Copyright is a legal right which provides the author of an original work, the exclusive right to its distribution and use amongst other rights. If a third party wants to use the exclusive rights protected by copyright, he/she must procure a license to access the work from the copyright owner. The counter approach to this system was encouraged by an internationally active non-profit organisation called Creative Commons (“CC”), which was founded in 2001 with the goal to increase the amount of openly licensed creativity in “the commons” — the body of work freely available for legal use, sharing, repurposing, and remixing.

Creative Commons has developed a set of licensing terms that an author may choose to adopt for his/her content. A Creative Commons license (“CC License”) permits the author to give the people the right to share, use, and build upon a work that they have created. Depending on the type of license granted, the licensee is free to adapt the work, use or redistribute the author’s work, for either commercial or non-commercial purposes. Since CC’s launch in 2001, five versions of the license have been launched. Version 4.0 is the current version which has established the global standard for sharing in science, education, culture, amongst many other spheres. The licenses under Version 4.0 are generic licenses which are applicable to most jurisdictions, and hence do not usually require to be ported to suit a specific jurisdiction. It acts as a global license which creates uniformity across jurisdictions by preventing ported versions. It is important to remember that CC Licenses are not an alternative to copyright. They apply on top of copyright, and enable the authors of content to modify copyright terms to best suit their needs.


Any work licensed under a CC License is governed by the copyright law, which brings all works governed by copyright within the sphere of CC License – books, movies, music, plays, articles, photographs, websites, blogs etc. CC licenses are non-exclusive and non-revocable, which entails continued use or any work obtained under a Creative Common License.


There are common rights (also called “Baseline Rights”) granted by all Creative Commons licenses

1. permitting every licensee to copy and distribute the work non-commercially;

2. duration of the CC License lasting as long as the duration of the work’s copyright; and

3. attribution of creation or authorship at all instances.

The CC Licenses grant four important rights, which can be combined to form a new form of license. The four rights are as follows:

1. Attribution (BY): The licensee has the right to copy, distribute, perform the work, and make derivative works and remixes based on the work. The licensee is allowed to exercise these rights only if they attribute the creator/author/licensor the credit for the work in the manner specified in the CC License.

2. Share-Alike (SA): The licensees may distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs the original work.

3. Non-commercial (NC): The licensee has the right to copy, distribute, perform, display, and adapt the work for non-commercial purposes only.

4. No-Derivative Works (ND): The licensee has the right to copy, perform, distribute, and display only the exact copy of the work without adapting it or creating a derivative work from the original work.

There are six officially recognized combinations of the aforementioned rights, which create the following CC License types –

1. Attribution (CC BY 4.0): This license permits the licensee to distribute, adapt, and derive from the work both commercially and non-commercially. The credit for the original work has to be attributed to both the work and the author. When a work is to be attributed, the elements which are to be attributed are the title of the work, the name of the author of the work, the source of the work, and the license under which the work has been obtained.

For instance, the Public Library of Science (“PLOS”) uses the CC BY license to develop an Open Access model to permit scientists and physicians to publish their most important works. PLOS launched a non-profit, scientific, and medical publishing venture which is immediately available online with no charges for access. If the author and source of the work are cited, there are no restrictions on subsequent redistribution or use. CC BY license is used to save the additional time and cost that asking special permissions for publications would require.

2. Attribution – Share Alike (CC BY-SA 4.0): This license lets the licensee adapt and derive from the work for both commercial and non-commercial purposes. The licensee must attribute credit and license their new creations under terms identical to the terms of the original license.

For instance, Citizendium, intended to be the citizen’s compendium of everything, is a wiki-based free encyclopaedia project by Larry Sanger, who had previously co-founded Wikipedia.  They opted for CC BY-SA to permit free flow of content with ease to revolutionise the digital dissemination of cultural and educational resources. Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons sites use the CC BY-SA license to fulfil the same objective.

3. Attribution – No Derivs (CC BY-ND 4.0): This license allows the licensee to redistribute unchanged work both commercially and non-commercially, with attributed credit to the original work and author.

For instance, “The Art of Unix Programming” is a book by Eric S. Raymond about the history and culture of Unix programming, tracing the evolution of Unix programming from 1969 to 2003. The book was licensed under CC BY-ND license to permit free access for users to the text in its verbatim published form, with the reservation of the right to publish on paper for sale or other for-profit use by Pearson Education Inc.

4. Attribution – Non-Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0): This license allows others to remix and adapt the original work non-commercially. Although the licensee does not have to license the derivative works on the same terms, the licensee must attribute and acknowledge the original work and must ensure that the work is not used commercially.

For instance, ccMixter is a community music website that promotes samples, remixes, and a-capella tracks which are usually licensed under CC BY-NC. Depending on which CC License the artist has designated, some tracks can even be used commercially with CC BY license. The tracks on the website are available for download and re-use in creative works. The objective of the website is to expose the genealogy of remixed music to create a body of openly licensed music. This creates ample exposure and generates more chance for creating a larger fan base of all the artists whose works are hosted by the website.

5. Attribution – Non-Commercial – Share Alike (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0): This license permits the licensee to adapt and build upon the work non-commercially. Due credit has to be attributed to the author and the source. 

For instance, Khan Academy is a non-profit educational institution with the objective of creating an online platform to help educate students outside a conventional classroom setup. Short lessons are produced in the form of Youtube videos, with supplementary practice exercises and material for educators and are licensed under the CC BY-NC-SA license. The content is available in English, Spanish, German, Hindi, amongst 7 other languages. CC BY-NC-SA permits wide dissemination of content to cater to a market of students who have access to the social web.

6. Attribution – Non-Commercial – No Derivs (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0): This is the most restrictive form of license, as it only allows the licensee to download and share the original work. The work cannot be changed in any way or used commercially, and due credit ought to be attributed to the author and the source of the work.

For instance, the music video of “Life Wasted”, a song by the American rock band Pearl Jam, was the first public video produced by a major record company which was released under the CC BY-NC-ND license. This allowed for copying, distributing, and sharing of the music video. Another example of CC BY-NC-ND licensed work is Ted Talks, allowing the unmodified talks to be redistributed for non-commercial purposes.


Whenever any one of the above named CC License is granted, the author bridges the gap between the authors and their audience by making their work available for not just public consumption but also public adoption. The CC License provides a legal mechanism to exercise control over the copyright work.

The exclusivity and protection granted by a copyright ensures commercial success for the artist. However, for those artists who intend to contribute their works for the common good, the costs of licensing and collective production often prevent them from sharing their work.  The creation of a set of open content copyright licenses and a web interface enables the licensor to choose from a list of copyright licenses. The high cost of acquiring such copyright is eliminated and it is easy to use these licenses, as exemplified in the above cited examples. The question of commercial benefits and success for an author sharing work under CC License is determined by how the license is used, and for the kind of creative work it is used for.

This post was co-authored by Priya Sampath and Aishwarya Suresh. Priya is an Associate in the Bengaluru Office of GameChanger Law Advisors. Aishwarya is a 3rd year B.A. LLB Hons. student at Gujarat National Law University, who is interning with us over the summer.

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