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Copyright: Creative Commons and Public Domain

A useful source of information and advice on Copyright in HE

Creative Commons: The Basics

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons (CC) is a global non-profit organisation which enables the sharing and reuse of copyrighted material through the use of free licensing tools; providing creators with ready-made licence agreements in order to share their content in a legally-protected way.


What are Creative Commons licences?

They are a series of easy-to-understand licences designed to promote the sharing of copyright material with as few hurdles to reusing as possible than traditionally copyrighted material.

The licences are free of charge. This allows everyone from independent creators to large organisations a standardised way to grant the public permission to use their material under copyright law, making it a simpler means of contractually regulating the use of material without infringing the creator's copyright. 

It it uses a system of licensing which allows copyright owners to choose different levels of protection for their work, which also makes it a flexible form of copyright protection - usually allowing for more freedom of use than traditionally copyrighted material.

Creative Commons Licences and Public Domain

Licence Elements

CC licences are made up of individual elements - these can be thought of as rules. There are four different elements which can be used to make up a CC licence, each having their own symbol. These symbols can be used in combination with each other in order to make the material's licence terms more or less restrictive, allowing copyright owners to specify different levels of protection for their work:


     Attribute - "BY"           Attribute (BY) icon
     This element operates as the baseline to all CC licences: you must               
credit the creator if you re-use the work in any capacity.


Sharealike (SA) Icon     Sharealike - "SA"
     Any adaptations made must be shared under the same licence terms.              


     Non-Commercial - "NC"         
     This work cannot be used for profit or commercial purposes.


     NoDerivatives - "ND"
If you adapt, remix, or build upon the material, you may not distribute
    the modified material- the content must be shared in its original form.


By combining these different elements, creators are able to choose how strict they want the terms of their work's licence to be. So, it's important to check which licence has been specified when looking for protected material, as each licence type and combination affords different levels of re-use flexibility.

Types of Licences:

There are six different Creative Commons licences, ordered below from most to least permissive. When attached to a piece a work, using the components explained in the previous tab, the licence details exactly what the author of the material has granted can and cannot be done with the material, should you wish to re-use it.

You are able to: copy, share, make derivative
   works and remixes in any medium or format (including
   commercially) - anything you want, so long as:

                                          -  The creator of the material is credited appropriately.
                                                 -   Indicate if any changes were made to the material.


     CC BY-SA
You are able to: copy, share, make derivative works
    and remixes in any medium or format (including
commercially) so long as:

                                            -  The creator of the material is credited. 
                                            -   Any material that you create deriving from the work is
                                               shared under
the same licence terms.


     CC BY-NC

    You are able to: copy, share, make derivative
   works and remixes in any medium or format so long as:

   -  The creator of the material is credited appropriately.
                                            -  It is
 for non-commercial purposes (you are not making

You are able tocopy, share, make derivative
   works and remixes in any medium or format so long as:

  - The creator of the material is credited appropriately.
                                           -  It is
 for non-commercial purposes (you are not making
                                           -  Any material you create deriving from the work is
                                             shared under
the same licence terms.


     CC BY-ND
You are able tocopy, share so long as:
   - The creator of the material is credited appropriately.   
   -  The content is shared in its original form. 
                                              (If you do adapt, remix, or build upon the material,
                                              you  cannot distribute the modified material).


You are able tocopy, share so long as:
  - The creator of the material is credited appropriately.   

  -  It is for non-commercial purposes (you are not making

                                          -  The content is shared in its original form. 
                                              (If you do adapt, remix, or build upon the material,
                                              you cannot distribute the modified material.


For more information, visit the Creative Commons 'About the Licenses' page. 

Public Domain Works:

When dealing with Public Domain material, you may come across either of the below images attached a work. While they are both marks signifying public domain status, they do mean slightly different things in how the material arrived to this status. 

     'No Known Copyright'
   - This work has been identified as being free of known
You are able to: copy, modify,distribute and perform the work
     (including commercially) without asking permission.



                                         'No Rights Reserved' (Public Domain Dedication)         
The creator(s) of this work have waivered their rights      under copyright law worldwide, and     has specifically     dedicated the work to the public domain.
  You are able to: copy, modify, distribute or perform the                                              work (including commercially) without asking permission.

Creative Commons and Public Domain in Action:

How can I use Public Domain material in my work? 

When using material you think may be public domain, consider these questions:

1) Who is the creator of the work? 

2) When did the creator die?

Under UK law, if the creator of the work died more that 70 years ago, then the work is under the public domain and can be therefore used freely.

Let's say you wanted to use extracts from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843) in your work. As Dickens died more than 70 years ago (150 years ago to be exact), then his works are in public domain and can be freely used in any capacity; you are able to use A Christmas Carol without any copyright restrictions.

Dickens' original collection is an example of works which are easy to distinguish as public domain. However, not all materials you find can be as easily identified. If you do find material you believe to be public domain, you should also keep in mind that:

1.  A recording or a reproduction of public domain material is often covered by copyright in it's own right.

2. A new adaptation or version of the public domain work would also be protected by copyright, even though the original material is not.

So, for example, while Dickens' A Christmas Carol is in the public domain, the film adaptation The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) is protected as its own entity, and would not be in the public domain. So, if you wanted to create new material which utilises elements (such as clips/images etc) from The Muppet Christmas Carol, then you need to get permission from the copyright owners.


Public Domain by Ronan Deazley and Bartolomeo Meletti (a really informative and useful page for further information on the topic) available at:

 Finding Creative Commons material:

The Creative Commons search tool is a useful resource to start looking for CC licensed material - the search portal allows you search for reusable content based on keyword, licence type and type of material. -

Flickr has over 300 million openly licensed and searchable images, sorted by licence type. It does also feature some copyright images, so be sure to check the material you may wish to use. -

YouTube hosts a variety of CC licensed material. To locate and identity these, simply search for the relevant material. Once these are displayed, select Filter (top left corner) > Features > 'Creative Commons'. CC licensed videos will then be displayed (the licence will be included in the description box of the video).  

Whenever you find content online, you should verify that its licence is legitimate by cross checking where possible and reading the exact terms of reuse.

Public Domain Works

What is Public Domain?

The term ‘public domain’ refers to creative works which are not protected by copyright. These works are owned by public, rather than an individual creator or company, and can be freely used in any medium or format without having to obtain permission from anybody to do so.


 Materials most commonly arrive in the public domain because the copyright on the work has expired (which in many countries, such as the UK, happens 70 years after the death of last known creator), or the creator has deliberately placed it within the public domain upon creation.


A Note:

It's important to keep in mind that copyright law is territorial, so different copyright rules apply in different countries. Works that are in the public domain in one jurisdiction are not necessarily in the public domain worldwide, so you should always pay close to attention to the rules of your own country. As BCU is UK based, only UK rules will apply here.


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Sources and Useful Links

- BBC Bitesize guide to Copyright and Intellectual Property:  © copyright [2020] BBC

- Copyright User Information on Creative Commons rights and permissions:

- Copyright User Information on Public Domain (Authors: Ronan Deazley and Bartolomeo Meletti, Illustration: Davide Bonazzi)

- Creative Commons homepage:

- Creative Commons page on Creative Commons licences:

- Wikipedia information on Creative Commons licences:

- The law on copyright duration in the UK (found in Sections 12-15 of the Copyright Designs and Patent Act 1988): 

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