What Is a Creative Commons License?


If you use online media for your own purposes, like featuring images in company blog posts or using songs for an advertisement, it’s vital to understand Creative Commons and how it lets you use creative works.

Let’s look at Creative Commons and how to interpret its terms.

What Is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons is the name of a nonprofit company that publishes copyright licenses under the same name. These licenses make it easy for both creators and users to understand what usage is within the rules for any given work.

It’s easy to add a Creative Commons license to your work, and the terms are simple to understand for anyone using that media. This way, creators can rest easy knowing that people are using their work in a way they approve of, while users don’t have to worry about falling afoul of copyright guidelines.

This contrasts with the usual setup of copyright. When you see “All Right Reserved”, the © symbol, or similar on any creative work, it means the creator has chosen not to let anyone else use that piece of media without explicit permission. That’s why you can’t use a copyrighted song in an ad, for example.

Understanding Creative Commons Conditions

Creative Commons licenses offer four different conditions; the combinations of these conditions are used to create certain license types. Below is a quick explanation of each one with its abbreviations.

Creative Commons Icons

All modern Creative Commons have the condition of Attribution, or BY. This means that when you use the work, you must provide credit back to the author’s page in the way they desire. A credit like “Image by [Author] via [Website]” is usually fine.

The Share-alike, or SA, condition means that if you modify the material, you must share your new work with the same license as the original. You can’t add any new conditions that make it more restrictive.

A Non-commercial condition, or NC, means that you can’t use the work in anything designed for “commercial purposes”. This is a vague term, so we’ll discuss it more shortly.

The last possible condition is No Derivative Works, or ND for short. If an item has this condition, you cannot modify it and then share that new work. Share Alike and No Derivative Works are mutually exclusive.

Applying a Creative Commons License

The above conditions can combine to create six different Creative Commons licenses. To interpret them, look at the combination of conditions explained above to see what is and isn’t allowed.

The least restrictive license of all is CC-BY, which only requires you to credit the author in order to use the work for any purpose. The most strict is CC-BY-NC-ND, which means you must credit the author, but can’t use the work for any commercial purposes or distribute a remixed version of it.

There’s also a special license known as CC0. This effectively puts the work into the public domain, where the author releases all rights from it. If something has a CC0 license, you don’t even need to provide attribution to use it however you see fit.

For Creative Commons-licensed works that you find on Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, and other sources, look for the name of the license to confirm the terms. You’ll often see either an image of the license with its conditions or the terms of how you’re allowed to use it.

CC License Example Wikimedia Commons

If you’re interested in using this license for your own work, visit the Creative Commons License Chooser. It contains a wizard that will generate the right license for your needs, which you can then distribute alongside the work.

Understanding Non-Commercial Use

Many people don’t understand whether their usage of a Creative Commons work falls under commercial purposes. The company says that anything non-commercial should not have “commercial advantage or monetary compensation” as its primary purpose.

Thus, if you’re using a work for internal company purposes, it’s likely non-commercial. Using an image for an internal slideshow or playing a song for someone’s birthday isn’t commercial use. However, using an image on a flyer or online ad would be commercial use.

Non-commercial use isn’t the same as being a nonprofit. A nonprofit company still wouldn’t be allowed to use an image marked NC on an advertisement for a charity auction. If the goal is to make money, no matter who is making the money, it is commercial use.

Where to Find Creative Commons Media

There are plenty of places to turn to next time you need to find appropriate Creative Commons works. On Google Images, you can click Tools, followed by Usage Rights, to choose Creative Commons licenses or Commercial & other licenses. This search isn’t perfect, so be sure to check the terms of any image on its website before downloading.

CC Search on Google

There are also search engines devoted to helping you find CC works. The Openverse Creative Commons Search lets you find images and audio, for instance.

Creative Commons Encourages Sharing

Creative Commons is a great solution to the problem of navigating copyright online. Next time you need to use photos or other media, consult a CC source and you can be sure you’re staying on the right side of the law.

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