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Copyright and Fair Use

Information on copyright law, fair use, public domain, and Creative Commons


Creative Commons (CC) works are works that are still protected by copyright. However, authors have chosen to allow certain kinds of uses--such as being able to copy the work or to share it with others--without the need to seek permission through Creative Commons license agreements.  

Creative Commons licensed works can apply to all formats of works. 

The best description about the Creative Commons is from its own Web site, "What is Creative Commons?" (opens in a new window)

Here is a summary of the basic kinds of Creative Commons licenses and the uses that they allow. These definitions are from the "Licenses" page (opens in a new window) from Creative Commons. 

1. Attribution (Abbreviation: BY): This license allows the most kinds of uses.  Users may copy, create derivative works, perform, distribute, or display the work without permission; however, users must attribute you as the author in the way that you desire.   

2. Non-Commercial (Abbreviation: NC): An author can use this license to ensure that others may use their work, but not make money from using it. 

3. No Derivative Works (Abbreviation: ND): This license will allow a user to copy, perform, distribute, or display a work, but they may not create a derivative work.  For instance a user may not create a movie based on a book covered under this kind of license. 

4. Share Alike (Abbreviation: SA): If you use a work with this kind of license, any derivative work you create must also be covered by the same license.

These four kinds of licenses can be mixed and matched to create a set of use conditions customized to the author's desires. 

* Public Domain (Abbreviation: CC0): It is also possible for an author to release their work into the public domain by using this kind of CC license (opens in a new window).

If you're looking for Creative Commons (CC) materials, the first resource to consult should be the search engine at (opens in a new window).

  • This search engine will mainly locate Creative Commons-licensed materials.
  • It is not perfect. It will sometimes retrieve items that may not be covered by a CC license, so you should always verify the status of the work just to be sure. It is still a good tool for getting started.
  • The Creative Commons Search will locate web sites, images, videos, music tracks, and other online media that are covered by CC licenses.

Two other good places to find CC materials are:

  • MERLOT II (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) (opens in a new window)
  • Wikimedia Commons (opens in a new window)

Need help attributing a Creative Licensed work?  See CC's wiki "Best Practices for Attribution" (opens in a new window).


Unlike determining whether or not a work is in the public domain, it is a little easier to determine whether or not a work is covered under a Creative Commons license. 

There are a few locations on a web site, image, or file to look for the license information.

1. At the bottom of a web page (SAMPLE IMAGE given below from (opens in a new window)):

Except where otherwise noted, content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attirbution 3.0 License

You will usually see an image like this one with the Creative Commons License abbreviated.  You can click on the link for the license to see what you are allowed to do with the material.

2. On the side of a web page (SAMPLE IMAGE given below from stevendepolo's photo: Red Bee Balm Garden on Flickr (opens in a new window))

Additional Information Some rights reserved

In this case, you would click on the link for "Some rights reserved" in order to see the Creative Commons license information. 

3. On an actual document you might see a Creative Commons license where you'd normally see a copyright notice.  (SAMPLE IMAGE given below from Lawrence Lessig's 2004 publication, Free Culture (New York: Penguin Press) (opens in a new window). Lessig released a PDF copy of this book under a Creative Commons license)).

Some Rights Reserved This PDF version of Free Culture is licensed under a Creative Commons license. This license permits non-commercial use of this work, so long as attribution is given. 

4. If you cannot determine whether or not a work is covered by a CC license, then it's likely protected by copyright.