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Upon choosing a license at the Creative Commons page, Creative Commons tells you if the license is a "Free Culture License", or whether it isn't.

What is a Free Cultural Work?

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The main idea is, Free Culture allows the covered work to be part of an ecosystem of reuse and improvement.

This document defines "Free Cultural Works" as works or expressions which can be freely studied, applied, copied and/or modified, by anyone, for any purpose.

There are four freedoms which define a Free Cultural License

  • the freedom to use the work and enjoy the benefits of using it
  • the freedom to study the work and to apply knowledge acquired from it
  • the freedom to make and redistribute copies, in whole or in part, of the information or expression
  • the freedom to make changes and improvements, and to distribute derivative works

And four attributes which additionally make a particular work a Free Cultural Work, beyond the license.

  • Availability of source data: Where a final work has been obtained through the compilation or processing of a source file or multiple source files, all underlying source data should be available alongside the work itself under the same conditions. This can be the score of a musical composition, the models used in a 3D scene, the data of a scientific publication, the source code of a computer application, or any other such information.
  • Use of a free format: For digital files, the format in which the work is made available should not be protected by patents, unless a world-wide, unlimited and irrevocable royalty-free grant is given to make use of the patented technology. While non-free formats may sometimes be used for practical reasons, a free format copy must be available for the work to be considered free.
  • No technical restrictions: The work must be available in a form where no technical measures are used to limit the freedoms enumerated above.
  • No other restrictions or limitations: The work itself must not be covered by legal restrictions (patents, contracts, etc.) or limitations (such as privacy rights) which would impede the freedoms enumerated above. A work may make use of existing legal exemptions to copyright (in order to cite copyrighted works), though only the portions of it which are unambiguously free constitute a free work.
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The CC license chooser has a link to an article when referencing this where it is explained well.

"Free" means not overly encumbered, actually able to be used in all sorts of ways, no terms that specifically block usage of the work. tl;dr: the non-free licenses are those that say "NO" (that's the ND and NC clauses). If a license says "no" (as in no derivatives or no commercial use), it's not able to be used freely, it isn't actually part of the real creative commons.

The reason the "no" licenses exist at all is because CC originally set out just to provide tools for anyone looking to be more permissive than "all rights reserved". This divide within CC is quite unfortunate, and there are many who wanted CC to only be the truly free licenses, just like all FSF or OSI approved licenses (which is another point: the non-free CC licenses violate FSF and OSI definitions as well, while the free licenses are more aligned).

A software license that said "no commercial use" or "no derivatives" would be absolutely non-free, non-open-source. The same is true for other types of works.

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The Creative Commons suite of licenses is built from four basic components that also appear in the name of the license. These components are:

  1. Attribution (BY)
  2. ShareAlike (SA)
  3. NonCommercial (NC) - Non-Free
  4. NoDerivs (ND) - Non-Free

The latter two are considered Non-Free by Creative Commons, so if at least one of those components are included in a CC license, the license is not considered to be, a "Free Culture License", and it's not advertised as such.

This means that of the six CC licenses, only CC BY and CC BY-SA are a Free Culture Licenses. In addition, Creative Commons say the CC0 legal tool (it is not a license) can be used for Free Cultural Works. This means that the following are considered by the Creative Commons organization as "free" tools and licenses:

  • CC BY
  • CC BY-SA
  • CC0

While the following four CC-licenses are not free:

  • CC BY-ND
  • CC BY-NC
  • CC BY-ND-NC
  • CC BY-NC-SA

The terminology for "Free Culture" used by the Creative Commons corresponds to the criteria for the Free Cultural Works definition.

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