Creative Commons Music

CC Licenses Explained

The IMLC is not strictly a Creative Commons music site (not yet anyway!). But many of the artists on our roster release music this way. Anyone looking for independent royalty free music for a range of projects should have an understanding of Creative Commons licenses. That’s where we come in!

Hey people, welcome back to Empowered Independents, a vlog series hosted by me, Ketsa, hoping to empower both artists and licensees.



Independent, london-based producer and IMLC co-founder Ketsa is a giant of the Creative Commons music scene. His music has been used for a Volvo TV advert, and promotional campaigns by Greenpeace, Audi, Riachuelo, Grance Ormonde and films by the National Geographic, The UN, The Atlantic, Forbes and many many more. As head of Artist Services at the IMLC, Ketsa is fully committed to educating creators on the benefits of royalty free music licensing with his Empowered Independents YouTube series.

Empowered Independents

Today we’ll be talking about the much confused, misaligned and abused Creative Commons licenses. Users of the excellent Free Music Archive website often assume all the music on there is free to use as pleased. This can turn into a costly mistake.

Improper use of intellectual, copyrighted material is a serious offence and can lead to huge fines that could have a serious impact on your finances. I’ve recouped thousands in damages from improper use of my music, so it’s very important for everyone to have a good understanding of the dos and don’ts of Creative Commons royalty free music.

So what are the Creative Commons licenses?

Creative Commons licenses allow people to release, publish and share their copyrighted work to be copied, edited, built upon, etc., while retaining copyright to the original work. They can apply to all creative works, not just music.

Firstly, although there are 6 main licenses, there are actually 8 in all. Let’s take a look at the top three, those that are most open and allow the most free uses, starting with CC0.


This license is a tool for relinquishing copyright ownership and releasing material into the public domain for any purpose, commercial or otherwise. CC0 is basically a legal tool for waiving as many rights as legally possible to a creation. Few people obviously CC0 for their artistic creations, and mainly this was aimed at the scientific community.


BY stands for attribution, basically giving credit. This license allows users to copy, distribute, display, perform and make derivative works and remixes, commercial or otherwise, based on the release only if they give the author or licensor the credits (attribution) in the manner specified. This is required by law.

Anybody can take something released on CC BY and copy, remix, reproduce and redistribute it commercially so long as credit is given to the original author of the piece. Again, most artists aren’t that comfortable with anybody taking one of their creations and making money out of it with no legal requirement to pay a fee. What if your music is used by someone who makes a million from it while you get nothing?


SA stands for Share Alike. This allows for derivative and commercial works so long as the derivative projects are released on the same CC license as the original, ie the derivative works can’t be then released on a more restrictive CC license than the original work. Attribution is also still legally required. So many artists are not that comfortable releasing music under those three licenses, and you can understand why.

The next three are more commonly used by royalty free music makers.


This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as the creator is credited. Although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to release their derivative works on the same terms. Credit must be given to the artist. You can put this song in a video or other derivative work but you cannot use it for commercial purposes. So music on this license can be used and shared freely in Derivative projects so long as the project is non commercial. We’ll learn that the term non commercial is also another highly misunderstood phrase!


Attribution-NoDerivatives. This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, and creators must be credited. In my opinion a strange license that allows the licensee the right to redistribute the work, for commercial reasons or otherwise so long as it’s passed on completely unchanged (no edits etc) and the original artist is credited. So people wouldn’t be able to make a derivative work like a video for YouTube, from this music, but they would be able to put the track on a compilation CD and sell it for profit without having to give financial compensation to the artist, so long as attribution is given. Yep, strange.


This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as the artist is credited and a new creations are licensed under the identical terms. So this license allows derivative use of the work so long as the new projects are non commercial and shared on the same license as the original, not a more restrictive one. And the last and most restrictive CC license, and personally the license I release under.


This license allows for No Derivative or Commercial use at all. Music can be shared exactly as it is, but cannot be made into a derivative work, like synced to video, or used as bedding music in a podcast or radio show.


The reason I personally release under this license is because often many misunderstand the term Non Commercial. They assume non commercial just means the video isn’t made to directly make money. However, in my eyes for example, a corporation making an in house training video IS commercial use. No the video isn’t to make money directly, its an information video, but it’s still associated with the organisation (thus associating your music with them) and feeds their brand. Also the people making the video are being paid so why should your music be used for free? This is definitely considered commercial use.

Releasing on this license actually gives me more control of how my music is used and I like having this. By nature, give an inch and some will take a mile. So licensees will come to my website to license a track for perpetual use. This is the model I use. Having this control, I can also grant free use to whoever I see fit.

Always be vigilant!

So please remember if you’re looking for music on the Free Music Archive, ensure to check the CC license the track is released under. If what you want to do with the track is not covered by the license, contact the artist to obtain more permissions or to pay a nominal fee to use.

Many of us artists are now set up with our own licensing websites. It’s good to support creators who are making content you enjoy.

Creative Commons Licenses

Creative Commons Music FAQs

Below are some frequently asked questions concerning Creative Commons licenses and what you’re able to do with them. There are 8 different licenses, so it’s important to check what license each creation is released under.

No this isn’t the case. There are some CC licenses that allow free derivative or commercial use with attribution, but others don’t. Best practice is to check what license the track is released under to see what is allowed. If unsure, contact the artist.

A derivative work is any work that uses the original piece but adapts it in some way. This could be, but not limited to, editing the track, fading it out, talking over it or syncing to film or images.

No! This is a big misconception. Creative Commons licenses are copyright licenses that allow the author to release their work whilst protecting their copyright, or right to be seen as creator.

There is one Creative Commons license that’s completely copyright free, and that’s CC0. CC BY is also another very open license that allows many uses with attribution. Check our CC video guide for more info.

Unfortunately yes, you can get into a lot of trouble. Using intellectual copyrighted property illegally can lead to serious legal issues and big fines. Should an artist choose to bring legal action, proving culpability is straightforward.

Commercial use is primarily use that is for monetary reward. However it also entails things that are promotional. Therefore projects that are not directly for monetary reward, but promote a service or are linked to an organisation can also be seen as Commercial use.

Contact the artist. Many of us will have a website with info or where you can purchase a license clearing commercial or derivative use. usually for a reasonable fee. Check out our library!