Attribution the Creative Commons Way

A recent article on Social Media delved into a touchy subject, how to appropriately attribute work that has been licensed under Creative Commons licenses.

It’s touchy because most Creative Commons licenses require attribution but, as Cheryl Colan pointed out, the Creative Commons deeds are vague about how to actually do so.

It took Mia Garlick, general counsel for Creative Commons, to step in and point to the Creative Commons License itself, which details to the requirements.

However, even with the requirements in front of you, it’s not that simple, especially when you factor in the human element.

What the License Says

The actual Creative Commons License is pretty clear about what is required to attribute a work. In addition to the requirement of the name, the CC license also asks for:

  1. Other parties designated by the licensor for attribution (includes sponsors, publishers, etc.) and their terms of service
  2. The title of the work
  3. The Uniform Resource Identifier (link) if practical and if the link contains information about the licensing of the work
  4. A designation that the use is a derivative work if it is as such.

The requirements themselves are pretty simple. The first will likely never come up as few CC licensed works will designate any other parties. Four only applies in cases where derivative works are created (and allowed). Finally, two and three are both pretty much standard practice when it comes to using other work on the Web.

This will work well in about 99% of all cases of using CC licensed work on the Web. However, there are inevitably going to be cases where things get a little difficult.

The Human Element

The CC license, in a bid to be flexible, also allows licensors to specify how they want to be attributed. Most people do not, thus the confusion, but some do.

Examples of requirements that users might add that aren’t directly covered in the CC license itself include:

  • Specific phrasing, such as what Scott Beale of Laughing Squid does with his photos.
  • Numly Numbers.
  • Additional licensing requirements/limitations.
  • Copyright notices.
  • Notes, such as footnotes.

The problem isn’t in following these additional rules directly. If they are spelled out clearly and are reasonable there should be no trouble in carrying out the wishes. The problem is that the wishes are not viral.

For example, when site A repurposes a work from site B, they can follow the guidelines from the original site. However, when site C goes to repurpose it a second time from site A, the rules may not be clear and will not be followed, thus accidentally violating the license.

It’s a tricky situation, but there are ways to easily avoid any problems that might come up from it.


There are several steps that Webmasters and bloggers can, and should, take to minimize this risk. It’s not just a matter of avoiding Creative Commons conflicts, but also a matter of ethical repurposing.

  1. Always Repurpose from the Original Site: If you see a work that is repurposed on another site, don’t simply copy and paste their reuse, visit the original site and pull from there. Not only is that better for licensing, but you might find more that is of interest. In short, don’t trust the middle man.
  2. Keep Your Requirements Simple: If you distribute work under CC licenses, don’t tack on unusual or unnecessary requirements for attribution. Specifying your name or URL is generally thought of as reasonable, even some phrasing adjustments are acceptable, but setting in stone how and what you want displayed hurts the ability of people to take advantage of the license and increases confusion.
  3. When in Doubt, Use Name and Link: The vast majority of sites that use CC licenses are fine with just a name and a link. However, do try to include both the name of the site and of the author if possible. If you’re a writer, it’s generally easy to weave such attribution into your text or by just using a byline.

All in all, these are not unreasonable steps but ones that often get overlooked in the confusion. If we all keep smart about these matters and focus on being fair and respectful, these problems will likely never become an issue.


All in all, attribution involving CC licenses is a simple affair. Most sites have agreed on a procedure that involves little more than a name and link, those that ask for more can easily be handled by going through the middle man and pulling from the source, ensuring compliance.

However, the Creative Commons system was designed to make it easy to reuse content. To facilitate that, those of us that use such licenses need to do our part to not over burden the system.

In short, it’s about allowing acceptable use, not creating new restrictions. There’s a good set of conventions for CC reuse out there right now, for the most part, it’s best to stick to them.

I’m fine with the norm here at PT, thus why I have no strange requirements. I don’t see why it can’t work at most sites.

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