ZB MED Publication Portal for Life Sciences


What do Creative Commons licenses offer?

Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organisation that releases pre-formulated copyright licences which give creators great flexibility in communicating which rights they reserve and which rights they waive when it comes to other people using their work. By default, copyright law reserves all exploitation rights exclusively for the copyright holder and excludes anyone else from exploiting a copyrighted work, so the Creative Common system introduces a more flexible means by which authors can control how they wish to share their works.

Creative Commons licences can only be granted to works which are subject to copyright and can only be granted by the holder of the exploitation rights. That means that CC licences cannot be granted by authors who have signed over all their exploitation rights to a publisher or who have only retained a non-exclusive exploitation right.

For research data CC licenses can only be granted if they have a certain originality and copyright is applicable. For instance, this does not apply to measurement data. In case of doubt case-by-case review is necessary.

Creative Commons licenses are not recommended for software.

The validity of a Creatice Commons license is determined by the validity of the copyright.

Creative Commons licences are a form of open content license. Other open content licenses include the General Public License (GNU) for software licensing and various alternatives to CC licences. However, CC licenses are probably the most widespread option. They are even used by scientific publishers who run open access programs such as BioMed Central and SpringerOpen.

What types of CC licenses are available?

Creative Commons (CC) licences are composed of different elements, or conditions. These conditions are combined in order to create a licence that meets the creator's needs and grants the required exploitation rights. Each condition is represented by an acronym:

  • Attribution: BY
  • Non-commercial use: NC
  • No derivative works: ND 
  • Share-alike: SA

Mixing and matching these elements produces a total of six commonly used licences:

  • CC-BY: Attribution
  • CC-BY-ND: Attribution, no derivative works
  • CC-BY-NC: Attribution, non-commercial use
  • CC-BY-NC-ND: Attribution, non-commercial use, no derivative works
  • CC-BY-NC-SA: Attribution, non-commercial use, share-alike
  • CC-BY-SA: Attribution, share-like 

Use of the relevant acronyms makes it immediately clear how the work may be used.

Since Creative Commons licences are non-exclusive, additional individual agreements may be concluded with entities such as publishers in order to grant additional rights. Permission must be sought for any usage that goes beyond the conditions stipulated in the licence.

It is not possible for copyright holders to subsequently revoke rights granted through a CC licence, since these are non-revocable. Creative Commons also offers a help page to make it easier for copyright holders to choose the right licence for them.

From the range of the licences mentioned above only CC-BY and CC-BY-SA are in accordance with the open access definitions. Although several usage rights are granted the author’s personal/ moral rights are preserved.

Versions of Creative Commons licences

CC licences have been revised several times over the years, so a number of versions now exist. Version 4.0 is the current version. The conditions of use always depend on the CC license version which was used by the copyright holder. The licence conditions of older versions of the CC license are not automatically updated to the latest version. The version used in each case is indicated together with the licence conditions (e.g. CC-BY-SA 3.0 means that version 3.0 was used).

Earlier versions of the CC licence have been 'ported' to a number of different jurisdictions to reflect differing legal systems. Country codes are used to indicate the jurisdiction to which a licence has been ported. The code for Germany is DE. If there is no country code, or if the licence is described as unported, then the international version of the license applies. No country-specific ports have so far been implemented in version 4.0 of the CC licence. This is because version 4.0 has been optimised for international use. 

Requirements stipulated by research funders

Some funders (e.g. the Wellcome Trust) stipulate which CC licenses have to be used. It is recommended to check these requirements before publication. If a publisher offers a different CC licence which does not match the licence specified by a funder, this issue should be discussed before concluding the contract, and an exception should be sought where applicable.


Important note: The information and links provided here do not represent any form of binding legal advice. They are solely intended to provide an initial basis to help get you on the right track. ZB MED – Leibniz Information Centre for Life Sciences has carefully checked the information included in the list of FAQs. However, we are unable to accept any liability whatsoever for any errors it may contain. Unless indicated otherwise, any statements concerning individual statutory norms or regulations refer to German law (as of 1/2015).