The word “copyright” is a legal term which has become entrenched in everyday conversation because of its ubiquity and widespread use. Copyleft, on the other hand, is a more obscure term which refers to a particular type of copyright license. Broadly speaking, copyleft is a form of copyright protection which grants people the ability to modify and distribute copyrighted works (including for commercial purposes), under the stipulation that any such distributions or modifications are also covered by the similar rights to distribute and modify. We’ve briefly covered the concept of copyleft in an earlier post, which you can read here.

Depending on the nature of the work in question, there are a number of different copyleft licenses. Software works are usually governed by some variant of the GPL, MIT, BSD, or Apache licenses. For literary, photographic, or artistic works, the most common variant is the Creative Commons license, which we’ll be discussing in this post.


The Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that creates and distributes these licenses. Numerous services license their content under Creative Commons, including Wikipedia, Flickr, YouTube, Bandcamp, and Vimeo.

Under the Creative Commons (CC), there are a number of different variants of their license that rights holders can use. All of the licenses are based on four key conditions, viz:

  1. Attribution – Anybody using a CC licensed work must credit the rights holder in the manner they request. If they do not wish to credit the owner, they have to obtain prior permission not to do so.
  2. ShareAlike – Others may copy, distribute, display, perform, and modify a CC-licensed work, as long as they distribute any modified work on the exact same terms. If they want to distribute modified works under different terms (even another copyleft license), they must obtain prior permission.
  3. Non-commercial – Others may copy, distribute, display, perform, modify and use a CC-licensed work for any purpose other than commercial purposes. For commercial purposes, they must obtain the rights holder’s permission first.
  4. No Derivatives – Others may not make modifications to the CC-licensed work, and may only use the original without prior permission. Modifications can only be made with the prior permission of the rights holder.

Based on the above four conditions, there are six licenses offered by the Creative Commons. These licenses are essentially different combinations of the above conditions which rights holders can use to license their works. These licenses also have graphical depictions, so a rights holder can simply use the graphical depiction to specify the exact license terms. It’s also pertinent to note that most of these license terms allow commercial use of licensed works.

Types of Creative Commons licenses

  1. Attribution –

Others may distribute, copy, and modify a CC-licensed work, even for commercial purposes, provided that they attribute credit to the rights holder for the original work. By definition, this is the most permissive of the CC licenses.

  1. Attribution ShareAlike –

Under this variant, others may modify, distribute, and even sell a work provided that they attribute credit to the original rights holder AND license their new creations under the identical terms. This is the licensing term that is most similar to software copyleft licenses like the GPL.

  1. Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND) –

Under this license, others may use a work for any purpose. However, it cannot be modified under any circumstances, and the original holder MUST be attributed.

  1. Attribution-NonCommercial – 

This license lets others copy, modify, and distribute a work non-commercially. Their new works must also attribute the original owner and be non-commercial, but derivative works need not be under the identical terms that they obtained the license.

  1. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike – 

This license lets others copy, modify, and distribute a work non-commercially. Derivative works must also be non-commercial, provide credit, and licensed under the exact terms under which the original work was obtained.

  1. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs –

Under this license, others may only share a licensed work. They cannot modify or sell the works under any circumstances. This is the most restrictive of any CC license.

Which license works best for you?

After looking at the above, you may have a broad understanding of what kind of license you might want to use for your works. However, there are a number of factors to consider before selecting a license – such as the intended purpose, your ability to enforce your license, and other similar factors. Merely because a license may be called a “free license”, it does not mean that someone looking to use or build off of such a work has carte blanche to do what they want with the original work. A “free” or copyleft license doesn’t mean free in the context of not having a price; “free” in this case is used in the context of “free speech”, i.e. a question of liberties. It’s an important distinction, and one which should greatly inform the choice of license that you pick.

Reach out to us at Selvam and Selvam to understand the best form of copyleft license for your product, or for any other copyright-related queries you might have.