CC BY or CC-BY- Grammar explanation required

This is a small (and somewhat silly) question, but I’m wondering if someone could help me out. I’m pretty sure CC BY has no hyphen but I’ve seen it used sometimes. Can anyone provide an explanation of the grammar? CC BY or CC-BY???

@metatechne — if I recall, you had a very sensible explanation to this question when we were working on the Philosophy of Mind book. Something about the hyphen only being used for the conditions of the license… Perhaps you can give a simple answer?


@LeighKP Just what @apurva says. It’s common to see CC-BY… with the hyphen between CC and the Attribution abbreviation (BY), but it’s technically not how Creative Commons structures the license abbreviations. Is it a big deal? No, but I think the using the hyphen between CC and BY obscures the descriptive meaning a bit.

If you want a more expansive explanation, read on…

CC simply designates Creative Commons as the entity, whereas BY, NC, SA, and ND are descriptive elements of the 6 licenses: they tell you something about what the license itself requires or restricts.

  • CC BY = Attribution license
  • CC BY-SA = Attribution-ShareAlike license
  • CC BY-NC = Attribution-NonCommercial license
  • CC BY-NC-SA = Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license
  • CC BY-ND = Attribution-NoDerivatives license
  • CC BY-NC-ND = Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license

Notice that all 6 of these licenses have BY in common, meaning that they all grant up-front reuse of the work so long as, at the very least, attribution of the work is provided. If there are any letters that follow the BY, then that’s your indication that there are further restrictions or conditions with which to comply before you are able to reuse the work should your use go beyond what’s allowable under fair use/fair dealing in copyright law. For example, any licenses that contain NC permit reuse up-front so long as that reuse is non-commercial; commercial use requires further permission from the license holder. If your commercial reuse wouldn’t be allowable under fair use or fair dealing, then the license is operative and you need to comply with it.

Putting these thoughts together, you will never see a CC NC license; you will only ever see CC BY-NC or any of the others above that contain the NC element. So, the abbreviations help one to see at a glance what rights are granted up front to the re-user and which remain reserved by the license-holder and would require her permission to reuse beyond what fair use allows.

This is also why you’ll never see SA and ND together in a license. The terms ShareAlike and NoDerivs are actually incompatible: ShareAlike permits derivatives up front and permits redistribution of the derivative so long as it carries the same license, while ND states that no derivatives may be re-distributed without permission from the license holder. So, one could not have a CC BY-ND-SA license without running into conceptual trouble! (Isn’t that cool?)

And finally, Creative Commons also provides a “public domain waiver” which enables the copyright holder of a work to relinquish her rights under copyright altogether, instead of just sharing rights non-exclusively. This is abbreviated CC 0. See how there’s no BY there? That means the CC 0 waiver is substantively different from the licenses – there is no need to attribute when reusing the work. That makes perfect sense when we think about it: The author waived all her rights under copyright so why ought there be a requirement to attribute her if copyright law doesn’t require attribution for items in the public domain? (Of course nothing precludes us from doing so anyway, as we would want to do for good practice.)

NB: There’s a relationship between copyright law and the Creative Commons licenses. I’ve only alluded to that relationship since you’re mainly after the structure of the CC license abbreviations, so my references to fair use/dealing can be ignored altogether if they gum up the works here.