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How to Use Creative Commons Copyright Licenses [Complete Guide]

Oct 26, 2023• Proven solutions

Creative Commons Copyright

You might have noticed that, when you post a video, you get to choose how you want to copyright it: standard license, or creative commons. You’ve also probably noticed that when you looking for royalty-free music or stock footage a lot of it is licensed through creative commons.

So, what exactly are creative commons?

To hold the copyright to a creative work means that you own it, and anybody who wants to use your work for anything (i.e. uses a song you composed in their YouTube video) has to do so on your terms. When you license your work through creative commons you do not give up your rights to your creative work (a common misconception).

When you use a creative commons license you are outlining the terms under which other creators are allowed to use your creations in their projects for free if they credit you for your work.

If you do not want anyone using your work for free in any context, you stick to traditional copyrighting.

But if you’ve created a piece of music, a photograph, or a clip that you wouldn’t mind other people using, potentially as a way to get your name out there, you might want to consider creative commons.

There are 6 different creative commons licenses. Which is right for you will depend on your answers to these two questions:

Are you okay with a creator making money off of something they create using your work?

Are you okay with a creator producing a derivative of your work?

To say ‘no derivatives’ is to say ‘I’m okay with people using it, so long as they don’t change it’. One example of a derivative is a techno remix of a song. If you are alright with other creators making derivatives of your work, you may also want to require them to ‘ShareAlike’. ShareAlike means that the creator of that techno remix of your song has to use the same creative commons license you used for your original to distribute the remix.

An example of a derivative someone might make of a YouTube video would be auto-tuning it to make a song or cutting up your video to make one that’s just ‘the funny parts’.

Here are the 6 creative commons licenses, and a chart you can use as a quick reference tool.

Attribution – CC BY

If you’re using music or other media with this license, all you need to do is credit the artist.

If you license your video this way, people can do whatever they like with any element of it (video or sound) so long as they credit you. I.e. if someone wanted to mute your clips and use you as stock footage in a bigger project, they could.

Attribution-ShareAlike – CC BY-SA

If you use music, photos, or any other media licensed this way, then you must both credit the artist and license your video this same way. Meaning, you can’t use YouTube’s standard license and must instead allow for others to use your work the way you are using the licensed media.

If you apply this license to your video, you’re saying you don’t mind people using all or portions of your video for their project so long as they allow others to use their work in the same way.

Attribution-NoDerivs – CC BY-ND

This one can get tricky.

Essentially, you can use media licensed this way so long as you don’t alter it or create a different version. For example, you can’t take a song licensed this way and use it in a mashup with another song. That part is clear. Where it gets tricky is when you want to use a song in your video.

Under normal copyright rules, using a royalty-free song in the background of your video would not count as creating a derivative. The definition of derivative according to creative commons is a bit broader and includes ‘syncing’. This means you can’t take an ‘Attribution-NoDerivs’ song and create any kind of music video for it.

For example, you can’t edit clips of yourself snowboarding so that they’re in sync with a song that has this license.

Whether or not you can play the song in the background of your vlog while you are speaking can be a bit of a grey area. In theory, it shouldn’t be a problem, but if you’re accessing the music through a social site like SoundCloud then it might be best to ask the artist first.

There’s no reason to license your YouTube videos this way. If people cannot alter your video, all that’s left is for them to repost it. Even though they’d also be crediting you, they’d still essentially be stealing views and ad revenue from your original video.

Attribution-NonCommercial – CC BY-NC

If you’re using stock footage, music, or stock photos licensed this way then you should still be able to monetize your video. YouTube monetization and commercial use are different things. However, there is a lot of confusion about this issue, and chances are the rights holder intends for this license to mean 'no monetization'. 

What you definitely could not do with a NonCommercial license is to use the song/other media in an actual commercial for a product, including product placement that a brand is paying you for. 

If you license your video this way, people can use it in whatever way they like so long as they credit you and don’t try to make money off of it. Once again, that doesn't mean they can't use it in a YouTube video which they monetize because, technically, they'd be making money off of the ad that ran ahead of the video and not the video itself. 

The thing to be careful of with this license is that it’s not ‘ShareAlike’. So, if you license your video this way somebody could use your clips as stock footage and then provide them  - as part of their project – for free to a third person to use in a project they were making money off of.

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike – CC BY-NC-SA

Music and other media with an ‘Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike’ license can be used in and altered for your videos, so long as you aren't making money off those videos. You must also use this same license for the video you create using elements licensed this way.

If you license your video this way, people can use it or a portion of it in their project if they credit you. They must also use this same license for their video if they do. This protects you from the situation where a third person who never licensed your original content is making money off of it.

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs – CC BY-NC-ND

There aren’t many situations where you would be using media licensed this way in your YouTube videos. You can’t alter it, sync videos to it, or make money from any video that uses it.

You also probably shouldn’t use this license for your videos. ‘NoDerivs’ means there are not many ways people could use your content, except to repost full videos and steal your views.

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author avatar
Richard Bennett
Richard Bennett is a writer and a lover of all things video.
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