March 22, 2018

How to use Creative Commons images

Photo: Pankaj Patel

Creative Commons (CC) is a straightforward framework that allows you to use and access a wide range of content. It lets creators communicate the terms through which they want their work to be used, making it easy for you to source images online.

However, just because an image is licensed under Creative Commons does not mean it is free to use for any purpose. When using CC images, it’s important you comply with the specific terms of each license, to avoid infringing copyright and any legal issues that may ensue.

We’ve put together this handy guide that explains the different licenses available under Creative Commons, and how to use them correctly.

What is Creative Commons?

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. A Creative Commons (CC) license enables copyrighted work to be distributed under certain conditions, set by the owner of the work. For creators, the CC license streamlines the process of apportioning rights to share, use, or build upon their work.

CC 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 like Google Image Search and Flickr.

How can I find Creative Commons images to use?

Finding images available under a Creative Commons license is as simple as doing a search on Flickr or Google. Just take care to verify and comply with the exact terms of the license.

To identify the CC license of an image, trace it back to the source and verify the license from there. Be aware that not complying with the terms of the license constitutes copyright infringement, and the creator of an image can pursue legal action against you.

Generally, CC license types are clearly displayed and searchable on image databases. That said, it’s best practice to attempt to find the original source of an image, rather than take what you see at face value. When doing a Google Image Search, for example, first, use the ‘usage rights’ filter within search tools, then click through to the image host and verify the associated license terms.

Remember: If you can’t trace the creator of an image or the terms of a work’s use, do not use that image.

How do I attribute Creative Commons images?

That all depends on the specific Creative Commons license of the image you want to use. 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 images 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 images can be shared, used, and modified, as long as the work is attributed 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 images 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 you 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.

If you regularly source and use images in this way, it's best to familiarize yourself with these seven CC licenses. Note that conditions 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.When attributing an image, we recommend the TASL model:

  • Title: The title of the image.
  • Author: The name of the creator.
  • Source: The URL where the image is hosted (plus optional link to author profile).
  • License: The type of Creative Commons license it is available under, including a link to the relevant license.

For example: “Winter in town”, by David J, licensed under CC BY 2.0. More on how to correctly attribute an image here.

What if the license terms change after I've used an image?

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. For that reason, always collect and save evidence (screenshots, for example) of the license terms, where you sourced them, and how you met them.



  • Just because an image is licensed under Creative Commons does not mean it is free to use for any purpose.
  • There are seven types of CC license – if you regularly use images, commit these to memory.
  • Breach of CC license terms constitutes copyright infringement.
  • Always attribute images correctly, according to their license agreement.

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