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Copyright Resources: Creative Commons

Creative Commons & Public Domain

Creative Commons


Creative Commons licenses are a way (though not the only way) for owners of copyrighted material to, in essence, approve certain types of uses of their work without permission.  Creative Commons licensed materials (except those explicitly licensed with a "Public Domain" license) are still copyrighted and the creator of the work still owns that copyright.   

The purpose of this licensing is to offer a flexible and efficient mechanism for content creators to allow their materials to be used in certain ways without the burden of the permissions process.

Typically, CC licenses require attribution at a minimum.  Copyright holders can choose licenses that allow (or prohibit) commercial uses, declare whether adapting the work is permitted, and to require the user to also use a CC-license on derivative works.  

Creative Commons at CCSF

Have you created works while working at the College that you would like to license with a Creative Commons license?  The first thing you must do is consult your contract to determine if you or the College owns the copyright to your work.  If the College owns the copyright, contact the Open Educational Resources Taskforce or the subject librarian for your discipline for advice.  This will allow the College to keep track of the license status of the copyrighted material it owns.  

See also: Open Educational Resources by CCSF Library.  This guide has comprehensive resources about creative commons.

Which license should you choose?

The Library is often asked which license we recommend to people who are licensing their materials with a Creative Commons license, usually for the purpose of sharing those materials as Open Educational Resources.  We recommend the CC-BY license, which is the attribution-only license.  This license is the most open and has the least possibility of having downstream effects that prevent users from using and adapting your materials.  There are, though, many issues at play when choosing a license and you should make choices based on your particular situation.  We are happy to talk it through with you.  We do strongly advise against selecting a "No-Derivs" license.  This license term prevents downstream users from adapting your work in any way, thus greatly reducing its usefulness as an OER.

Marking your work

The Creative Commons site provides a lot of information about marking your work with a CC license so that others will know it is available for use under Creative Commons.  Please remember to credit CCSF as the copyright owner in cases where the work is owned by CCSF (check your contract).  You can also provide your name as the creator or author of the work.

Copyright Term and Public Domain

It is not at all uncommon for an instructor to comment to us "Well, I only use things in the public domain" and be referring to items that are merely freely available on the web.  These are not the same thing.  Remember that the vast majority of content on the web, though freely available, is protected by copyright.  The copyright term is very long and, because the copyright laws changed several times throughout the 20th century, with changes to the law sometimes being retroactive, it can be very challenging to figure out if a given piece of content created in the 20th century is in the public domain or not.  

If the content was created/published before 1923, it is in the public domain.

For material published after this date, it gets really complicated.  This chart, Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States, provides detailed information about all of the possibilities.  This slider, Is It Protected By Copyright?, provided simplified information for the most common scenarios.

Things that are in the public domain may be used without limitation.

Works Created by Government

Works created by the Federal government (and some state governments, but not California) are not subject to copyright.  This applies to works created by employees of the United States government in the course of their duties.  Unfortunately, even this seemingly simple idea has a lot of complexity when you start examining it:

  • Works produced by contractors or freelancers employed by the government are likely to be copyrighted.
  • Works produced by some agencies (eg. the post office) may be subject to copyright.
  • Government websites regularly feature art and imagery that were purchased or licensed by the government.  Do not assume that because it is on a government website it is not subject to copyright.
  • The government can own copyrights that are transferred to it.
  • Logos of government agencies might be subject to trademark law even though they are not copyrightable.

State laws vary.  Harvard University's State Copyright Resource Center is a great resource for figuring out state copyright laws.

Get Help

The faculty librarians at  CCSF are happy to help with all of your questions about Creative Commons and Public Domain issues.

Contact Us!

Copyright statement for this guide

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by CCSF Library is licensed by City College of San Francisco under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Library & Learning Resources, City College of San Francisco
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