal of doing so? Is it that the creators wish to make money from their contributions? Is this likely? Is it assumed that all for-profit activity is somehow inimical to education? What are the costs of restricting commercial use of open educational resources and do you wish to incur them? For example, is it your goal to forbid a for-profit publisher in a developing country from printing copies of your materials and distributing them there?

The calculation is one that each site and funder must make for itself, but there are definite advantages to being less restrictive. Thus we recommend that, where possible, you should avoid using the non-commercial restriction.

Why should I use the share-alike (SA) or copyleft term?

The decision of whether or not to use the share-alike (SA) term, also known as copyleft (such as with the GNU FDL), is a personal one, based on the priorities of the author. If an author's primary purpose in creating open educational resources is for it to be used as widely, freely, and creatively as possible, then using CC-BY is the better choice. CC-BY allows for a variety of motivations, including the possibility of commercial success, to drive users to adapt and re-purpose their materials. In most cases, it seems likely that the derived materials will remain openly available, but even if they do not, there is nothing preventing someone from using the original source materials for their own needs, regardless of what others have done. If an author's primary purpose in creating open educational resources is for that material to never leave the educational commons, such as it is, then you may want to apply the SA term. In this case, the possibilities for viable commercial derivatives, though not disallowed, are diminished, and so users motivated to adapt materials for that purpose are unlikely to participate. In addition, open educational resources licensed with an SA term are only interoperable with other SA materials, which seriously limits their capacity for re-mixing.

It seems likely that the commons of open educational resources will eventually coalesce into two different domains of materials: those licensed CC-BY (or some other non-copyleft license) and those licensed CC-BY-SA (or some other copyleft license). The materials in the first domain can be re-mixed with the materials in the second domain (thus converting all re-mixed products into copyleft materials), but not vice versa. Rather than force everyone to make their choices in the same way, we simply suggest that creators consider the differences and choose the license that appeals to them the most. We certainly hope that the overall pool of open educational resources will eventually be large enough that the costs of having two silos of content will be negligible.

I'm worried that people will damage the educational integrity of my work, so I want to apply the no-derivatives (ND) term. Should I do this?

Some educators feel uncomfortable about allowing changes to educational content they have created where it has an internal consistency and coherence that might be lost when edited by others.

There are two key points we would ask you to consider prior to applying the ND term. First, are you willing to prevent all of the wonderful ways in which your work might be improved upon just for the sake of preventing a few derivatives that you would consider inferior? It is worth remembering that it is the granting of freedoms to share, reprint, translate, combine, or adapt that makes open educational resources educationally different from those that can merely be read online for free. Thus, although materials released under the ND term are welcome additions to the pool of educational materials that can be obtained online, most of the open education community would not include such materials in the pool of open educational materials. Simply put, if you want to contribute open educational resources, you should avoid the ND term wherever possible.

Second, you must remember that digital resources are not consumable goods, in the sense that they can be shared infinitely without any loss of value for the original. As such, if inferior derivatives are created, those creations have done nothing to diminish the quality of your original work, which will remain available for others to use or improve upon as they wish. If you do not want derivatives to be attributed to you, you can specify that condition when you license the original work. And you always have the option to request that your name be removed from any derivative works which disagree with you, if you want to try and track such things.