Many people have heard that works on the internet are free to use because of something called a 'Creative Commons licence'. This is both true and not true.

Creative Commons licensing is a scheme of copyright licensing developed by the Creative Commons organisation, a not-for-profit corporation based in the US.

Creative Commons is also the name of the scheme created by the organisation. Its aim is to enable the public to use and share copyright works with uniform and transparent, and in some cases, minimal restrictions. But there are restrictions.

Classical copyright is known as the 'all rights reserved' classic retention of rights by a copyright owner. The Creative Commons scheme is essentially a toolkit of free-to-use copyright licences that are available online. There are two tools in the toolkit (known as the 'no rights reserved' marks), six standard licences (with greater or lesser restrictions, known as the 'some rights reserved' licences) and also local versions of some of the licences (for older versions of the six standard licences) which vary slightly by country (known as 'some rights reserved ... with nuances').

Although Creative Commons (the organisation) developed and maintains the scheme, because of the success of the scheme, you may often hear the phrase 'creative commons' used in a generic sense to describe any publicly available free-to-use copyright licence with relaxed restrictions. The expressions 'open access', 'public', 'free' or simply 'commons' licensing are other words often used to describe this generic approach to copyright licensing, sometimes in specific contexts.

However, care needs to be taken in using the Creative Commons licences to cover works and, more importantly, in using works covered by a Creative Commons licence - as there are still restrictions in those licences (such as the obligation to attribution a credit to the author of the work).

However, Creative Commons must be doing something right; over one billion works on the internet have been licensed under the Creative Commons scheme.

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