Applying a
Creative Commons
license to your academic journal

Stack of books

Most open access publishers attach Creative Commons (CC) licenses to the articles they publish, providing a simple way of notifying authors and readers of their respective rights. These licenses run the gamut of user rights, controlling (for example) whether articles may be modified or shared commercially.

However, it's often the case these same publishers are unable to justify the license they employ. A common excuse is, "This is the license and copyright policy another journal used." Another one is that the journal simply doesn't understand the difference between licenses. We're here to change that!

This simple guide introduces academic publishers to the range of CC licenses, and the freedoms they provide to authors and readers. Additionally, it may also be useful to authors who would like to submit to an open access journal but don't now what that entails in terms of their rights.

Traditional copyright is incompatible with open access, which by the Budapest Open Access Initiative's definition is, in the realm of academic publishing, content that is freely available on the internet and permits users to:

[R]ead, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself.

The BOAI goes further to explain that the only role for copyright in open access should be to give authors both control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited. Such a broad and varied range of freedoms necessitates something beyond copyright, something which works alongside it to pre-grant these rights.

A primer on Creative Commons licenses

What are CC licenses?

Copyright limits reuse of content. CC licenses enable creators to easily distribute their works in ways that would be otherwise limited by copyright.

What is the function of a CC license?

CC licenses work alongside copyright, but take a “some rights reserved” approach, giving creators a clear, standardized way of granting up-front permissions to the users of their works, who can then use, share, adapt, or sell these works under specific conditions.

Learn more about Creative Commons licenses

Thus, whether you use a Creative Commons license or another compatible license, as an open access publisher, you will need to find a way to grant these aforementioned rights. What makes Creative Commons special is that it makes doing so very easy. CC licenses not only conform to the BOAI's definition of open access, they have been designed to be easy for journals to use and easy for authors and readers to understand.

Creative Commons licenses are also versatile, covering a wide array of use cases. Just as a CC license can be used to allow modifications of an article, another CC license can be used to prevent it. This makes them perfect for open access journals, which as a whole share the same goal of making content accessible but individually may differ as to how this content may be used.

With Creative Commons, we choose how our articles are shared and used. We are able to publish with peace of mind, knowing that anyone can read and share our articles but we still maintain copyright and control over exactly how much freedom we give to authors and readers.

CC licenses are built on a solid foundation

Creative Commons licenses were designed to be understandable by regular people (meaning those of us without law degrees!), while still being legally enforceable. On top of that, they are also machine-readable.1 These three layers of the CC license can be understood as follows:

The legal code: The “lawyer-readable” terms and conditions, which are legally enforceable in court.
The commons deeds: The “human-readable” terms, which everyone can understand, summarizing what people can and can't do with the work.
The metadata: The “machine-readable” terms, which similarly summarize what people can and can't do, but is written in a format that is understood by various kinds of software (such as PDF readers).

Get started by choosing your conditions

Creative Commons provides four options when choosing a license. The first, BY (Attribution), is always enabled. The other three are SA (ShareAlike), NC (NonCommercial), and ND (NoDerivatives). You don't need to choose just one condition—you can choose all that apply to your use case.

So, the first step towards choosing your license simply entails choosing which conditions you want to apply to the usage of your articles. Ask yourself:

  1. Can people modify the article?

  2. If people modify the article, can they choose their own copyright license or should they use the same license as mine?

  3. Can people use the article for commercial purposes?

By answering these questions, you should be naturally realizing which of CC licenses' four conditions will apply to you.


Appropriate attribution must be given to the journal and author.


If adaptations are made, the resulting work must be licensed under the same terms or those of a compatible license.


This work may only be used for non-commercial purposes (defined as “not primarily intended for or directed towards commercial advantage or monetary compensation.”


Only the original, whole work may be shared. Anyone can still modify this work, but this modified version may never be shared.

The six different Creative Commons licenses

Once you have chosen your conditions, you are effectively done. Your choice of conditions will have automatically chosen your license for you!

For example, if you don't want modifications or commercial reuses, your license will automatically be CC BY-NC-ND, or if you don't care about modifications or commercial reuses, you will naturally settle on CC BY. It's that simple!

Note that each license has a different level of freedom for authors and readers. The more conditions you apply, the less freedom people will have. You can use this simple chart to understand the relative openness of each CC license.


Remember that CC licenses do not apply in cases where copyright does not apply

Because CC licenses are built to work alongside copyright, they (rightfully) have the same limitations when it comes to fair use and the public domain. A copyrighted work may be reused without the permission of its creator, if that usage is deemed to fall under fair use, fair dealing, or a similar exception. The same is true of a CC license.

For example, a teacher may modify an article published by a closed access (subscription-based) journal for use in their classroom. This same teacher can also modify an article that is licensed CC BY-ND. Fair use makes this usage acceptable, regardless of the license being used.

A CC license also can't apply to works that are in the public domain, because these works are not subject to copyright law. Once a work is in the public domain, it stays there forever.

Speaking of public domain...


Public Domain Mark

Nevertheless, although a CC license can't be applied to a work in the public domain, Creative Commons still provides two tools related to the public domain: CC0 (Creative Commons Zero) and the Public Domain Mark.

Whereas the six CC licenses take a “some rights reserved” approach to copyright licensing, CC0 is strictly “no rights reserved”, and reserved for creators who do not care about being attributed. With the CC0 waiver, you waive all copyrights and related or neighboring rights, including moral rights, publicity or privacy rights, rights you have protecting against unfair competition, and database rights and rights protecting the extraction, dissemination and reuse of data.

CC0 is more open even than CC BY, but using it means you should have no expectation of being acknowledged as the publisher of a given article.

The CC Public Domain Mark takes the “no known copyright” approach, referring to works that are no longer restricted by copyright. Articles that fall under this category will be those that were published a very long time ago (probably before you were born), whose copyright has lapsed.

Ready to get your license?

Use the Creative Commons license chooser to get your license. With this tool, you will automatically be given the code to paste alongside your content.

CC license chooser


Still not sure about which license is best for your journal? Play our little non-interactive adventure game and learn more about CC licenses.

Choose your adventure

Siti Nurleily Marliana and Joaquim Baeta. This guide is published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


  1. Machine-readable CC licensing is one of the requirements for the DOAJ Seal. Because machine readability is built into the CC license, this requirement can be easily satisfied.

Image credits (in order of appearance)

  1. [Cover image] “Synapse” by Seung Lab,, CC BY 2.0

  2. “Office Icons” by Thalita Torres,, free for commercial use (colors modified and flare added to fit theme)

  3. Three "layers" of licenses by Creative Commons,, CC BY 4.0