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Copyright: Anatomy of a Creative Commons License

A guide to UK copyright

Help with Copyright

What is a CC License?

CC by logo

A Creative Commons (CC) License is a tool to help both content creators and end users make the best use of copyright material.  The licenses work alongside traditional copyright and allow content creators to specify exactly how they wish others to use their work.

Using a simple formula, a CC license allows creators to build a license which suits their needs.  It is an example of an open license which is designed to encourage use of materials and advance knowledge.

Using a license such as Creative Commons allows researchers to get more exposure for their work whilst at the same time maintaining control over its use and helping to avoid copyright infringement.

Layers of the license

Each CC license contains 3 layers which make up the license as a whole.  The layers are aimed at different audiences which may need to know about how a work should be used.

It can help to think of the licenses like layers in a cake:


Machine readable (the cake layer): the level aimed at computers.  This layer is easily read by software like apps and search engines

Legal code (the cream filling):  the lawyer readable terms and conditions.  This layer contains information about the license which is legally enforceable. 

Common deeds (the icing on the top): the human readable version of each license.  This layer is designed to provide a clear summary of the legal code.

Jigsaw licenses

You can also think of a Creative Commons license as a jigsaw.  Each piece is important and together they can be assembled to create a bigger picture.

jigsaw pieces


Must acknowledge the author of the work.  ALL of the licenses contain this element

Cannot share changes to or remixes of the work.  TWO licenses contain this element

Works can only be used for noncommercial uses.  THREE licenses contain this element

New creations must be shared under the same license as the original work.  TWO licenses contain this element

Putting the pieces together

When you put the puzzle together you can create a bespoke license.  These licenses help would-be users to understand what they can do with the work.


You are free to distribute, remix, tweak and build upon the work as long as the original author of the work is credited

Attribution NoDerivatives

You can redistribute the work but it must remain unchanged and the original author credited. 

Attribution ShareAlike

You are free to use as with CC-BY as long as the new work is licensed under the same terms.


Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike

You can adapt, remix, etc non-commercially but must share the new work under the same terms

Attribution NonCommercial

You can adopt , remix, etc the original work but you cannot do so commercially.


Attribution NonCommercial No Derivatives

You can share the work new but must not change it in any way or do so commercially


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0 license by the Office of Scholarly Communication, Cambridge University Libraries