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The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) defines the word “Copyright” as a legal term that refers to the various rights that creators possess over literary and artistic works which they have created[1]. The rights as conferred under “Copyright” apply to a wide variety of creations ranging from books, music, paintings, and films, to software, databases, advertisements, maps, and technical drawings. In most nations, Copyright protection of a creative work grants economic rights to the owner(s) which gives the owner(s) the right to allow the use of or to prevent the use of their work, any modification of the work, etc. and to receive a monetary benefit when others utilise their work. Copyright protection lasts for a fixed period (e.g., in India it lasts through the entire duration of the copyright owner’s life and 60 years[2] after the death of the owner). After the copyright protection term ends, copyrighted works pass into the public domain.

When the copyright protection associated with any creative work comes to an end due to expiry of copyright, waiver of copyright protection, etc., it passes to the Public Domain. The public domain is thus made up of creative works which have no intellectual property rights associated with them[3]. Thus, we see that there are two extremities in which copyright protection can be seen to exist. The first is where the creator retains copyright protection of their work. The second is when work passes into the public domain and there are no intellectual property rights associated with it any longer. To fill in this gap between these two extremities, the Creative Commons License emerged.


The Creative Commons License (CCL) permits creators to retain rights associated with their while simultaneously allowing for the use of the creation by others as well[4]. CCL being a part of the concept of copyright protection applies to all creative works which may be copyrighted. A creator needs to have exclusive rights to a creative work before they can license it under a CCL.  In order to cater to different needs, various iterations of a CC license exist, 6 to be exact. Each license contains one or more of four basic elements also referred to as “license features”. These license features are depicted using pictograms and abbreviations.

4 basic license features[5]

6 different variations of a CCL.[6]

  • The 4 rights are explained as follows[7]:





Attribution (BY)

The licensee must give appropriate credit/attribution to the author and any other person as specified by the author whenever and wherever they use the author’s creation.


Share-alike (SA)

The licensee must distribute any derivative works only under a license that is identical to or less restrictive than the license which governs the creation from which the licensee has derived their work.


Non-commercial (NC)

The licensee may distribute the creation or a derivative of the creation freely but only for on – commercial purposes, i.e., they should not be getting any monetary benefit from the distribution.


No derivative works (ND)

The licensee may distribute the creation verbatim freely but is not allowed to distribute any derivative works.

There are 7 Creative Commons licenses that are frequently used:

License name




“No Rights Reserved”



This icon denotes that the work is in the public domain and thus, no attribution is required and the work can be modified and can be used for commercial purposes.




The most open form of license, this type of license allows the licensee to redistribute the creation, make derivatives, and also utilise the creation for commercial purposes provided that credit is given to the author. The user of the creation must also indicate if any changes have been made to the work.




This license is similar to the CC BY license with the only difference being that the creation of the author or any derivative work if shared must be shared under a license that is identical to the license which governed the original creation.




This type of license is a CC BY license with the restriction that any distribution of the original work or any derivative work must not be done for commercial purposes.




This type of license allows people to redistribute the creation, make derivatives provided that credit is given to the author. The user of the creation must also indicate if any changes have been made to the work. However, the work or any derivatives must not be used for commercial purposes. Also, any derivatives must be shared with a license identical to that under which the original work was shared.




This license allows people to copy and distribute the material for non – commercial and commercial use provided that attribution is given to the author. It does not allow anyone to create or distribute any derivative works.




This license is similar to the CC – BY-ND license with the added restriction that the work cannot be distributed for commercial purposes.

  1. Irrevocability

Once a CC license has been applied to a particular work, there are circumstances wherein it may not be revoked.

  1. Applicability of a CCL

Creative Commons licenses are considered suitable for all types of content that one may wish to share except for software and hardware. Furthermore, since a particular work to be covered under a CCL may have multiple elements which make up that particular work, it is necessary to precisely specify which parts of the work are covered by the CCL.

  1. Nature of Rights accorded

CCLs are only applicable where copyright or related rights are applicable and not otherwise. In case one holds only partial rights to a particular work then they must sub-license the rights to the part of the work over which they do not possess rights. Furthermore, one must be clear about whether despite being the creator they actually possess rights to the work or not. One must clearly highlight any rights associated with the particular work being licensed which are not covered by the license.

  1. Type of License used

In order to make a decision as to which license to use, it is important for the owner of a work to consider how they would wish the material to be used and whether the owner is bound by any rules/regulations which may affect their right to use a CCL on a particular work.

  1. Making sure that one understands the License

Before utilising a work that has been licensed under a CCL, one should read not only the deed but also the legal code of the license. Before using a work licensed via CCL, one should be clear as to what rights and restrictions have been placed by the CCL regarding how the particular work in question is to be used. CCLs have evolved and are used worldwide. Consequently, newer versions have been released and certain jurisdiction-specific modifications are also made. While these changes are generally minor, these should be taken note of by anyone who intends to use the work.

  1. Scope of Rights and Usage

One must scrutinise the elements which are licensed under CCL and which are not. In case there are any elements of a work not covered by a CCL, additional permissions may be required before using the particular work.

  1. Obligations of Licensee

All CCLs state that proper attribution must be given to the licensor.  A licensee must not prevent others from exercising the rights accorded by the CCL. One must take consideration of any restrictions to which any adaptions of original work may be subject as a result of the CCL under which the original work was licensed.  If one fails to comply with a CCL then it is automatically terminated and one must fix any violations which they may have made in a specified period of time if they wish the rights accorded to them by the license to be reinstated. Furthermore, sometimes a licensor may make certain non–binding special requests with respect to their work which though a licensee is not obligated to comply with should try to accommodate.


The Creative Commons License has served well to bridge the gap between full-fledged copyright protection and works which are in the public domain. However, there is a need to have at least a clear basic understanding of the license. This is essential because the CCL provides for a variety of ways in which it can be used and understanding the rights and restrictions provided by the license allows those wishing to utilise the license to control exactly how their work may be used and also helps those who wish to utilise works licensed under a CCL to understand how they may or may not use a given work. As such, the rights of both the creator and user of a work licensed under a CCL are realised. This article hopes to provide the reader with a basic introduction to the concept and hopes to provide a good knowledge base for those who wish to undertake an in-depth study with respect to the license.

Author(s) Name: Uday Anand (Symbiosis International University, Pune)


[1]WIPO, Copyright. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 18 October 2021].

[2] Department For Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India, n.d. A HAND BOOK OF COPYRIGHT LAW. Government of India.

[3]Secretariat of the WIPO, 2010. Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore. Geneva: WIPO.

[4] The Story of Creative Commons | Creative Commons Certificate for Educators, Academic Librarians and GLAM, < > (last visited Oct 18, 2021)

[5]Kreutzer, T., 2021. OPEN CONTENT – A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO USING CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSES. Bonn: German Commission for UNESCO, pp.28.

[6]Kreutzer, T., 2021. OPEN CONTENT – A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO USING CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSES. Bonn: German Commission for UNESCO, pp. 29.

[7] “Frequently Asked Questions”. Creative Commons. Creative Commons Corporation. August 28, 2020. Retrieved November 26, 2020.

[8]Anon, Considerations for Licensors and licensees. Considerations for licensors and licensees – Creative Commons. Available at: <>