December 19, 2016

Barbara Konecny

Which Creative Commons license is right for your photography?

Barbara Konecny
Featured Photo: "cc" by Kristina Alexanderson

15 years ago, the very first Creative Commons license was made available. Millions of photographers now release their work under the now-iconic CC mark, and it's easy to see why. The restrictions are loose compared to “All Rights Reserved”, but artists can still legally protect their work and decide how it's used.

The big question for photographers still remains: "which creative commons license should I actually use?"We researched real-world photos distributed under different CC licenses and listed the pros and cons of using one type of license over another.

We hope this guide comes in handy!


Photo: David Shankbone // CC BY 3.0

Many of David Shankbone's celebrity photos, such as this one of Taylor Swift, were featured in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker under Creative Commons license.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

NASA constantly share its photos under a Creative Commons license, such as this "selfie" taken by the Mars Curiosity Rover.

The most open of the 6 main Creative Commons licenses. Anyone can freely download, tweak and pass around your photos, even for commercial purposes. They must credit the original author no matter how much the image is altered.

Pros: Numerous photographers use this creative commons license to increase the visibility of their work. A great example is David Shankbone. He’s provided CC BY images for over 5,000 Wikipedia articles, and his CC photos documenting the Occupy Wall Street movement received international attention.

Cons: CC BY only works if others credit you as the author. Unfortunately, education is a major issue with Creative Commons. The license deed officially says “You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor," yet many people don't link to the original image URL or say if the work is derivative. Providing a URL to the license deed is a requirement, yet it's the most forgotten part of using Creative Commons.



A photographer named Art Dragulis published a photo on Flickr under a CC BY-SA license. When an atlas company used it as a front cover, he sued for copyright infringement, even though they'd complied with the license terms. This is why it's important to understand how to use Creative Commons properly!

The SA in this creative commons license stands for "Share Alike". Anyone who changes or builds upon your photo must release any derivative works under an identical license. For example, anyone who adapts your photo must be OK with the adaptation being used commercially. As of 2015, it is still the most widely used Creative Commons license.

Pros: The CC BY-SA is often saddled with "copyleft" practices, and is a useful tool for education and for spreading ideas. For instance, portrait photographer Jonathon Worth put the material from his University photography course online under a BY-SA license. There was a lot of strife for political photographers during the 2016 elections. However, a 22-year old college student Used the CC BY-SA license to release tens of thousands of images of every major presidential candidate. Some even used his work (properly credited, thankfully) on their campaign websites.“Creative Commons in my mind is a vehicle for my photos to be easily disseminated, and at first was a way to simply get my name out there,” said the photographer, Gage Skidmore. “The photography industry is rapidly changing. I’d equate it slightly to Uber or Lyft and taxis.”

Cons: Large companies may prefer to use free Creative Commons photos rather than pay for photography. It doesn't matter whether your photos are sold as a print or just ends up some obscure blog. Each use can represent a lost sale.

Flickr caused a stir in 2014 when it sold prints of several Creative Commons photos on their Wall Art Marketplace. It was perfectly legal, yet many pro and amateur photographers removed their images from the platform in protest. Eventually, Flickr apologized and refunded all sales.


Gadaa via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

Photos under this license are usually used in news articles, particularly those covering politics or protests.

Under this license, anyone can use your photos for both commercial and non-commercial use (with appropriate crediting, of course). However, they cannot make any alterations, such as photoshopping a picture to add/remove/alter its contents.

Pros: CC BY-ND is ideal if you'd like your photos to be used for editorial, advertorial or even political purposes. Plus, it'll save you time spent looking into and responding to all those photo requests...Remember, an ND license doesn't rule out any possibility of making a derivative work. You just have to ask the original creator's permission first!

Cons: Some consider the ND clause pointless, especially in photography. It's supposed to protect the reputation of rights-holders or preserve the integrity of their work. But derivatives are sometimes permitted by fair use anyway, and the changes are still subject to attribution and moral rights.

In particular reference to possible political use, you should know that CC licenses are irrevocable, and photographers may not always agree with the way their work is used.


Captured by Jon Snyder for

This photo of Steve Jobs was one of a huge library of Creative Commons images.

This license is practically identical to CC BY, except that any use of your photos must be "non-commercial."

Pros: Many professional photographers use this license as a legitimate link-building tool. The technology magazine ‘Wired’ released their photographic library to the public through a BY-NC 2.0 license. These came with a mandate to link back to their articles when credited. This had a huge knock-on effect on their Google search rankings.

Cons: The legal status of their "non-commercial" condition is still not set in stone. Many photographers are adamant using a photo in an editorial context i.e. a webpage surrounded by advertisements amounts to a commercial usage of their work.

Germany is the first jurisdiction to have ruled on the ‘non-commercial’ usage of Creative Commons, but even this suggests that the term may vary from country to country.


Brian via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA

This photo was published under a Non-Commercial, Share Alike license.

Ivan via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

...And then another user released their own colour-edited version of the photo under a different license.

With this license, anyone can still download and edit your photos. Anything they make from them has to be used for non-commercial purposes. They must credit you as the original author, and any derivative works must be released under the same license.

Pros: The mix-and-match of conditions in this CC license makes it a great choice for photographers who want to get their work out in the open. It allows others to share their own creativity, all whilst maintaining some control over how your work is used or re-published.

Cons: Another problem with the "NC" part of these licenses is the term is deliberately vague and not well understood. A focus group study commissioned by Creative Commons asked 90 content creators and content users what they understood by the terms "commercial use" and "non-commercial use."

Both had trouble determining what was commercial and what wasn't, but users were more likely to view a use as commercial than creators.


The most prohibitive Creative Commons license. Any photo released under CC BY-NC-ND can't be used commercially, and can't be altered. That said, you can share it freely so long as the author is credited, which still sets it apart from "All Rights Reserved" or other traditional copyright licenses.



This stock photo is one of the thousands released under a CC0 license - meaning you can copy, modify, and distribute it, even for commercial purposes, without asking permission.

This Creative Commons tool lets you waive all copyrights and as many other rights as legally possible (such as publicity or privacy rights). You can use it even in countries/jurisdictions where your work is free of copyright. It effectively puts your work into the public domain. Note that if your photos are already free of copyrights, you should use the Public Domain Mark from Creative Commons, rather than CC0.

As you can see, even the most basic Creative Commons license can be revolutionary to protect and disseminate your photography. Whether you want the web to remix your work or simply use it as is, there's plenty of options ahead of you. There are still issues with properly educating image users on the different license terms, but it's getting better by the day. Now you can share this guide to help with the learning!

Our Pixsy team will make sure to keep you up to date with any legal news regarding the licenses. We're personally looking forward to seeing where the concepts of "flexible copyright" and "non-commercial" go in the next few years. In the meantime, we want to know which (if any) Creative Commons license do you use? Did you switch from one license to another? And most importantly, how does it help your photography?

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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