Here is a simplified explanation of the mysterious Creative Commons license notices or icons you sometimes see with electronic or printed copyrighted material. 

Creative Commons is a non-profit corporation founded in 2001 to facilitate the free sharing and use of copyrighted works, particularly over the Internet.  

To take advantage of this opportunity, a copyright owner may submit a work to Creative Commons free of charge, and choose one of the available types of license having one or more of four possible provisions, sometimes depicted by the symbols shown above (click here to view images): 

Attribution credit required (abbreviated as BY)

Derivative works may be shared alike (SA)

Non-commercial purposes only (NC)

No derivative works (ND) 

Creative Commons offers six licenses, all of which require attribution credit:

  1. BY
  2. BY SA
  3. BY NC
  4. BY ND
  5. BY NC SA
  6. BY NC ND

To give notice that the CC license applies to an online work, the copyright owner may obtain html code and a license button by going to www.creativecommons.org.  For printed material, the copyright owner may add a statement such as “This work is licensed under the Creative Commons [insert type] License." 

If you are a copyright user, you may freely use the CC licensed work, without charge, as long as you abide by any restrictions of the type of CC license selected by the copyright owner.  You can even make money, such as by soliciting contributions or limiting access to paying customers, provided the applicable CC license does not contain the commercial use restriction NC. 

A CC license is not revocable, but if its restrictions are violated, the license terminates automatically.  

A CC license does not permit the use of third party copyrighted material, or other third party intellectual property rights, that may be embedded in the licensed work. Conversely, any restrictions in the CC license would not prevent the unfettered use of public domain material in the work, and it would not prevent otherwise permissible fair use of the work.  

To look for material offered under a CC license, the CC website has a CC Search function and a directory of copyright owners who use CC licenses.  Some social media sites also have search filters for CC licensed material.