Creative Commons licenses in academic publishing

Today, our lives have become unimaginable without the use of the Internet and the multitude of social media platforms. For the most part, our online activities involve accessing, sharing, and collaborating on the creative works of other people. Did you know that, under the traditional copyright law – also known for the slogan, “all rights reserved” – we would not be able to engage in the earlier-mentioned activities as effortlessly as we do now since, by default, it restricts the common use of creative works, such as academic papers, books, and music?

However, the developers of the Creative Commons licenses have managed to rise to the challenge of the era of digital technology by providing creators with standardized tools to permit others the use of their copyrighted work resulting in a win-win situation for both creators and users. Given that all scientific publications are subject to copyright law, the academic world benefits from the emergence of the Creative Commons licenses enormously. In this blog article, we provide an overview of what these licenses are as well as their role in Open Access (OA) publishing.

Creative Commons licenses: A brief history

Predatory Publishing Creative Commons Licenses

The Creative Commons licenses stand for “a set of free, public licenses that (…) allow[s] creators to keep their copyrights while sharing their works on more flexible terms than the default ‘all rights reserved.’” They were published in 2002; however, the story begins in 1998 when the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) came into effect in the United States. This meant the extension of the copyright law by 20 years, and thus, prescribing that copyright applies until 70 years after the death of the given work’s creator – following this period, the work is considered to be the property of the public.

Another focal point in the history of the Creative Commons licenses is the Eldred vs. Ashcroft case. This refers to Eric Eldred, an internet publisher challenging the constitutionality of the CTEA with the support of his lawyer, Lawrence Lessig. In particular, they argued that the extension of the copyright was not conducive to the development of the arts and sciences since works are typically most profitable right after they are published. While the Eldred-Lessig team lost the case, Lessig continued to stand up to his belief, which eventually led to the establishment of a nonprofit organization named Creative Commons as well as the creation of the licenses.

Although the history of the Creative Commons licenses can be traced back to the United States, they quickly became a worldwide phenomenon due to copyright laws in other countries being similarly restrictive. Nowadays, due to the ubiquity of the Internet, intellectual works are continuously being shared and remixed, which is made possible thanks to the licenses. Their popularity is attested by the fact that almost 2 billion works are licensed across 9 million webpages.

Purposes of CC licenses

The Creative Commons licenses were designed to cater for the needs of different groups. A result of this is that they consist of three layers, namely:

  • The legal code, which was created with lawyers and judges in mind. It is written in legal language, which renders the licenses powerful and legitimate.
  • The commons deed, also referred to as the “human readable” layer, which was made for the laypeople, as the name suggests. It provides a summary of the legal code in a concise manner (e.g., CC BY-SA), and it is, in fact, this component that we typically associate the Creative Commons licenses with.
  • The digital code, also known as the “ machine readable” layer, which was designed with the various kinds of existing technology in mind (e.g., software, search engines). As a result, online contents can be searched for according to the specifics of their licensing, a function that facilitates the creation, copying, discovery, and distribution of creative works.

The types of CC licenses

There exist six different types of Creative Commons licenses. They are basically structured into two parts (Aliprandi, 2012): The first part refers to the freedom that the licensor provides to the licensees regarding the use of one’s work, while the second part specifies the conditions under which the given work can be used. There are four different conditions, which pertain to the attribution, the commercial use, and the adaptation of the original work as well as the type of license with which the derivative work can be shared (Aliprandi, 2012). The six licenses have one common component, the Attribution, which guarantees that upon the use or share of any work, credit is always given to the original author.

Here follows the list of the six Creative Commons licenses

  • CC BY (Attribution): With the help of this license, a work can be copied, distributed, adapted, and used both for commercial and non-commercial purposes as long as the original author is acknowledged.
  • CC BY-SA (Attribution – ShareAlike): This license is similar to the previous one except that it requires that the derivative work be shared under the same license as the original one.
  • CC BY-ND (Attribution – NoDerivatives): This license is different from the CC BY one in that it does not permit the adaptation of the original work in any way.
  • CC BY-NC (Attribution – NonCommercial): What makes this license different from the CC BY one is that it does not allow the use of an original work for commercial purposes.
  • CC BY-NC-SA(Attribution – NonCommercial – ShareAlike): This license entails the same conditions as the CC BY-NC one except that the derivative work must be shared under the same license as the original one.
  • CC BY-NC-ND (Attribution – NonCommercial – NoDerivatives): This license is different from the CC BY one in that it does not permit the use of the original work for commercial purposes nor its adaptation.

It follows from the earlier presentation that the most permissive type of the licenses is the CC BY one, and the most restrictive is the CC BY-NC-ND one. As such, works with the CC BY license are more likely to be preferred among users. It is also important to point out that while all six licenses enable the free copying and distribution of a work, only some of them permit the modification of the original work upon its use (Aliprandi, 2012).

The role of the Creative Commons licenses in Open Access (OA) scientific publishing

So, what relevance do Creative Commons licenses bear to academic publishing? Traditionally, in the case of subscription-based journals, the accessing of articles was a privilege of those whose institutions were able to pay the (often costly) subscription fee annually. However, this method hinders scientific progress as it neither enables the dissemination of research findings on a broad scale nor facilitates the remixing of the original work due to the fact that the creator of the copyrighted material must be asked for permission.

It was the advent of the OA movement that brought about the need for the use of the Creative Commons licenses in the scholarly world. This can best be illustrated by the definition of OA, which refers to “the free availability [of literature] on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles (…) without financial, legal, or technical barriers.” In order for a scientific work to be truly OA as well as to maximize its impact, the use of the CC BY license is encouraged. In fact, according to the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), the CC BY is the most popular license among OA journals, followed by the CC BY-NC-ND and the CC BY-NC licenses.

Creative Commons licenses at AKJournals

AKJournals is committed to advancing science through its OA policy, in which the Creative Commons licenses play an essential role. Typically, Gold OA articles are CC BY-NC licensed -- or CC BY licensed if the funder requests so. Authors opting for subscription-based access to their article, too, are generously provided with the Green OA possibility free of charge. This means that the CC BY license applies to the Author’s Accepted Manuscript (while the copyright of the Version of Record is transferred to the publisher in the traditional way). You can obtain information about the employed licenses either in the author guidelines of our respective journals or in the Sherpa Romeo database.


Aliprandi, S. (2012). Creative Commons: A user guide. Ledizioni.