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2007 Webby Awards

A Quick and Easy Guide to Creative Commons Licenses
Author: Andy Carvin, A Sense Of Place Network | December 8th, 2004
Communities: Cool Tools

The Digital Divide Network is organized so that any of our members may publish content on it: articles, news, events listings, even blogs. But when you publish something on DDN, what can you do to protect your ownership of that content, while at the same time encourage others to use it? The answer is an online copyright initiative called Creative Commons.

Historically, copyright has often been regarding as an either/or choice. Either you reserve all rights to your content (ie, copyright 2004 Andy Carvin, All Rights Reserved), which means no one can really do anything with your work until they've gotten permission from you. Or, you make your content available to everyone with no strings attached, basically giving it away -- in other words, putting it in the public domain.

Creative Commons ComicsA Spectrum of RightsHow It WorksThe Creative Commons initiative has come up with a set of copyright licenses that allow you to say to the world, "Some rights reserved." In other words, you can use their licenses to encourage use of your work in certain circumstances, while restricting it in others. For example, let's say I've written an article about the digital divide in Boston. I want people to read it and distribute it, but I don't want them making money off my hard work. Creative Commons allows me to license my article so that it may be distributed for noncommercial purposes without seeking my direct permission, but anyone who wishes to use it for commercial purposes would have to check with me first. Another example: I've just created a tutorial on ICT literacy that I plan to sell in the US and Britain, but I don't want to charge users from developing countries. Creative Commons can help you do that as well.

How Does it Work?

Essentially, Creative Commons is a way of designing a personalized copyright license for your work, whether it's an article, a blog, a photograph, even music or video. There are a sevent different licenses available, each of which I'll outline below. But all of them have three things in common:

An easy-to-understand "Commons Deed." This is a simple document explaining the rules of your license. It's written so that anyone should be able to understand it.

An attorney-friendly "Legal Code." Each Commons Deed links to another document that's written in legalese; its purpose is to explain your license in a way that's understandable by lawyers.

A machine-friendly "Digital Code." This is a bit of hidden code that you won't see in your article or on your website, but it's embedded within the source code. The purpose of this digital code is to allow other machines, like search engines, to recognize what kind of license you've applied to your work.

What are the Rules of Creative Commons Licenses?

Each of the seven Creative Commons licenses is a combination of different rules you choose to apply to your content. Here's a description of these rules.

Attribution. When you select a license that includes attribution, it means that anyone who wishes to copy, distribute or display your work must give you credit for it. If you don't include this, it means that people won't have to give you credit for the work.

Noncommercial Use. If you want your work to be used by others for noncommercial purposes only, this is an important feature. Anyone who wishes to use your work for commercial purposes would have to seek your permission. If you don't select this feature, anyone will be able to use your work, commercially or otherwise.

No Derivative Works. If you select this setting, no one else will be able to edit your work. They'll have to use it as-is. If you skip this setting, you give permission for people to edit and repurpose your work.

Share Alike. This allows people to make derivative works of your content, but only under the condition that they apply the same Creative Commons license to their version when they publish it. That way, the benefits of the license get passed along from one generation of content to the next.

What Types of Licenses Are there?

When you choose a Creative Commons license, it will contain one or more of these rules, depending on your personal preferences. There are currently seven licenses available:

Attribution License. Users must give you credit when disseminating your content.

Attribution-NoDerivs License. This combines two rules: attribution and no derivatives. In other words, anyone may use and distribute your work as long as they give you credit and don't make edits to it.

Attribution-NonCommercial License. Users must give you credit when distributing your content and may only use it for non-commercial purposes.

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License. The same as the previous license, but with the additional rule that users may not make derivative versions of your content -- i.e., they can't edit it.

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License. Users may distribute and edit your work as long as you are given credit and it's for non-commercial purposes and if they pass along the same Creative Commons license to their users in turn.

Attribution-ShareAlike License. Similar to the previous license, except that it's okay for others to use your work for commercial purposes.

Developing Nations License. The newest type of Creative Commons license, it grants users in developing countries greater freedom to use your work than users in developed countries. It's basically an Attribution-ShareAlike license: users in developing nations may distribute and edit your content as long as they give you credit and pass along the same Creative Commons rules to their users. Meanwhile, people from developed countries must seek your permission before they can distribute or edit your work.

How to Select A License When Publishing on DDN

If you ever decide to publish an article, document or blog on DDN, you'll have the option to select one of these seven licenses. The process is very straightforward. When you add an article to the DDN website, you can select from the seven available licenses described above by clicking the drop-down menu. The same principle applies to uploading documents to the website: when you click on the "add" button in the Documents box located on the right column of the homepage and each DDN community, you'll find a drop-down menu for including a Creative Commons license with your document.

For DDN bloggers, the process is a little different, but still quite simple: just go to your blog settings page and select from the drop-down list of Creative Commons licenses. Once you've updated your settings, your blog homepage will be updated so that your new Creative Commons license will be displayed in the right-hand column.

Using Creative Commons Licenses Outside of DDN

Of course, Creative Commons wasn't created for DDN specifically. It can be used for anyone who has a website or blog, or publishes an article, photograph, film, song or other content on the Internet. To select a license for your content, simply visit the Creative Commons website and fill out the form; the website will then generate the appropriate license for you.

For More Information

If you'd like to learn more about Creative Commons, please visit You can also check out their two cartoons, A Spectrum of Rights and How It Works. Both cartoons are easy to understand and kinda fun at the same time.

Andy Carvin is director of the Digital Divide Network.

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