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A Guide to Creative Commons

This guide will house content from the Creative Commons Certificate Course completed from June to August, 2020.

An Overview of CC

Creative Commons is...

As the Internet and World Wide Web became more openly available to people across the globe, so too did the rise in creating and sharing creative work. The ease of accessing this content through the Internet led to tensions with existing copyright laws. All products of human creativity are inherently granted copyright, which entitles a creator certain controls over their work and how it is used. The limits of copyright laws, including the duration in which the work is under copyright, varies from country to country. As our society became more globally connected, navigating how to use content found online without violating copyright laws became more difficult. 

Born from a desire to design a platform that helps content creators share their work globally, Creative Commons developed a set of free-to-use licenses that indicate in what way a creator will allow their work to be shared and used within the confines of their respective country's copyright laws. Today, Creative Commons licenses are used on more than 1.4 billion works created by people from across the globe in a variety of formats.

The video below describes how Creative Commons strives to foster a culture of sharing and creativity. 

"A Shared Culture" by Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

Copyright & CC


While copyright is inherently granted to the content creator, it is not meant to last forever. After the copyright for a work has expired, the work moves to the public domain. Works in the public domain are free to use without restriction. This allows works to be reused and remixed to create new content, fostering creativity and experimentation. Over the years, the length of copyright terms have been extended through legislation. The most recent update to copyright law was in 1998 with the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), also known as the Sonny Bono Act or Mickey Mouse Protection Act. Under CTEA, the term of copyright for every work in the United States was extended for an additional 20 years, so the copyright term equaled the life of the creator plus 70 years.


Many were concerned that the passing of CTEA further normalized Congress’s willingness to extend copyright terms, seemingly at the behest of large corporations. In 1999, Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig brought forth a complaint on behalf of Eric Eldred challenging the legality of CTEA in a decision titled Eldred v. Ashcroft

In this case, Lessig argued that by allowing retroactive extensions of copyright, Congress could in theory continually extend copyright terms to the point that no works would ever fall into the public domain. This, Lessig argued, violates the Constitution's Copyright Clause which gives Congress the power to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

In his book Free Culture, Lessig explains the importance of allowing works to move to the public domain:

The real harm of term extension comes not from these famous works [referring to Mickey Mouse and other “commercially successful brands”]. The real harm is to the works that are not famous, not commercially exploited, and no longer available as a result.

If copyright and creativity build upon the past, then it is important for that content to not only be preserved but accessible. The globalization of the Internet and, later, digitization technologies made this possible. However, copyright laws restrict the sharing and reuse of this content. 

While Lessig lost this case, the experience prompted him to create Creative Commons. In 2002, Creative Commons published their first public licenses that allow creators to easily indicate in what way they are willing to freely share their works.

In his 2007 TedTalk, Lessig discusses the ways in which restrictive laws can inhibit creative output:

"Laws That Choke Creativity" by Lawrence Lessig is licensed by TedTalk under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Get Involved

There are many ways to get involved with Creative Commons:

USE THE LICENSE (and other tools)

Creative Commons has an easy-to-follow guide on how to apply the many different license options to work you create, as well as other tools like CC Search that make it easier for creators to find openly licensed works.  


Creative Commons offers a formal Creative Commons Certificate Course for those wishing to learn more in-depth information about using licenses and openly licensed work. Additional learning materials can be found online including a free ebook Creative Commons for Educators and Librarians.


There are several ways to engage with the Creative Commons community:

Licensing Statement

"What is Creative Commons" by Roxanna Palmer is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 International License unless stated otherwise. Based on 07_2020_CC Certification Certificate for Librarians course under a CC BY 4.0 license.