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Free, Open, and Affordable Resources: Copyright & Creative Commons Licensing

Copyright Resources for Northern Illinois University Libraries

For a fuller discussion of copyright, fair use, and scholarly communications, please consult the Copyright LibGuide.


NOTICE: Nothing in this guide or the Copyright LibGuide should be construed as legal advice. The information presented in this guide is intended for educational purposes only. For legal guidance, please confer with the Office of General Counsel.

Licenses: What Can You Use & When Can You Use It?


The rights to fully copyrighted works a.k.a. All Rights Reserved (ARR) are held by the creator(s) of the work. It can be unlawful to use copyrighted works of others without their permission, and no permissions are granted in the case of ARR works. Activities such as copying, modifying, publicly displaying, publicly performing, and distributing copies of ARR work may be illegal unless legal permission is granted by the creator.

Copyright in the U.S. is automatically assigned to creators of work, with no registration necessary. You may have seen copyright marks or statements at the beginning of books or in the credits of a film, often in the format of “Copyright [creator name] [year]”. Due to the automatic nature of copyright, work that has no marking should be seen as having all rights reserved — no permissions granted until you are granted them specifically from the owner of the rights.

Public Domain

Work in the public domain can be reused freely for any purpose by anyone, without giving credit or attribution to the author or creator. With few exceptions such as being unable to claim the PD work of others as your own, works in this category can be used with great confidence as copyright has either expired or the works were produced by the U.S. Federal Government, and so entered the U.S. PD immediately after creation or publication.

Currently in the U.S. creative works will enter the public domain 70 years after the death of the creator. Creative Commons (the organization) created a legal tool called CC0 (see-see-zero) to help creators place their work as close as possible to the public domain by releasing all rights to it.

Fair Use

Fair use is not a copyright status, but is actually a copyright principle that suggests that the public can make certain uses of copyrighted works without permission. Whether or not a specific use falls under Fair Use is determined by four factors:

  1. the purpose and character of your use
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market.

There are additional exceptions and limitations to Copyright, but for the purpose of streamlining sharing and remixing, explicit permission to reuse and adapt work (such as through a CC license) is preferable to seeking defense under Fair Use or related exceptions.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organization that offers free legal tools to make creative work more shareable. There are six different CC license that explicitly grant permission for others to use your work in certain ways, forming a spectrum of openness. The most open CC licenses requires only attribution (giving credit) but otherwise permits nearly any use imaginable. The less open licenses include components that limit or prevent commercial reuse and modification.

CC license marks are visibly symbols telling others that work can be reused, not requiring direct contact or permission from the creator. Properly applied to digital content, a CC license contains a link to a human readable description of the license with a further link to the legal deed behind the license.

All text from UH OER Training by William Meinke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The 5 Rs

    Infographic with five blue hexagons on a beige background representing the 5Rs of OER: Revise, Remix, Redistribute, Revise, and Retain.

Phares, D. (2021, July). The Five Rs Infographic. CC BY 4.0. 5R Definition adapted from David Wiley under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.

Free sources are abundant and come in many forms, such as materials in the public domain; however they are not necessarily permanently available. And many free sources cannot be adapted or redistributed since these may violate copyright.

Open Educational Resources (OER) are free sources, but they are licensed to allow for customization and sharing.

Open Educational Resources are unique because they are "licensed in a manner that provides everyone with free and perpetual permission to engage in the 5R activities":

  1. Retain - the right to make, own, and control copies of the content (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage)
  2. Reuse - the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
  3. Revise - the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
  4. Remix - the right to combine the original or revised content with other material to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
  5. Redistribute - the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend)

This material is an adaptation of Defining the "Open" in Open Content and Open Educational Resources, which was originally written by David Wiley and published freely under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license at

Creative Commons Licenses

cc by license Attribution (BY)

This license lets others distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.

cc by nc license Attribution (BY) - NonCommercial (NC)

This license lets others remix, adapt, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

cc by sa license Attribution (BY) - ShareAlike (SA)

This license lets others remix, adapt, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to “copyleft” free and open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. This is the license used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects.

cc by nc sa license Attribution (BY) - NonCommercial (NC) - ShareAlike (SA)

This license lets others remix, adapt, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.

 cc by nd license Attribution (BY) - NoDerivatives (ND)

This license lets others reuse the work for any purpose, including commercially; however, it cannot be shared with others in adapted form, and credit must be provided to you.

cc by nc nd license Attribution (BY) - NonCommercial (NC) - No Derivatives (ND)

This license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

All images and definitions courtesy of Creative Commons.