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A Creative Commons Guide for Online Students

You are probably already familiar with the concept of copyright and understand that you can't use someone else's work without their permission. The Internet has complicated the issues related to copyright. It makes it easy to locate and access what we are looking for, but also easy to take and use what we find without permission. Copyrights tend to focus on restricting use of a creative product, such as a book, photo, video, or song, and have been used for decades to help protect the rights of the author or originator. But what if the originator decided to share his or her work with anyone who was interested in using it?

Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organization focused on helping us share our content with each other. This organization developed a system of licenses that help authors and artists to provide us with permission to use their work with fewer restrictions. This is the nature of a current and ongoing "open" movement, gaining ground in education, to allow and encourage instructors and students to share their materials and information with each other as part of a larger community.  

What are open resources?

Open resources are generally free of charge, often in a digital format, and available for anyone to use. Open educational resources (OER) are provided by educators to educators, and to students, who may be interested in reviewing or using course materials and resources. Many universities are engaged in providing course materials online. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Carnegie Mellon University are just two of the institutions that are involved. You can find a catalog of international OER at The Open CourseWare Consortium site, as well as other repositories such as OERCommons

Creative Commons Licenses

How do you know if a resource is open and available to use? There are six CC licenses that address levels of permissions granted by the item's author or creator. When someone elects to provide their work for your use with Creative Commons, they can choose to use one of six licenses. There are three basic considerations in selecting a CC license.

  1. Commercial – Is it okay for you to use the work for commercial purposes? (NC)
  2. Derivatives – Are you allowed to divide the work into parts and remix it with other content or modify in some way? (ND)
  3. Share-alike – If modification is allowed, will the new product you create have to carry the same permissions as the original? (SA)

All of the licenses require that the originator be given credit (BY). The six licenses – least restrictive to most restrictive:

  • CC-BY requires only that credit, attribution, to the originator be provided. 
  • CC BY-SA allows use of the material, with attribution. The material can be remixed and modified, but the result must also have this license so it can continue to be shared.
  • CC BY-ND allows for use with attribution, but only in the original form, complete with no changes or derivatives.
  • CC BY-NC requires attribution of the creator and indicates that the work cannot be used for commercial purposes, although it can be modified and reused.
  • CC BY-NC-SA allows for use of the material with attribution. Derivatives are allowed, but commercial use is not and the resulting work must retain this same license.
  • CC BY-NC-ND requires attribution, and no commercial use or derivatives of the work are permitted.

Look for the six CC licenses on websites, blogs, and in your online search results! Authors often include these symbols on their sites to announce their intentions for the site's use and give you permission to use the work.

Finding and Using Creative Commons Materials

As part of your online course assignments, you may need to find appropriate media to include with your original work. This might come in the form of a picture or other image, video clip, or music. These media elements can augment presentation slides and also be included in blogs, wikis, and other websites where appropriate.

Google, and Yahoo offer advanced search options so that you can filter for CC usage rights. Creative Commons provides a quick search tool that includes these and others. Here are a few additional sources to get your exploration of Creative Commons media started.

  • Flickr – this popular photo sharing site encourages members to upload their photos with Creative Commons licenses. Millions of photos have been added this way and you can search for them using keywords.
  • Open Clip Art Library – provides access to over 30,000 clip art designs. You can search the site by keyword or collection. Icon images are also included in the library. Most of the catalog is provided as part of the Public Domain – this indicates that there are no restrictions on use.
  • Jamendo – a music sharing site that also encourages artists to upload their work under Creative Commons licenses. You can search the site by the type of license, as well as keyword, genre, and other options.
  • Wikimedia Commons – includes photos, music, and sound, as well as video. The search features aren't as convenient as other sites, but you may find what you are looking for here.

There are many, many more sites offering CC licensed media! Check out this post from Sitepoint – 30+ Places to Find Creative Commons Media

Remember that if you use any CC licensed material, you have to at the very least provide information about the owner/originator. Carefully review the work and make sure you adhere to the requirements of the CC license assigned to each item you use. An example of an image attribution is included in this post!


Do you create media? Maybe you like to take pictures, create graphics, or play an instrument. If so, consider adding your creative work to the open movement with Creative Commons licenses. Your shared contributions will add to the community and help other students and instructors alike. Read more about Creative Commons and how you can participate in this open education movement. 

Image Credit: jorgeandresem, Flickr

May 12th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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