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Creative Commons licences

The owner of copyright in a work benefits from exclusive rights to undertake and authorise certain uses of that work. These uses are known as ‘restricted acts’ and include copying, distributing and adapting the work. Having exclusive rights means that only the copyright owner may undertake (or authorise others to undertake) the restricted acts.

Therefore, a user of a copyright-protected work who wishes to copy, distribute or adapt that work (or undertake any of the restricted acts) usually requires permission from the copyright owner. (Note that this includes copying ‘any substantial part’ of the protected work; in one case, an eleven word extract from a newspaper article was found to be a substantial part of that article.)

Sometimes, a copyright owner might prefer not to exercise such a high degree of control over these uses of their work by other people, and might prefer instead to authorise all requests of a similar nature. For example, a rights owner might be happy to permit all reuses that are non-commercial, or all reuses that do not involve making any changes to the original. One mechanism for doing this is to apply a Creative Commons (CC) licence to the work.

CC licences enable creators to permit reuse of their copyright-protected works, internationally, while retaining and asserting rights to restrict some of the ways in which their content can be used.

There are four types of restriction that rights holders can specify, in combination, producing six licence types. Attribution (meaning appropriate credit & abbreviated as ‘BY’) is always required. ‘NC’ indicates that commercial uses are not permitted, while ‘ND’ indicates that adaptations are not permitted. Finally, ‘SA’ – or ‘ShareAlike’ – indicates that any adaptations of the original work must be licensed under the same terms (so additional restrictions cannot be imposed by people creating derivative works). The Creative Commons website provides full details about the different licence types, including the terms and conditions for each licence.

Applying a CC licence to your work

The most open CC licence is the Creative Commons Attribution licence – ‘CC BY’ for short – which permits more or less any kind of reuse as long as sufficient accompanying acknowledgement is given. Use of the CC BY licence is mandated for journal articles acknowledging RCUK funding that are published under a Gold Open Access model.

By contrast, the most restrictive CC licence – ‘CC BY-NC-ND’ – does not permit changes to be made and precludes commercial use. More information on the differences between the six licence types is available from the Creative Commons website at the link above.

If you own the copyright in a work and are interested in applying a CC licence to it (and are free to choose your preferred licence), Creative Commons provides an online tool that you can use to select the CC licence that works best for you. Remember that a CC licence will be irrevocable, once applied, meaning anybody in receipt of a copy under the licence terms cannot be restricted from exercising the rights granted, subsequently.

Remember that the University owns the copyright in most works created in the course of employment. You should not apply a Creative Commons licence if you are not the copyright owner, unless you are mandated or authorised to do so. If in doubt, please consult the University’s Code of Practice on Intellectual Property and Research Data Management Policy. For more information about licensing research data specifically, see 'How to License and Share Your Data'.

Using other people’s work under a CC licence

There are over 1 billion CC-licensed works, including documents, photographs and music. The Creative Commons search portal is a good starting point for finding CC-licensed material.

It is important to remember that works licensed under a Creative Commons licence are not ‘copyright free’; rather, the rights owner has granted a licence for any uses that are specified by the licence terms. You must comply with the terms – which always include giving appropriate attribution – or your use will be infringing.

Unfortunately – by mischief or mistake – some people upload other people's copyright works, purportedly under a Creative Commons licence, when in fact no such licence has been granted by the genuine copyright owner. A licence that has not been granted by the copyright owner - or by someone authorised to act on behalf of the copyright owner - will be invalid. In such circumstances, it would be likely that any copying or distribution that had taken place under the mistaken but good faith belief that such a licence applied, will have been infringing.

Therefore, you should always ask yourself a few questions as ‘due diligence’, before reusing works that are purportedly available under a CC licence, to determine whether you can trust the source. For example: imagine you have found a photograph on Flickr that is marked as being available under the CC BY licence. Before using this photograph, consider:

  • Does the caption contain any additional information about the photograph that might conflict with the assumption that it has been taken by the Flickr user?
  • If not, does the Flickr user seem likely to have taken the original photograph? Does their Flickr account provide similar content in the same context?
  • Do the circumstances of the image suggest that the photographer might have been operating professionally (e.g. with privileged access – press shots) and unlikely to license their images for free?
  • Is there anything within the image to suggest the licensor might not be the copyright owner – e.g. an agency logo or watermark?