December 14, 2016

Barbara Konecny

Is Creative Commons a Good Fit for Your Photography?

Barbara Konecny
Featured Photo: Kristina Alexanderson

Today, you can find over 391 million images that released under Creative Commons licenses. That's more than every other type of content combined!

As Pixsy found out with our recent State of Image Theft 2016 survey, only 14% of photographers actually use the CC mark. We dug deeper to understand the reasons behind these numbers.

Below you can see how Creative Commons licensing works, plus its major benefits and drawbacks. Judge for yourself, and see if it's a good fit for your photography.

How do Creative Commons licenses work?

With "All Rights Reserved", you need unique permission from a photographer to feature their photo. Anyone can use an image licensed under Creative Commons -- so long as they follow certain conditions.

With the exception of CC0 (a public domain license), this always means giving credit to the creator. Some licenses place other conditions, such as barring changes to the work or re-releasing it under more restrictive licenses.In case you're unfamiliar with these licenses, this diagram will explain what you need to do to properly attribute an image under Creative Commons:


A good rule of thumb is to use the acronym TASL. This stands for Title, Author, Source, License. You can find a best practices guide to attribution on the official Creative Commons website.

There are 7 regularly used Creative Commons licenses, all of which mix and match the various conditions. Do you want to allow commercial usage? Can users change the photos at all? There's a Creative Commons licensing flowchart to guide you towards the best option!

The Reasons For and Against Using Creative Commons


Licensing is simple

Most photographers don't know the first thing about writing legal terms of use. However, Creative Commons licenses are easy to use. The symbols and lettering are known as the "Commons Deed" or "human readable" layer. They serve as a user-friendly version of the Legal Code layer -- which would probably give you a headache if you read it!

Most of the major photo-sharing platforms allow you to license your work with a single click. You can still add the CC license as EXIF data in Photoshop or Lightroom.


You Retain Copyright Protections

There are search engines designed exclusively to find CC images. With the Pixsy reverse image search tool, for example, you can still see when and where your images are being used.

You can also submit cases to Pixsy for photos you made available under Creative Commons. Just be sure no attribution was provided by the user.

Photo: SpaceX

This photograph of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft was released under a CC0 license and was the most popular image on Flickr in 2015.

Early versions of the licenses were written around the U.S. legal system, but Creative Commons is now fully international. This global access benefits creatives from every far corner. Vinoth Chandler, a professional photographer from India, saw his CC snapshot showcased as an Italian magazine front cover.

Still Commercially Viable

Some photographers are naturally nervous about releasing free photography with a CC license. However Jonathan Worth, a National Portrait Gallery photographer, showed that you can actually set-up up Creative Commons for sales. He shared high-resolution images for free while selling signed prints at various prices. “The most expensive sold first,” said Worth. “No one had ever heard of me, but they were paying good money for my prints.”

There's also Samuel Zeller, a full-time photographer who made 95% of his work available under a CC license. Disillusioned with the stock photography model, he generated substantial interest in his portfolio by releasing it to everyone. His largest-ever client only reached out to him after stumbling on his Unsplash page...


Samuel Zeller is a full-time photographer who made 95% of his work available under a CC license, even commercially.


His images have been used by people and companies around the world for, including Apple, who used this image for various promotions.

Ensures Credit for Your Work

"Exposure" is a toxic word in freelance creative circles. However, a simple attribution license can bring in considerable traffic for emerging photographers. Those learning and teaching photography also use Creative Commons licenses to supply materials at no charge.

CC licenses won't safeguard your images in terms of image theft, but they ensure some percentage of users link back to your images. You can always license out the edited JPEGs and keep the high-quality RAW or TIFF files for professional use.


In his analysis of Creative Commons, Dan Heller argues Creative Commons and "free access" don't work for photography like other content mediums. His more noteworthy criticisms include:

  • Image hosting sites cannot measure and moderate their huge, constant influx of content. This means anyone could upload a pro photographer’s work, put it under a CC license, and claim it was theirs. Others may then use it without any clue they’re actually doing wrong (and we know this actually happens).
  • General consumers licensing their work instead of copyright experts means other image rights, such as model releases or privacy rights, aren't always considered.

Remember that Creative Commons licenses are irrevocable. If you re-release an image with a more restrictive license or a "non-commercial" condition, it won't apply to any copies made prior to the change.The biggest concern is political and even extremist groups using CC photos, regardless of how the photographer feels about it. It's hardly a prevailing problem, but all content creators should be reasonable about the risk.

As Peter Jenkins, a professional photographer and member of The National Union of Journalists, said:

"Conventional licensing can still allow a user to use material free of charge should the license holder wish it. Creative Commons prevents the license holder from restricting use and controlling their own work."

So, Should You Use Creative Commons?


On one hand, Creative Commons is ideal if you want your work freely shared and widely seen. We personally know dozens of amateur and professional photographers who benefit from so-called "flexible copyright".

Pixsy's Case Resolution Team have seen license terms misunderstood, misused or completely ignored. Some full-time photographers also find Creative Commons unnecessary when traditional licenses already offer ample protection.We combed through countless opinions online and from our Pixsy user base. Most photographers entrust their work to Creative Commons and do indeed benefit from these licenses.

Barbara Konecny

Having overseen more than 200,000 cases of unauthorized image use in her role as Head Of Case Management, Barbara has been with Pixsy since the beginning and has built a team of in-house IP law and copyright experts as well as a network of legal partners. She is also a photographer.

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