Photo: Pankaj Patel, CC0

Understanding Creative Commons Licensing

Photo: Pankaj Patel CC0

Creative Commons is a category of licensing for online images that allows you to choose and clearly communicate how your work can be used by others. If you’re a creator or owner of imagery, artwork or other types of intellectual property, read on for everything you need to know about Creative Commons.

What is a Creative Commons license?

A Creative Commons (CC) license enables copyrighted work to be distributed under certain conditions, which are set by you – the owner of the work. You can use a CC license to streamline the process of apportioning people the right to share, use, or build upon work you have created.

Creative Commons is a not-for-profit organisation founded in 2001 to ease some of the restrictions of ‘All Rights Reserved’ licenses that don’t always fit with the digital realm.

CC provides a free set of licenses that let you easily and clearly set the parameters of your work’s use, without repeatedly having to authorize a certain set of permissions on an individual basis. It has become an internet standard for creatives who want to share their work with only some rights reserved, and is incorporated into major image databases, such as Google Image Search and Flickr.

How do I decide what Creative Commons license I should choose, and how do I communicate it?

You can find the right CC license for your work using the License Chooser form on the CC website. Answer a series of questions about which permissions you want to assign to your work, and then copy the code to add a badge to your website that displays and links to the CC category you’ve chosen for each work or set of works.

Sites such as Flickr and 500px let you assign a CC license during the image upload process. Whatever you specify will then appear under the publicly viewable versions of your image on those sites.

What kind of usage rights can I assign with a Creative Commons license?

CC licenses range from one that effectively puts the image into the public domain, to those that require attribution, through to licenses that restrict any modification or commercial use. In total, there are seven different types of CC licenses that mix and match various permissions:

CC0 (Creative Commons Zero): This license releases the work into the public domain. Publishing to the public domain means you essentially forfeit ownership of the copyright.

CC BY(Creative Commons Attribution): This grants the right for your work to be shared, used, and modified, as long as the work is attributed to the creator.

CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike): This license is popular, as it shares a philosophy with the wider open source movement. It means your work can be shared, used, and modified, as long as the work is attributed to you, the creator, and the license used on that new work is the same as the original.

CC BY-ND (Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives): This grants the right for your work to be used when properly attributed, but does not permit any modifications to the original.  

CC BY-NC (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial): This allows properly attributed work to be shared, used, and modified, as long as the image user agrees not to use that work for any situations that could be considered commercial (more on what that means, below).

CC BY-NC-SA (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike): This grants the right for properly attributed work to be shared, used, and modified, as long as the new work and any modifications made are not used for commercial gain, and the work is shared with the same license as the original.

CC BY-NC-ND: (Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial NoDerivatives) This grants the right for properly attributed work to be shared, as long as it is not used for commercial gain or any form of derivative is made from the work.

Note that the conditions of CC licenses are regularly updated to reflect the changing ways that images are used online. For example, in 2013, Creative Commons 4.0 was introduced, stating that image attributions must link to an external page and to the original URL wherever possible.

What happens if the conditions of a Creative Commons license are broken?

When you apply any type of CC  license to your work, any use of that work during the period in which that specific license is active, is subject to the license terms applied at that time. You can change your mind at any time, and assign a new type of license – but those terms will not be retroactive, and will only be applied to usage from the time you change it. Image users who use Creative Commons work under a specific license have the right to use that work indefinitely, provided the use is in compliance with the original license.

Here’s an example. You publish a piece of work under a CC BY-SA, and during the time that license is active, the work is used six times and in each case adheres perfectly to the terms of use. Two years later, you decide you no longer want that work used for commercial purposes and switch the license to CC-BY-NC. From this point on, any new use of your work for commercial gain would be considered a breach of the licensing terms. However, existing uses of your work (published during the initial CC BY-SA license period) would not be in breach of the original license.

Creative Commons licenses only apply if the user adheres to all the relevant terms. When a work’s CC license terms are breached, the use of the image becomes unlicensed, and the copyright is infringed. Any breach of the license terms therefore terminates the rights granted under the license. However, users of images with a Creative Commons license release type 4.0 (or above) are granted a 30-day grace period in which they can resolve breaches of license terms, before it is considered copyright infringement.

If an image user has not complied with the terms of a Creative Commons license, legal action can be taken against the offending party. Creative Commons license terms are less well-defined in some jurisdictions than in others, due to the different ways the terms have been interpreted. In the United States, for example, “Non-Commercial” (NC) use remains untried in the court system, and the meaning of the term usually boils down to semantics. German courts, on the other hand, have tried NC cases, and have defined that the term applies strictly to personal use.

Things to remember when assigning a Creative Commons license.

When you display the type of license on your own website, it’s also good practice to include the license release number. Creative Commons license terms are updated regularly, and though existing license terms remain valid with the release of updated versions, it’s best to avoid ambiguity – and risk your images being used in ways you don’t want them to be.

An example text would look something like this: “License Terms: CC BY-ND 4.0” – and link to the relevant CC license terms.

To help reduce confusion and ensure the highest level of compliance with a Creative Commons license, be careful to display the conditions of your work’s license in a location appropriate to the work it is applied to, including a link to the CC license terms.

Plus, when using CC licenses, get into the habit of creating and keeping a record of each work’s license (such as a screenshot). This can back up your case in the event of a dispute or legal proceedings relating to an infringement.

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tl;dr

  • Creative Commons (CC) licenses streamline the process of apportioning people the right to share, use, or build upon work you have created.
  • Find the right CC license for your work using the License Chooser form on the CC website.
  • A CC license grants the user an irrevocable right to use that image within the framework of the terms of use of that license type.
  • There are seven different types of CC licenses that mix and match various permissions.
  • Consider how you want your images to be used before applying a CC license.
  • When the terms of a CC license are breached, the use of the image becomes unlicensed, resulting in copyright infringement.
  • As an image owner you can change a CC license type, but any existing cases of use under the previous license(s) will not be not subject to the terms of the updated license term.
  • Keeping a record of license type and times/dates of application (or change of license type) can be useful evidence in cases of dispute or misuse

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