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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Copyright for Graduate Students: Theses and Dissertations


You might be wondering why I've copied and pasted an image of a UFO here from This image is free to be used, remixed, and shared because it is licensed under Creative Commons. Creative Commons licenses helps content creators to share their work more freely than copyright allows. Because the UFO is a Creative Commons image, it is acceptable to edit and remix it to create and share new images (note that it contains no restrictions on use).

Copyright law protects a work the moment it is put into a fixed form (so the moment the words are written, the video is recorded, or a picture is snapped) and states that there are certain rights with regards to the work that only the creator holds. For example only the creator may reproduce the work (but see fair use and the other copyright exceptions, like face-to-face teaching).  Fortunately, some authors and creators are happy and willing to share their work more freely than U.S. copyright law currently allows. In order to make their wishes clear to both you and the law, they often license their work. A license details the terms and conditions the author has established with regards to using his or her works. There are many different types of licenses but some of the most common and useful in an academic setting are Creative Commons Licenses.

Creative Commons Licensing

When using materials for your courses or even for academic research and publication, you may see work designated with at Creative Commons License. What does it mean?

A creative commons license is a grant of permission from the author to the public (or a segment of the public) to use portions of work otherwise protected by copyright without first obtaining permission from the author (within certain established guidelines).

This may be a good way for educators, as well, to share their work freely if they wish to do so. Just remember, though, that if you put a creative commons license on your work you permitting others to use the work under the conditions designated in the license.

The creative commons website contains a great description of the types of licenses. Depending on the specification in the license, the user may be permitted to do only certain things with the work (for instance a CC-NC license designates that only non commercial uses are permitted).

If you are considering adding a creative commons license to your work, please remember that once you put the license on the work, it is irrevocable.  

Find and Use Creative Commons Work

Using Creative Commons works for your projects is a great way to support universal access and to simplify your own creative process. See the Main Library's page on Creative Commons or for an in-depth explanation of what Creative Commons is. Once you understand and are ready to start finding Creative Commons licensed works, explore the rest of this page to find step-by-step instructions on how to do so.

Many search engines and websites that house creative materials will let you limit your search to only licensed materials. Below are a few examples, but be sure to check out the list of more resources as well as the advanced search options of any website you are browsing when looking for images, sounds, videos, or other works.


Creative Commons offers a search engine that can be found at Before searching for anything, be sure to select a resource to search in the middle of the page. These resources all allow users to mark a Creative Commons work when it is uploaded, making it particularly easy to search for such materials. Also note that below the name of the resource is a description of the type of materials it houses (e.g., Flikr searches images, YouTube searches videos, etc.)

The Creative Commons search tool

Once you have chosen a resource to search, double check that the boxes labeled "I want something that I can ..." are checked based on what your needs are. This is particularly important if you are looking for a work that you can use commercially as not all creators want their works used for financial profit.

The user has checked the boxes for "use for commercial purposes" and "modify, adapt, or build upon"


Once you have completed the above steps, go ahead and enter your search term. Your search will then take you out to the website you selected (in the example below this is Flickr) and displays your results. Each of these results has been given a Creative Commons license by its creator.

A sample of search results for "UFO"

To view the specific license that has been used for a work, look for a link that says "Some rights reserved" or "Creative Commons."

The creative commons license is displayed with icons and the text "Some rights reserved."

Clicking on that will take you to the legal page for the license being used, allowing you to see if the work can be adapted, shared, or used commercially.

  • Google's Advanced Image Search offers the option to search for Creative Commons works as well. On the top half of the page, fill in as much or as little information as you would like for your search.

    Google Image's advanced search
  • At the bottom of the page you will find a drop-down box that allows you to indicate that Google should only search for licensed works. Notice that the choices listed here are not actually Creative Commons licenses but instead are broad categories. This is because there are licenses other than Creative Commons and Google is able to search many of them. After choosing one of the options, go ahead and complete your search.

The following websites have the option to search for Creative Commons works or are largely devoted to freely useable works.


Find Images

Find Video, Music, and Sounds

Create Creative Commons Works

If you are considering licensing works that you create under Creative Commons, be sure to browse through's FAQ page. This page addresses questions regarding international rights, dual licensing, print works, and more. Once you have decided that a Creative Commons license is right for you, adding one to your work is actually very simple. You simply have to decide what rights to your work you would like to grant to users. Do you want them to be able to remix your work? Share it? Use it commercially? provides a license chooser tool that walks you through these decisions. For more information about each, look through the About the Licenses page on

*Where can I find more information on Creative Commons?

Visit for a basic overview. If you're looking for in-depth information or have a specific question, visit the Creative Commons FAQ page.

*What types of works use Creative Commons licenses?

Any work that can be copyrighted can be licensed under Creative Commons. However, there are a few types of works that might be better served by a different type of license (e.g., computer software). For more information, see the General License Information.

*What are the parts of a Creative Commons license?

When you use choose a license using the Creative Commons website, the resulting license is made up of three layers. The first layer is legal language; it is the legal description of the permissions you are granting to users of your work. Typically, people can access this layer by clicking on a Creative Commons image located within your work. The second layer is an image with symbols and letters that are easily recognizable by users. Here is an example of an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike image:

Creative Commons License
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike

The final layer is not visible to the user, only to computers. This machine-readable portion of the license allows your image to be categorized as Creative Commons by search engines like Google. That way, when someone searches for images that are licensed, your work is quickly recognized and returned in that search. To read a more complete explanation, visit the About the Licenses page on the Creative Commons website.

*Can Creative Commons licenses be revoked?

No. Creative commons licenses are irrevocable, so you make sure that you select the license that best suits your needs.

*What constitutes a derivative work?

It largely depends on which local copyright laws apply to the work. Under US law, a derivative work is defined in Section 101 of copyright law. In general, if you have changed a work so much that it would warrant its own copyright privileges, it is considered an adaptation or derivative work, which would generally require permission of the original author (note, however, that if the cc license does not contain a "no derivatives" prohibition, derivative works are permissible).

*How does Creative Commons work internationally?

There are two general types of Creative Commons licenses: unported and ported. Unported licenses are broad and considered acceptable for international use. The Creative Commons organization has worked with a variety of jurisdictions and examined international agreements regarding copyright to ensure that these licenses allow creators to grant permission to use their works. Unported licenses are great for granting use privileges to as many people as possible all over the world.

*What about public domain?

Works that are in the public domain are not copyrightable and therefore cannot be covered by Creative Commons licenses. Should you find a work that is in the public domain and want to make sure others know, Creative Commons has created a public domain mark that can be applied to the work. However, this mark is not intended for works that are under copyright that you wish to waive your rights to.

When you apply a Creative Commons license to your work, some of your rights are reserved. If you wish to give up all of your rights and place your work directly into the public domain, Creative Commons offers a public domain license, known as a CC0.