39 Copyright and Intellectual Property Toolkit: Creative Commons, Copyleft, and Other Licenses

What are licenses?

Licenses are permissions given by the copyright holder for their content. Licenses can be applied to copyrighted material in order to give permission for certain uses of the material. Copyright is still held by the creator in these cases, but the creator has decided to allow others to use their work. Sometimes licenses are purchased and sometimes they are given freely by the creator.

Licenses can be applied to allow reuse, redistribution, derivative works, and commercial use.

Creative Commons is the most frequently used and accessible free licensing scheme, but there are others that are used by certain communities. Licenses can also be applied by commercial entities that own copyright to an item such as a journal article. These licenses generally spell out limited usage for users and are available for a fee.


How do I find licensed material?

Creative Commons

Creative Commons licenses are applied by the copyright owner to their own works. These are the most prominently used licenses of their type in the world. There are four components to the licenses that are arranged in six configurations:

  • BY – attribution required.
  • NC – no commercial use.
  • ND – no derivative works.
  • SA – Share Alike – the license must be the same on any derivative works.

The ND and SA components cannot be combined, as SA only applies to derivative works.

The six licenses (excluding CC-0 which is an equivalent to the Public Domain) are:

  • CC-BY
  • CC-BY-SA
  • CC-BY-ND
  • CC-BY-NC

The following chart illustrates the permissions allowed by each license.


Copyleft, a play on the word “copyright,” is the practice of offering users of a work the right to freely distribute and modify the original work, but only under the condition that the derivative works be licensed with the same rights. It is similar to the “Share Alike” stipulation of the Creative Commons licenses (and the SA icon resembles the copyleft icon).

Copyleft licenses are often found on software packages, but can be used on any work. The GNU General Public License, originally written by Richard Stallman, was is first and most prominent software copyleft license.


Copyleft licenses give each person who possesses the work the same rights as the original author, including:

Freedom 0 – the freedom to use the work,
Freedom 1 – the freedom to study the work,
Freedom 2 – the freedom to copy and share the work with others,
Freedom 3 – the freedom to modify the work, and the freedom to distribute modified and therefore derivative works.

In order for the work to be truly copyleft, the license also has to ensure that the author of a derived work can only distribute such works under the same or equivalent license.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Library and Information Studies Copyright © by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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