Photo: Pankaj Patel, CC0

Understanding Creative Commons Licensing

Photo: Pankaj Patel CC0

Creative Commons is a method of licensing images online, which allows an image creator to choose and clearly communicate how their work is to be used. This article is an informative text, designed with the express purpose of educating creators and owners of imagery, artwork and other types of intellectual property on the details of how Creative Commons licensing works.

What is a Creative Commons license?

A Creative Commons (CC) license is one of several public copyright licenses that enable the distribution of a copyrighted work under certain conditions, set by the owner of the work in question. A CC license is used when an author wants to give people the right to share, use, and build upon work they have created.

Creative Commons is a not-for-profit organisation founded by Lawrence Lessig, in 2001, to ease some of the restrictions of ‘All Rights Reserved’ licenses in lieu of the digital age. For content creators, who want to share their work for large audiences to use, Creative Commons streamlines the licensing process. Content creators are provided with a free set of licenses that enable them to set the parameters of their work’s use and share their work to the world, without repeatedly having to authorize a certain set of permissions on an individual basis. Creative Commons has already become an internet standard for creatives who want to share their work with only some rights reserved. Creative Commons is also incorporated into major image databases, such as Google Image Search and Flickr.

The conditions of the license are regularly updated in recognition of the changing ways that images are used online. For example, in 2013, Creative Commons 4.0 was introduced, stating that an attribution to a photographer must link to an external page and to the original URL wherever possible.

How is a Creative Commons license applied?

A CC (Creative Commons) license can be applied by using the License Chooser form, on the CC website. This determines which permissions an image owner wishes to grant their work. Images will then display the appropriate CC image underneath the work in question, or simply name the license and add the appropriate URL, so that image users can see what is permissible.

Sites such as Flickr and 500px allow for CC license selection during their own image upload process. The specified license details will then appear under the publicly viewable versions of that image, on that particular website.

Additional licencing considerations for image creators

When marking work on their own websites, image creators should also note the license release number. Creative Commons license terms are often subject to update. Existing license terms will remain valid with the release of updated versions of a license type, however, it is important that image creators mark not only the license type but also the release number of that license.

An example text would look something like this: “License Terms: CC BY-ND 4.0” – this should also be linked to the CC license terms.

Implications and responsibilities with Creative Commons licensing

Creative Commons licensing gives image creators the ability to stipulate how their work is to be used. Permitted usages range from a license that effectively puts the image into the public domain, licenses only requiring attribution, through to licenses that restrict any modification or commercial use. When using CC licenses, it’s important that records (e.g screenshots) are created and maintained, to act as evidence in the event of dispute or legal proceedings relating to an infringement case.

When the creator of an image applies any type of creative commons license to their work, any use of that work (provided it meets the terms of that specific license type) during the period in which that specific license is active, is irrevocably subject to the license terms applied at that time.

To clarify, here is an example: the creator of a piece of illustrated visual content applies a regular CC BY-SA (see below) license to that work. During the time this license is active, the work is used 6 times and each case of use adheres perfectly to the terms of use. 2 years later, the creator of this work decides that they no longer want their work used for commercial purposes and switches the license type to CC-BY-NC license. As of this point, any new (after the date of license change) use of that work for commercial gain would be considered a breach of the licensing terms. However, existing uses of this work (published during the initial CC BY-SA license period) would not be in breach of the original license.

In short: image users who use Creative Commons work under a specific license have the right to indefinite use of that work, provided the use is in compliance with the original license.

Image users of materials 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.

Types of Creative Commons licenses

There are seven different types of CC licenses. They are:


A CC0 license, grants the right for work to be used the public domain. Publishing to the public domain is essentially a forfeiture copyright. Due to this, image creators should be mindful when considering publishing under a CC0 license.


CC Attribution grants the right for work to shared, used, and modified, as long as the work is attributed to the creator. Full clarity on this is available, here.


CC Attribution-ShareAlike licenses are an incredibly popular license type, as it shares a similar philosophy to the open source movement within the coding community. This license grants the right for work to be shared, used, and modified, as long as the work is attributed to the creator and the license used on that new work is the same as the original.


A CC Attribution-NoDerivatives license grants the right for work to be used only when properly attributed and no modifications are made to the original work.  


A CC Attribution-NonCommercial license grants the right for 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 can be considered remotely commercial. A full definition of what is considered to be commercial, by Creative Commons, under this license is available here.


A CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license 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. A full definition of what is considered to be commercial, by Creative Commons, under this license is available here.


A CC Attribution Non Commercial No derivatives license 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.

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

As mentioned above, Creative Commons licenses only apply if the relevant terms are adhered to. When the CC license terms are breached, the use of the image becomes unlicensed, resulting in copyright infringement. This is explained in the Legal Code of Creative Commons licenses regarding Termination. The standard clause on Termination states: ‘This License and the rights granted hereunder will terminate automatically upon any breach by You of the terms of this License.’ Any breach of the license terms therefore terminates the rights granted under the license.

If an image user has not complied with the terms of applied Creative Commons license, legal action can be taken against the offending party. Important: in some jurisdictions, Creative Commons license terms are less well defined than in others. This is due to how courts have locally tried and interpreted Creative Commons license terms. In the United States, for example, “Non-Commercial” (NC) use remains untried in the court system. What NC usage means largely devolves to semantics and what creators and what images users consider the term means. German courts, on the other hand, have tried NC cases, and have defined that a Non-Commercial use applies strictly to personal use.  

To ensure the least amount of confusion and highest level of compliance with a Creative Commons license, it is strongly advised to correctly display the conditions of that license in a location appropriate to the work it is applied to, including a link to the appropriate CC license terms.

Key Takeouts

  1. Image owners should consider how they want their images to be used before applying a Creative Commons license.
  2. When the terms of a Creative Commons license are breached, the use of the image becomes unlicensed, resulting in copyright infringement.
  3. A user of an image under a Creative Commons license agreement obtains an irrevocable right to use that image within the framework of the terms of use of that license type.
  4. Image owners and creators can change a Creative Commons license type, but any existing cases of use under the previous license(s) will not be not subject to license term changes.
  5. Keeping a record of license type and times/dates of application (or change of license type) act as evidence in cases of dispute or misuse.


Return to Academy Home