OER Guide: Public Domain and Creative Commons

Quick Overview of Open Educational Resources

Public Domain and Creative Commons

Works in the Public Domain and Creative Commons Licenses

Copyright law protects authors, artists, and creators so that they can benefit from and protect the tangible works they create. Copyright holders have the exclusive right to copy and distribute their works, and to publicly perform and display their works, among other things. How can you use someone else's work without infringing on their copyrights?

Public Domain iconFirst, consider using works that are in the public domain, which are materials not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright. A work may have entered the public domain because the copyright expired, the copyright owner has dedicated the work to the public domain, or it may be a work published by the U.S. Federal Government. 


Although there are a number of other scenarios where a work might exist in the public domain, you can identify many public domain works because they are:

  • Works published in the U.S. before 1924
  • Works of the U.S. Federal Government produced by employees or officers acting in their official capacities
  • Laws, including statutes and case law
  • Facts and data (though the expression of facts/data may be copyright protected)
  • Works dedicated to the public domain by the copyright holder, often labeled with a "CC0" symbol or icon

 This is a simple overview of the public domain. Determining whether a work is in the public domain can be quite complicated. If you'd like to read more about copyright, fair use, and the public domain, Stanford University Libraries has an excellent guide.


Creative Commons iconNext, a growing body of copyright protected work is openly licensed. This means that a copyright holder has proactively agreed to allow users to do a variety of things with his or her work, which might include copying, redistributing, revising, and remixing that work without seeking permission first. One organization, Creative Commons, has developed licenses that copyright holders can attach to their works in the form of six different open licenses. Each license has slightly different requirements that users must follow.

Creative Commons License Types
Creative Commons License and Icon What the License Requires

Creative Commons Attribution License


Attribution or 

This license allows users to distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon a work, even commercially, as long as they credit the copyright holder for the original creation.


Attribution-ShareAlike or

This license allows users to distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon a work, even commercially, as long as they credit the copyright holder and license their new creation under identical terms.


Attribution-NonCommercial or

This license allows users to remix, tweak, and build upon a work non-commercially, and although the new work must acknowledge you and have a non-commercial, component in the license, the new work does not have to have the identical license.


Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike or

This license allows users to remix, tweak, and build upon a work non-commercially, as long as the new creation is licensed under identical terms.

Creative Commons Attribution NoDerivs icon


Attribution NoDerivs or 

This license allows users to reuse the work for any purpose, including commercially as long as they credit the copyright holder and do not share an adapted form of the work. 


Attribution NonCommercial NoDerivs

This license is the most restrictive of the six main licenses, only allowing users to download works and share them with others as long as the copyright holder is credited and the work is not changed in any way or used commercially.

"The Licenses" by Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0. The text and layout in the above table has been slightly changed from the original.

Attribution Required

If you use a Creative Commons licensed work, all six licenses require attribution.  A proper attribution requires:

  • The title of the work with a link back to the original source
  • The author or copyright holder of the work
  • The Creative Commons license under which the work is released with a link to the Creative Commons deed.

A useful online tool to help you create attributions is the Open Washington Attribution Builder.

For more information about the Creative Commons licenses, check out the organization's website

Public Domain Tools

If you are not sure if a work is in the public domain, there are some very effective tools which may be of help.

Remixing Chart

Attributions for Using Creative Commons Works

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