Three Things You May Misunderstand About the Creative Commons Licenses

UPDATE: It’s been brought to my attention that some readers of my blog read this post as a criticism of Creative Commons and its licenses. Nothing could be further from the truth. The title of the post was not “The Creative Commons licenses are inadequate.” The title was “Things you may misunderstand about the licenses” and my goal in writing the post was to educate members of the community about some of the finer points of the licenses.

And just to be clear – while there may be others in the world who support Creative Commons and its licenses as much as I do, there is no one who supports them more than I do. The CC licenses are at the very foundation of the idea of open educational resources, to which I have literally dedicated my entire professional life.

While updating this post to clarify my position on CC and the licenses, I have also clarified some of the points made below based on readers’ feedback.


 

I’ve been meaning to write this for months now, but a recent conversation on Twitter finally got me to spend some time at the keyboard.

Here’s a little brain teaser for you. According to the most recent version (4.0) of the Creative Commons licenses, which of the following three statements is not always true?

  1. Licenses including the BY condition always require you to attribute the creator when sharing BY-licensed material.
  2. Licenses including the SA condition require you to share any changes you make to an SA-licensed work, and to share your changes under the same (or a compatible) license.
  3. Licenses including the ND condition prohibit you from making changes to ND-licensed content.

As the title likely has already given away, while these three statements are almost always true there are special occasions when they are not. Let’s take a look at the licenses to understand why.

Attribution (BY)

The statement “Licenses including the BY condition always require you to attribute the creator when sharing BY-licensed material” is almost always true. You are always required to attribute the creator of a BY-licensed work except in one special case. The licenses including the BY condition contain language explicitly empowering creators to prohibit you from attributing them if they wish to do so. This might be useful, for example, for an author who wishes to remain anonymous. Section 3(a)(3) of the CC BY license reads:

If requested by the Licensor, You must remove any of the information required by Section 3(a)(1)(A) to the extent reasonably practicable.

As you’ll see in the license, Section 3(a)(1)(A) includes “identification of the creator(s) of the Licensed Material and any others designated to receive attribution.”

In other words, the CC licenses (all of which include the BY condition) enable the creator of a work to prohibit you from attributing them. However, except in the extremely rare cases where the creator explicitly prohibits you from attributing them, you are always required to attribute the creator of a work shared under a CC BY license.

Share Alike (SA)

The statement “Licenses including the SA condition require you to share any changes you make to an SA-licensed work, and to share your changes under the same (or a compatible) license” is almost always true, but there are two special cases where it is not.

First, not all changes you make to SA-licensed material are subject to the SA condition – only those changes that result in the creation of “Adapted Material.” As per Section 1(a) of the CC BY-SA license (and the language is similar in the other license that uses the SA condition, the CC BY-NC-SA license):

Adapted Material means material subject to Copyright and Similar Rights that is derived from or based upon the Licensed Material and in which the Licensed Material is translated, altered, arranged, transformed, or otherwise modified in a manner requiring permission under the Copyright and Similar Rights held by the Licensor.

In other words, before the SA condition will apply to your changes, your changes have to be sufficiently creative as to result in a new work deserving of its own copyright protection. However, many kinds of changes you might make to a work, such as correcting spelling or grammatical errors, do not meet this minimal creativity requirement and so do not result in the creation of Adapted Material. Consequently, the SA condition does not apply to your contributions to modified works including these kinds of changes.

Second, the SA condition does not actually require you to share your Adapted Material. It only states (in Section 3(b)) that you must license your Adapted Material with the same license or a compatible license “if You Share Adapted Material You produce.” So what specifically does it mean to Share according to the CC licenses? Section 1(k) of the CC BY-SA license states that:

Share means to provide material to the public by any means or process that requires permission under the Licensed Rights, such as reproduction, public display, public performance, distribution, dissemination, communication, or importation, and to make material available to the public including in ways that members of the public may access the material from a place and at a time individually chosen by them.

The language is similar in other CC licenses. There are many private uses you might make of your Adapted Material that would not constitute Sharing. For example, you might create a derivative of a CC BY-SA licensed work of art and hang the new, derivative work in your home. This would be a private use and so would not constitute Sharing. Consequently, you would not be required to license your contributions to the new work of art CC BY-SA.

No Derivatives (ND)

The statement “Licenses including the ND condition prohibit you from making changes to ND-licensed content” is almost always true, but there is a special case when it is not. Section 2(a)(1)(B) the CC BY-ND license explicitly grants users permission to:

produce and reproduce, but not Share, Adapted Material

The language is similar in the CC BY-NC-ND license. In other words, you are free to create derivative works based on ND-licensed material for private use – you’re just not allowed to Share them with the public.

 

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