A Very Brief Introduction to Creative Commons for Educators

This page is part of a presentation on what educators need to know about Creative Commons, specifically what can you do with materials released with a CC license and how do you find them.cc.jpg

Most of this is just a list of resources I used for the session and some may not make sense outside of the presentation.

However, you are more than welcome to use any or all of it. After all, any original material you find on this (including this page) are released under a Creative Commons license.

One caveat: the information here is only valid in the United States. I’m not very familiar with copyright laws and how the Creative Commons process is applied in other countries so use this with caution depending on where you live.


Let’s talk about copyright and fair use, especially as it relates to education. Almost every teacher thinks they know what they can and cannot do with copyrighted materials.

And they’re generally wrong.

Read through these five scenarios and decide if what the person wants to do is acceptable under the fair use provisions of the copyright laws and why or why not?

  1. A teacher brings a video tape of a television program to show in class. The program went off the air in 1996 and is not available for purchase on tape or DVD.
  2. Students are creating a video for their Global Awareness project and want to include two minutes of music from a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
  3. A teacher uses a set of math worksheets with her students that she downloaded from a web site maintained by another teacher. The site required no payment or account login.
  4. A parent made a video recording of the Christmas concert by the school orchestra during an evening performance. She has offered to make DVDs for other parents at no charge.
  5. Your principal found several videos on YouTube and wants staff members to view and discuss them in PLCs. She download them and wants you to put them on the school server.

So, are these people allowed to do what they want to do?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Although these are relatively common occurrences in schools these days, you would need to look at the specifics of the circumstances as well as the source of the materials themselves to make a definitive judgement.

And even then, you could be wrong.

Fair Use

[The material in this section comes from the Stanford University Libraries Copyright and Fair Use site and is used under a Creative Commons license]

Fair use is a copyright principle based on the belief that the public is entitled to freely use portions of copyrighted materials for purposes of commentary and criticism.

Unfortunately, if the copyright owner disagrees with your fair use interpretation, the dispute will have to be resolved by courts or arbitration. If it’s not a fair use, then you are infringing upon the rights of the copyright owner and may be liable for damages.

Judges use four factors in resolving fair use disputes, which are discussed in detail on the Stanford page Measuring Fair Use: The Four Factors. It’s important to understand that these factors are only guidelines and the courts are free to adapt them to particular situations on a case-by-case basis. In other words, a judge has a great deal of freedom when making a fair use determination and the outcome in any given case can be hard to predict.

The four factors judges consider are:

  1. the purpose and character of your use (nonprofit, educational, personal, criticism, commentary, news reporting, parody)
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work (fact-based vs. imaginative, published vs. unpublished)
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market. (will this use diminish the value of the original?)

Creative Commons

Rather than trying to negotiate the maze that is US copyright law, there is an alternative. Why not ask the creator of the materials if you can use their stuff?

Or, better yet, let them tell you.

That’s the concept behind Creative Commons, a licensing system which allows content creators to define exactly what uses can do with their creations (text, images, sounds, etc.).

First of all, you need to know about two misconceptions when it comes to Creative Commons.

  1. CC licensed materials are not “public domain” or “copyright free”.
  2. CC is not a replacement or substitute for the legal copyright system.

Creative Commons is a license granted by the copyright holder to a user. Under a CC license, the copyright holder is defining what they will permit users to do with their creations

There are six main Creative Commons licenses under which a work can be released. This is just a summary. Details of each are linked from the Creative Commons licenses page.

Attribution (cc by)

This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered, in terms of what others can do with your works licensed under Attribution.

Attribution-Share Alike (cc by-sa)

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial reasons, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use.

Attribution No Derivatives (cc by-nd)

This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.

Attribution Non Commercial (cc by-nc)

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike (cc by-nc-sa)

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. Others can download and redistribute your work just like the by-nc-nd license, but they can also translate, make remixes, and produce new stories based on your work. All new work based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also be non-commercial in nature.

Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives (cc by-nc-nd)

This license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, allowing redistribution. This license is often called the “free advertising” license because it allows others to download your works and share them with others as long as they mention you and link back to you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

Finding Creative Commons Licensed Media

This is hardly an exhaustive list of sites but should give you a good start on finding CC licensed materials that can be used for your teaching and student projects.

However, before you use anything, read the license to make sure you understand your rights.

Google Advanced Search – This is a very general approach that most people don’t know is available. Next to the Search box on the main Google page, click Advanced Search. Then open the section marked Date, usage rights, and more at the bottom of the search fields and use the pop up to select the type of usage rights you need.

Flickr – Most of the photographs people share on this site carry a CC license. Use the advanced search page (linked here) and scroll down to the last section to select the type of CC license you need.

Open Clip Art – This is a relatively new collection of clip art all of which is released by the original artist under a Creative Commons license.

digCCmixter – This is a good search tool for finding Creative Commons licensed music from several sites, including a specific section of instrumental music appropriate for film and video projects.

Free Sound Project – This is a large collection of sounds and sound effects, all released with CC license.

Other Sources of Copyright-Friendly Content

Flickr, The Commons – This is a special section of Flickr, with it’s own search tool, containing photographs contributed by museums and libraries all of the world. In order to be included, the institutions must certify that all content they upload carries no known copyright restrictions.

Wikimedia Commons – Part of the Wikipedia project, this directory contains images, sounds, and video used to illustrate the encyclopedia and other parts of the site. Most material is CC licensed, although some is public domain while others are licensed under other systems.

Musopen – A large collection of classical music recordings in the public domain all posted with no known copyright restrictions.

More Information

Wanna Work Together – a short video that explains Creative Commons and the ideas behind it.

A Shared Culture – another short video that expands on the concepts behind Creative Commons.

A Fair(y) Use Tale – To illustrate the concept of Fair Use, a Bucknell professor created this video using snips from Disney cartoons, thus also offering a wonderful example of applying the concept of Fair Use to educate. Read the “FBI Warning” at the beginning very carefully. It’s not what you think.