CC HowTo #1: How to Attribute a Creative Commons licensed work

All Creative Commons licenses require future users to attribute the works they use:

You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work)

The Creative Commons FAQ has this to say about attributing CC-licensed works:

If you are using a work licensed under one of our core licenses, then the proper way of accrediting your use of a work when you’re making a verbatim use is: (1) to keep intact any copyright notices for the Work; (2) credit the author, licensor and/or other parties (such as a wiki or journal) in the manner they specify; (3) the title of the Work; and (4) the URL for the work if applicable.

You also need to provide the URL for the Creative Commons license selected with each copy of the work that you make available.

If you are making a derivative use of a work licensed under one of our core licenses, in addition to the above, you need to identify that your work is a derivative work, ie. “This is a Finnish translation of the [original work] by [author]” or “Screenplay based on [original work] by [author].”

These instructions are clear in theory, but many people who apply CC licenses to their work do not specify how they would like to be attributed. On sites like Flickr or ccMixter, you might not be able to determine the creator’s real name, and sometimes the work doesn’t have a title. If part of the goal of Creative Commons is to reduce transaction costs, then there must be some way to use those works without having to contact the creator to ask about proper attribution.

In practice, here’s how you can handle the attribution requirements listed above:

  1. “Keep intact any copyright notices for the Work”: If a work you’re using has a notice that says “© 2008 Molly Kleinman”, reproduce that notice when you credit the work. If such a notice does not appear, don’t worry about it.
  2. “Credit the author, licensor and/or other parties (such as a wiki or journal) in the manner they specify”: If a creator has a note attached to her work that says, “Please attribute Molly Kleinman as the creator of this work,” then attribute Molly Kleinman. If there is no note, but there is a copyright notice (see above), attribute the copyright holder named in the copyright notice. If there is no note or copyright notice but there is a username, check the creator’s profile to see if it specifies how to attribute the creator’s work. If it doesn’t, attribute the username. If there is no creator or author name of any kind, but there is a website (like Wikipedia Wikinews), attribute the website by name.
  3. “The title of the Work”: If the work has a title, call it by name. If it doesn’t, you can just say “This work by Molly Kleinman…” or just “Untitled, by Molly Kleinman…” Whatever seems appropriate.
  4. “The URL for the work if applicable”: Link back to the original source of the work. I would argue that this is the most important part of the attribution notice. It can help creators keep track of places where their work appears by seeing what links are driving traffic to their websites. It also gives users of your work an easy way to track down the original source. If you are reproducing a CC-licensed work in a print format, you might prefer not to include a long and ugly URL, and there might be situations where leaving out a URL is appropriate. But in general, the link is the most valuable part of the attribution.
  5. “The URL for the Creative Commons license”: Link to the license. The original work should have a link to the license under which it was released; link to the same place. You do not need to include the full text of the license when you reproduce a CC-licensed work.

There is no standard way to format the attribution of a CC-licensed work, and you can adapt the style or phrasing to suit your needs or the standard citation style of your discipline.

Here are a few examples:

An Ideal Attribution
This video features the song “Play Your Part (Pt.1)” by Girl Talk, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license. © 2008, Greg Gillis.

A Realistic Attribution
Photo by mollyali, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.

A Derivative Work Attribution
This is a video adaptation of the novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. Copyright © 2003 Cory Doctorow.

One last thing: The licenses do not require you to inform a creator that you are using her CC-licensed work, but it’s a nice thing to do. Most people are very happy to learn that someone is using and building upon their creations; that’s why they use Creative Commons licenses in the first place.

[This is a new project of mine inspired by some conversations on the cc-community listserv lamenting the lack of understanding among many users of Creative Commons-licensed work. The Creative Commons website has so much information on it that it can be hard to find a basic, bite-sized howto. I’m taking the material I use in my workshops, mixing it up with CC’s extensive documentation, and posting the results here. If anyone has ideas for topics they’d like me to cover, let me know. If you think I got something wrong, please let me know so I can fix it. And since the whole blog is CC-licensed, go ahead and use/adapt these however you like.]

Updated on August 22nd, 2008, at 9:23 pm