In addition to Attribution, some Creative Commons licenses limit the permissions they grant to non-commercial uses only.
The Human Readable summary of the NC license says,
Noncommercial. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.
The relevant language in the Legal Deed says,
You may not exercise any of the rights granted to You in Section 3 above in any manner that is primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation.
This means that as long as you’re not making or trying to make money from your use of the licensed work, you’re okay. Common categories of non-commercial uses include educational uses, personal uses, fan uses, and just-for-fun posted-to-YouTube uses. Meanwhile, any use of a work for which the goal is to make money is not permitted under the NC license, even if the context itself is not commercial.
What seems to trip people up about the NonCommercial licenses is the difference between “non-commercial” and “not-for-profit.” It’s possible to operate in a non-profit setting and make a commercial use of a work, and it’s also possible to work in a for-profit setting and make a non-commercial use.
A pair of examples
A commercial use in a non-profit setting
Members of the not-for-profit Historical Widget Society would like to sell calendars as a fundraiser for their widget preservation efforts. They find a group of historical widget enthusiasts on Flickr, and notice that many of the photographs were released under Creative Commons licenses. Can the Widget Society use photos released under NonCommercial licenses in its fundraising calendars? No, because the calendars are “primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation.” Even though the “private monetary compensation” will be collected by a not-for-profit, the purpose of selling the calendars is to make money, which makes the use commercial.
A noncommercial use in a for-profit setting
The CEO of a profitable widget manufacturing company is retiring. For her retirement party, some of the staff get together one weekend to make a humorous video chronicling A Day in the Life of the CEO. The video will only be shown at the retirement celebration, and the CEO will get a copy on DVD as a gift. The staffers decide they’d like to set the video to music, and find a nice little BY-NC-licensed song on ccMixter. Can they use it? Yes, because the video for the CEO is not “primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation”. No one is selling the video, using it to sell something, or being paid to create it, so it’s a non-commercial use.
Threee pairs of mini examples
- Using an illustration on a birthday party invitation = Non-commercial
Using an illustration on a charity auction invitation = Commercial
- Using a song as the soundtrack to a collection of home videos for the family reunion = Non-commercial
Using a song as the soundtrack to an advertisement for a Family Reunion Travel deal = Commercial
- Using a photo on a personal website that has no ads = Non-commercial
Using a photo on an ad-supported website = Commercial
Every situation is different, and these examples are intentionally simplistic. Before using an NC-licensed work, always take a moment to consider whether your use has anything to do with making money or selling something.
Two things to keep in mind
- Creative Commons licenses do not affect your fair use rights. If you have a commercial use in mind that is also probably a fair use, the application of an NC license will not stop you from making that fair use.
- If you would like to use a CC-licensed work in a way that is not permitted by the license, you can ask for permission. Copyright holders are free to offer as many different non-exclusive licenses as they like. NonCommercial licenses don’t rule out the possibility of commercial use, they just mean the copyright holder wants you to ask first, and possibly pay for the privilege.
[This project was inspired by some conversations on the cc-community listserv lamenting the lack of understanding among many users of Creative Commons-licensed work. I'm taking the material I use in my workshops, mixing it up with CC's extensive documentation, and posting the results here. If you have ideas for topics you'd like me to cover, let me know. If you think I got something wrong, please let me know so I can fix it. I am not a lawyer, and these posts should not be construed as legal advice.]