What Is Creative Commons and Why Does It Matter?

Empower students to explore the creative potential of open resources.

May 04, 2016
Jane Park
Foundation/Non-Profit Member

CATEGORIES In the Classroom

As K-12 educators, you face unique challenges when it comes to using the Web. Not only are you trying to find resources to aid your teaching, but you're also on the lookout for resources that your students can use -- legally, technically, and socially. With so much out there, it can be difficult to figure out what is and isn't suitable for classroom use -- not to mention what will interest students long enough to tear them away from what’s trending on social media.

One set of tools, known as Creative Commons licenses, can help address some of these challenges, while also enriching the teaching process and empowering learners of all ages.


What are Creative Commons licenses?

License spectrum by Creative Commons. Used under a CC BY license.Creative Commons licenses are free copyright licenses that creators can use to indicate how they'd like their work to be used. Creators can choose from a set of six licenses with varying permissions, from the most open license to the least open license.

The most open license, and the license generally recommended for open educational resources, or OER, is Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY). CC BY means that anyone may distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon the creator’s work, even commercially, as long as they give credit. All CC licenses require attribution; on top of attribution, the creator may choose to add a combination of three other conditions, which result in the rest of the licenses you see here. For example, if creators want to prohibit commercial uses, they would add the NonCommercial condition; if they want to require that downstream users also reshare their adaptation under the same terms, they would add the ShareAlike condition; if they want the work to be redistributed unchanged, they would add the NoDerivatives condition. 

More than half a billion CC-licensed works exist on the Web free for teachers and students to use, build upon, and share. Many of these works are educational resources that have been licensed by teachers, educational organizations, schools, and even the government.

How can teachers and students find CC-licensed content?

You can find CC-licensed content by starting with the CC search tool, which isn't a search engine but rather a portal to third-party-owned search services that have added CC license filters. Visit and you’ll see that these search services include Google and Flickr. Try it!

You can visit these and the other services listed directly, as well. For example, if you go to Google Advanced Search and scroll to the bottom, you can filter results by usage rights. These correspond to various CC licenses. 

You can do the same on Flickr Advanced Search. You can also browse the entire CC Flickr library by license at In addition to CC-licensed photos, Flickr hosts a commons of photographs with no known copyright restrictions from various cultural heritage institutions at

If you're looking for educational resources such as textbooks or lesson plans, check out this list of the most popular educational websites with open educational resources:

How do you attribute creators of CC-licensed content?

Students learn to cite sources as part of educational and academic norms from a young age. Since all Creative Commons licenses require attribution, they can be a good starting point for teaching students about when and how to give credit to authors for their works. Our Best Practices for Attribution offers examples for anyone to follow, including teachers and students, for giving attribution.

In general, we encourage teachers to use the TASL acronym when teaching students how to attribute. TASL stands for Title, Author, Source, and License. For example, this photo from CC’s 10th birthday celebration was taken from Flickr. 

An ideal attribution would include all four elements (TASL) and look like this:

"Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco" by tvol is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Title? "Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco"
Author? "tvol" - linked to the author’s profile page
Source? "Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco" - linked to Flickr page where original photo exists
License? "CC BY 2.0" - name of license linked to license deed, which is

More examples by media type and a full explanation of what should be included can be found at

Why do CC licenses and open educational resources matter?

CC licenses are the legal tools that help you discover, share, remix, and build upon educational resources, which is what makes them open educational resources, or OER. In a sense, CC licenses are the infrastructure of roads underlying the ecosystem of OER to make reuse and sharing possible. As long as the roads are properly maintained -- that is, the CC licenses/legal tools are kept up to date -- creators have more options for how to share their works, educators have easier means of discovering and sharing OER, and students are empowered to build on what came before.

A whole culture of remix and creativity has been born on the Web, and many students are taking part whether they know it or not. Creative Commons and OER enable students to take full advantage of what's possible in a completely legal way with free and open resources and tools, not to mention that CC is a great way to kick off conversations about what sharing on the Web means -- and when and how to share appropriately.

For ideas on how to incorporate CC-related creative and remix activities into the classroom, browse through the resources at Creative Commons for K-12 Educators, a free online course that's part of the School of Open. Shared Creations: Making Use of Creative Commons (PDF) is a great handbook with classroom activities on the topics of copyright, the public domain, and Creative Commons. Other fun activities to do with your students include the Get CC Savvy challenge and Teach Someone Something with Content. Check out more exercises and courses like this at

Why Open Education Matters from Blink Tower on Vimeo.

"License spectrum" by Creative Commons. Used under a CC BY license.
"Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco" by tvol. Used under a CC BY 2.0 license.
This post is licensed CC BY 4.0.


Brian Whitson
Technology Facilitator
China Grove Middle School
China Grove, NC

This is a tremendous resource for educators to share information about CC with their colleagues and students.  Thank you for creating such an awesome information packed page to share with your students about the importance of CC.

James Denby
Educator/Curriculum Developer
IdeaDriven Education

The work you do is an invaluable resource for teachers and students.  In my class, we use CC all the time for projects; it's actually hard to imagine NOT having it. I will be sharing this post with my classes for sure.

Thank you.