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Explaining aspects of copyright to be aware of when studying, lecturing or undertaking research. Please note that information on these pages is for guidance only: it does not constitute formal legal advice.

Creative Commons

undefinedCreative Commons - what is this?

Creative Commons licences allow creators to permit others to legally build upon and share work.

Creative Commons (CC) licences are widely used, for example:

  • all content on Wikipedia is CC licenced
  • many photographs on Flickr are CC licenced
  • the RCUK Open Access policy requires Open Access-published material to be CC licenced.

CC material must be acknowledged (see below for how to do this).

Creative Commons licences allow some rights to be reserved, and some to be waived, by the creator (commercial use may not be permitted, for example), rather than having 'All rights reserved' as is the case with copyrighted works.

How material may be used will depend on what right the creator has reserved and which they have waived - see the 'Licence Conditions' box below.

Please note that Creative Commons licences are irrevocable: i.e., once a Creative Commons licence has been assigned to a work, it cannot be revoked in the future. This is so that people who re-use the work can be assured that their right to have done this cannot be taken away.

Creative Commons is a US non-profit company 'that helps overcome legal obstacles to the sharing of knowledge and creativity to address the world’s pressing challenges' (Creative Commons: What We Do, accessed 03/08/2022).

Licence Terms

Initials in the licence name indicate what is permitted, or what isn't permitted:


Attribution (BY)

The only condition is that the creator of the material must be attributed (acknowledged). Otherwise the work can be freely re-used, altered and shared in any way.


ShareAlike (SA)

Users may copy, distribute, display, perform, and modify the work, but must licence the work with the same (and not a more restrictive) licence. If they want to use a more restrictive licence they must obtain the creator's permission.


NonCommercial (NC)

Work cannot be re-used commercially without permission. Normally educational uses are non-commercial.


NoDerivatives (ND)

Work may be re-used, but not modified without permission.


The initials may be combined, resulting in the following licences:

  • CC BY: a work which has no limitations of use (other than being attributed)
  • CC BY-SA: a work that must be shared under the same licence
  • CC BY-NC: a work which can only be re-used non-commercially
  • CC BY-ND: a work which can be re-used but not changed
  • CC BY-NC-SA: a work which can be modified but must be shared under the same licence
  • CC BY-NC-ND: a work that may not be modified or used commercially


There is also the CC0 licence, which indicates that the creator has waived all rights to the work due according to copyright law, meaning that it can be freely used.

Referencing CC licenced material

19 cupcakes with Creative Commons logos on top, arranged on a glass plate

The Creative Commons website has examples of best practice for acknowledgment (with more detail on the Creative Commons wiki), and suggests acknowledging this image like this:

"Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco" by tvol is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This or a similar format is fine; it is just important that there are links to the material, the photographer's website (or profile on a website like Flickr), and the licence terms so that the viewer has as much information as possible on how the image could be re-used. The licence terms are linked to in the list of licences above. You could also state the website the material is taken from, as has been done in the image credits of this guide (which use a slightly different format).


We would also recommend, certainly for academic work, give the date the material was accessed at the end, as this acts as an assurance that the webpage existed if it should disappear:

"Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco" by tvol is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Accessed 02/09/2016)

Credits for images on this page

Creative Commons logo by Gregoire Lannoy (CC-BY) Accessed from Flickr 04/08/2020