Photo: Pankaj Patel, CC0

How to use Creative Commons images

Photo: Pankaj Patel, CC0

Using images published under Creative Commons provides an easily accessible framework to a wide range of content. In publishing content under a Creative Commons license, a creator effectively communicates the terms of the image’s use to enable use of the content as long as the specific terms of the license are complied with.

A breach of the terms of a license revokes the license itself, so it is important to ensure compliance with the terms of the license. This guide offers descriptions of the different licenses available under Creative Commons and advice on how to use them correctly.

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons is a not-for-profit organization founded by Lawrence Lessig, in 2001, made with the intention of easing the restrictions of ‘All Rights Reserved’ licenses for the digital age.

Content creators, who want to publish their work for large audiences to use, can use Creative Commons to streamline licensing and its application. Image owners are able to apply a free set of licenses that set parameters for use of their work, bypassing the individual licensing process.

Creative Commons removes the need for complex agreements, and has thus become an internet standard for content creators, who want to share their work with only some rights reserved. Creative Commons has been incorporated into large image databases, such as Google Image Search and Flickr, amongst others.

License conditions are regularly updated to accommodate how images are used online. In 2013, for example, Creative Commons 4.0 was introduced, which states that any attribution must link to an image’s source URL, wherever possible – such as the creators website.

The 7 Creative Commons license types

Here is an overview of the seven different license types:


No rights reserved. This license type releases work into the public domain. Anyone is free to do anything with it, and it requires no attribution.


CC Attribution releases the work for people to share, use, and modify, as long as the work is attributed to the creator.


CC Attribution-ShareAlike releases the work for people to share, use, and modify, as long as the work is attributed and the license used on that new work is the same as the original.


CC Attribution-NoDerivatives releases the work only if it is properly attributed, and on the condition that no modifications to the original work are made.  


CC Attribution-NonCommercial releases a properly attributed work for people to share, use, and modify, as long as the user agrees not to use it for commercial gain.


A CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license allows 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 this can be found here.


CC Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives releases the properly attributed work for people to share and use, but they must not make any modifications and agree not to sell the work or otherwise use it for commercial gain.

For more information on CC license types, consult the Creative Commons website.

Finding available images

To identify the Creative Commons licenses of an image, trace it back to the owner’s source and verify the license from there. Be aware that the creator of an image can pursue legal action, including seeking statutory damages, if the terms of the license are not met; as it constitutes copyright infringement.

Generally, CC license types can often be found when hosted on an image database (Flickr is a good example). That said, be aware of hosts, and always attempt to find the original source of an image. One example of CC license incorporation on a large image database would be: when performing a Google Image Search, use the ‘usage rights’ filter within the search tools to view images marked for certain types of use.

It is important to click through to the image host and find the associated license terms before using images found through Google Image Search.

Proper attribution and documentation of use

When using an image under a CC license, collect and save evidence (screenshots, for example) to show under which terms the image was sourced and how you met the terms of the license.

Creative Commons licenses can be changed, but, if an image creator decides to change the terms of their license, the original rights should not be affected – this is why it is important to collect evidence (screenshots) for use of that image (or images) under the terms of that license, before using it.

When attributing an image, we recommend the TASL model:

Title: The title of the image

Author: The name of the creator (and optional link to their profile/website)

Source: The URL where the image is hosted

License: The type of Creative Commons license it is available under (including license generation), and a link to the license terms

eg – “NYC” (with link to original work), by Joe Bloggs (with optional link to profile), licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (with link to the license terms)

In practice: “Winter in town”, by David J, licensed under CC BY 2.0

For more on correct image attribution, refer to our article on ‘How to correctly attribute an image.


Creative Commons is a system of image licensing designed to give image creators the power to distribute their work to large audiences within specified license parameters of their own choice. Finding images which are available under a Creative Commons license can be as simple as conducting a Google Image Search, but due diligence must always be taken to comply with the exact terms of the license.

Above all – if the creator of an image or the terms of a work’s use cannot be traced, do not use that image.

Key Takeouts

  1. Just because an image is licensed under Creative Commons does not mean it is free to use for any purpose.
  2. There are seven types of CC license – those who regularly use other’s images should commit these to memory.
  3. Breach of CC license terms constitutes copyright infringement.
  4. Always attribute images correctly, according to their license agreement.

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