Creative Commons: Taking Ownership of Creativity

Lesson Overview

The AASL Standards Framework for Learners includes the shared foundation of Engage. This standard guides students to the ethical use of information, including things created by others as well as by the students themselves. Students will explore background on copyright and fair use, understand creative commons and how to use it, as well as discover public domain resources.

Lesson Outcomes for Students:

  • Define copyright and fair use;
  • Identify and understand Creative Commons licenses;
  • Apply a Creative Commons license to a product;
  • Search for Creative Commons and public domain materials on the web;
  • Properly attribute Creative Commons and public domain materials.

Cover Image Attribution: Pixabay, CC0

Section 1: What Does the Law Say?

In this first task, students will learn that works are automatically granted copyright protections. Students will explore the four fair use factors as they watch a video from Common Sense Education.

After the video, review the four fair use factors with students: the purpose of the use, the nature of the work, quantity used, and the monetary effect on the market.

As an extension, present students with high profile fair use cases and let them decide if fair use applies to the situation. A popular one in recent history is the lawsuit against Robin Thicke for the song “Blurred Lines.”

Copyright & the US Constitution

Think back to the last time you completed a multimedia project. Did you use an image or music from the internet?  Is it free to use if you find it on the internet? Actually, no. Did you know that anytime someone creates something you can touch, see, or hear (artwork, photograph, an essay, etc.) it is automatically granted a copyright? A copyright is a protection on a work that gives the creator the sole right to determine what happens with their work. The Copyright Act of 1976 has its basis in the US Constitution. The Framers included a provision for protecting works because they wanted us to be creative. Did you know that this even applies to the things you create? As soon as you create something tangible, it is protected by US Copyright law. No special trip to Washington DC required.

Fair Use Factors

But what about when your teacher assigns you a project? Does this mean you can no longer use stuff found online since it is protected by copyright? The good news is that the law does allow for exceptions to the rule since people like students, teachers, and journalists need access to items to be able to do their jobs. These exceptions to the rule are called fair use factors. There are certain rules that must be followed in order for fair use to be applied.

Watch the video Copyright and Fair Use Animation by Common Sense Education.  As you watch, identify each of the factors that qualify something as fair use.

Does fair use allow you to use anything you want online? That can be a gray area. The best protection you can give yourself is to know exactly what the creator wants. In the next section, you will explore Creative Commons, a system that allows creators to customize their wishes!

Section 2: What is Creative Commons?

In this task, students will learn about Creative Commons and the different types of licenses that are available. Students are asked to visit different websites to identify the types of creative commons licenses. Encourage students to look at all aspects of the page to identify the license, and even click on the license link if necessary.  Finally, students will identify the proper elements in an attribution. Remind students to get into the habit of doing this for everything that they create that uses someone else’s work.

Creative Commons Defined

What is Creative Commons? Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that provides different types of licenses that can be assigned to creative works to help people understand how to share, remix, or even profit from using.  The benefit to using Creative Commons is that you know exactly what the owner of the content wants for his or her creation.

Creative Commons Licenses

Creative Commons allows different types of licenses that range from very open licenses (where you can use the content however you wish) to very narrow licenses (which may have a lot of restrictions. Watch the video Creative Commons Kiwi posted on Common Sense Education. As you watch, identify the types of permissions that each Creative Commons license grants.

  • Which license is the most open?
  • Which license is the most restrictive?

Exploring Creative Commons Licenses

Now it is time to see Creative Commons licenses in action.  For each of the following websites, determine the following:

  • Can you change the item in any way?
  • Can you make money from it?
  • Can you change the type of license attached to it?

If you need a reminder on what the licenses mean, check out About the Licenses on the Creative Commons website.

  1. Alaskan Malamute
  2. Bicycle in Snow
  3. Soccer Ball
  4. Milky Way Glowing At Night
  5. Dog Barking


As a student, one thing to get in the habit of doing is providing an attribution for every source that you use, including Creative Commons licensed items. Most require an attribution as indicated by a CC BY license.

Visit the webpage Use & Remix on the Creative Commons website. Under the picture of cupcakes on a green tablecloth, you will find an example of an appropriate attribution.  What are the types of content that the author provides?

An appropriate attribution will include the title of the work, the person who created it, a link to the item, and the Creative Commons license.

Remember, it is a best practice to provide an attribution for everything that you use that someone else created.  If you can’t locate one or more pieces of information for the attribution, do your best to provide what information is there.  In the next section, you will learn how to create your own Creative Commons license.

Section 3: How Can I Create my Own Creative Commons License?

Students will create their own Creative Commons license and attach it to something they have created in this lesson. You may wish to guide students while they are selecting their type of license. Many of them will never have thought about the types of questions before, such as do they want to allow others to change their work, or making it commercially available.

Why Include a License?

If you have an interest in sharing your work so that others can use it, add a Creative Commons license to your products. By adding a license, you make it easier for other people to know how to use your work and contribute to a growing community of inspired creativity.

Create Your Own

Visit Creative Commons License Features and answer the questions. Do you want other people to be able to remix or change your work?  Do you want other people to keep the same license you have? What about giving other people the option to profit from your work? Once you decide on your preferences, Creative Commons will generate the license you can copy to your work.

Try this now with something you have already created.  Remember to include your name if you want people to attribute you.

Make attaching a Creative Commons license to your work a regular habit, especially for projects that you create and share online.

Section 4: How do I Find Creative Commons Licensed Items?

For this task, students will explore different sites that offer searches for Creative Commons licensed items. Students should visit the various sites and test them out to determine which ones they like and would be comfortable using.

The teacher may wish to tie these searches into a class project or assign topics to students. Students can evaluate different resources based on the relevancy to the search and ease of use.

An assessment option would be to have students curate resources from a variety of the sites listed. Students should give proper attribution for each resource.

Locating Creative Commons Licensed Items

Now that you know how easy it is to create and share Creative Commons licensed work, how can you find those materials for your own research?

One place to start is the Creative Commons Search page. On this page, you can choose a service that offers Creative Commons licensed items according to the type (images, music, video, mixed media).  Popular services on this page include:

  • Flickr
  • Google Images
  • Jamendo
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • YouTube
  • Pixabay
  • SoundCloud
  • And more!

Another extensive list of Creative Commons licensed search options is the Free Media Library published by Penn State Media Commons. The website is organized into categories with various services for each:  Audio, Images, & Video

For additional resources on music, visit Legal Music for Videos on the Creative Commons website.

A great resource for school projects is Photos for Class.  This website not only provides Creative Commons licensed images, but it provides a citation for you as well.

Do you still have the urge to open Google and start there? Bookmark the Google Advanced Image Search page.  Here you can search for an image and identify the usage rights of the images you want.

Explore the Resources

Choose one or more of the links above to explore. Try out the different sites by typing in a search query. You may want to use search terms from a previous project you completed or search your favorite hobby.

Which site(s) do you like the best? Which site(s) do you think it will be easiest to remember to use when you do research?  Bookmark or jot down your favorites.


As a reminder, any resource that you use should include an attribution. An appropriate attribution will include the title of the work, the person who created it, a link to the item, and the Creative Commons license.

Section 5: What is the Public Domain?

In this section, students will be exploring public domain resources. You may wish to give them an assignment similar to Task 4.  Students can be asked to curate a set of resources using only public domain resources. Students should give proper attribution for each source.

Defining the Public Domain

You may have noticed during your exploration of Creative Commons licensed resources the label CC0.  What does it mean? A CC0 license means the creator of the product has given up all rights to their work and the product is now part of the public domain. If an item is in the public domain, that means you can do whatever you want with the work.  Some items are automatically in the public domain, like government resources. Items also go into the public domain once their copyright expires.

Locating Public Domain Items

Many of the resources you explored in the previous section contained public domain items. The following links provide lists of public domain resources as well:

To search specifically for government resources, try an advanced search in Google.  You can type in your search terms, select the usage rights, and identify in site or domain that you only want government resources. Type .gov into the site or domain box.  Try it now.


As a reminder, any resource that you use should include an attribution, even if it is in the public domain. An appropriate attribution will include the title of the work, the person who created it, a link to the item, and the Creative Commons license.

Section 6: Reflection

In this final section, students will have an opportunity to reflect on the knowledge they have gained. Students can record their thoughts individually or share with a partner or small group.

The following are additional resources that may be helpful when instructing on copyright, fair use, Creative Commons, and the public domain.

Reflect on the knowledge and skills you have gained in this lesson. You explored copyright laws and fair use factors. You learned about Creative Commons and analyzed the different types of licenses. You created your own Creative Commons license and applied it to a work. Finally, you explored where to locate both Creative Commons licensed items as well as works in the public domain.

Answer the following questions as you reflect:

  1. What is the most important takeaway from this lesson for you?
  2. Which creative commons license do you see yourself using most often?
  3. How will you locate creative commons licensed items for your use?

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