What do all the licences mean? Decoding Creative Commons


Many of the articles found on Open Newswire fall under various Creative Commons licences, however it can sometimes be tricky to decipher what each specific licence permits you to do.

Each chunk of letters means something different:

  • CC stands for Creative Commons
  • BY means you must attribute the original creator of the work, i.e. who it is by
  • SA means you must share alike, i.e. under the same Creative Commons licence
  • NC means you can only reuse the work for non-commercial purposes
  • ND means while you can reuse the work, no derivatives of it can be made

These different conditions can then be combined into six different Creative Commons licences, with CC BY being the most free, and CC BY-NC-ND being the most restrictive.

Here’s a handy explainer, courtesy of Foter (CC BY-SA):

The problem is, not everyone agrees on how to interpret these conditions, and that includes journalists.

For some publications, the NC or Non-Commercial condition means only not-for-profit publications can reuse their work. For others, it simply means someone can’t resell their articles individually.

Take this quote from ProPublica, which uses the CC BY-NC-ND licence:

It’s okay to put our stories on pages with ads, but not ads specifically sold against our stories. You can’t state or imply that donations to your organization support ProPublica’s work.

These terms mean that pretty much all publications are free to reuse ProPublica’s articles.

On the other hand, RioOnWatch uses the CC BY-NC-SA licence but says only not-for-profit publications can freely reuse its articles:

All RioOnWatch content can be shared freely assuming (a) no profit is made, (b) content is not modified without it being expressly stated what modifications were conducted and why (including original links), and (c) shared content and its author(s) are recognized as being sourced on RioOnWatch and linked to at the top of the article. We do ask, however, that any given publication not republish more than one article per month without written agreement. And for-profit publications can contact us about republishing in exchange for a small fee.

The NC or Non-Commercial condition of many Creative Commons licences is thus interpreted very inconsistently.

That’s why it’s always best to double-check each publication’s specific terms before going ahead. You can do this by hovering over most licence tags for more info and – in most cases – clicking through to that publication’s own terms and conditions page.

What does Attribution+ mean?

Many publications allow people to republish their work, but they don’t use a specific Creative Commons licence.

We’ve created a category for these publications called Attribution+ because they all require some form of basic attribution, plus – in some cases – some other conditions.

One example is Africa Check:

All our fact-checking reports, factsheets and guides can be republished in full for free. We require that you credit “Africa Check” in the byline and include the following sentence at the end of the article, with a link back to the original page: “This report was written by Africa Check, a non-partisan fact-checking organisation. View the original piece on their website.”

Another example is Myanmar Now:

You may republish, reproduce, transmit or distribute Myanmar Now content:

– which is Myanmar Now Content; and

– which is unchanged and in whole and which has not been edited, re-interpreted or re-ordered; and

– with a credit which must include the name of the author and our full name: “Myanmar Now”, with a hyperlink back to the Site; and

– in a manner which does not suggest any form of association, approval or endorsement by Myanmar Now; and

– which does not damage our reputation or take advantage of it.

A third example is UN News:

The United Nations welcomes the use of UN News Centre articles as long as the articles are posted in their entirety, without any edits and with proper credits accorded. We also require that, where applicable, you provide a link a back to the story on the UN News Centre home page www.un.org/news

In general, for-profit publications can still republish articles which fall under the Attribution+ category, however it’s always best to double-check at the source beforehand.

In future, we’d love to incorporate a filter so Open Newswire users can easily exclude certain licences or only look through specific ones. But given the inconsistencies in interpretation, this is not a priority.

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