Creative Commons: Understanding Free Content

Posted on 07/08/2015 by Team Hallam

Creative Commons

Does your business make use of other peoples images on your website or blog? Are you looking to protect your images so that you can allow other people to use them whilst giving credit back to you? If the answer is yes to either of these, then you need to understand the uses of Creative Commons Licensing.

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons is “a nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools.”

While the traditional “all rights reserved” approach can be restrictive, Creative Commons allows people to select certain conditions for their creative and intellectual property.

An increasing number of people are uploading their content with Creative Commons Licenses, which is great news for content marketing. This means you can have more access to images, videos and audio, for free. It also offers a level of protection for your own content that you want to share, but don’t want people to steal without giving you credit.

The image below explains the Creative Commons logos which you will see when content has a license attached:

Creative Commons Logos
An overview of the Creative Commons Logos

It is important to be vigilant with these rules. Especially where a non-commercial license exists, in no circumstances should you sell the image itself, or use the image to promote, advertise, or sell a product or service.

Lets look at some practical examples of using these different levels of license.


The following image (source) can be modified and reused, even commercially, providing there is a link to the source. For example, a beauty salon could use this image to promote their services, and even add text or their logo, but they must credit the author.

Beauty Treatment: using the Attribution license

Attribution + ShareAlike

Similar to Attribution, you are able to modify and reuse it commercially, but you must then give your modified version the same license. A business could modify this example (source) and use it to promote a service linked to finance, so long as any amended versions are also given Attribution-ShareAlike licensing.

Balancing the Books: Attribution-ShareAlike license

Attribution + Non-Derivatives

This type of license allows you to reuse an image commercially but you are not allowed to change or add your logo and you must always credit the author. This example (source) would be great for using on a blog, where a business won’t need to modify the image but might want to use it tell a story about warehouse logistics.

Distribution Centre: Attribution + Non-Derivatives license

Attribution + Non-Commercial

This image (By Zach Inglis) has permission to be modified and reused but not commercially. As a general rule, if you are business and you wanted to use this image, you would not be permitted unless you asked the author directly (which I have done for this post).

Coffee: Attribution + Non-Commercial license

Non-Commercial Licenses

The term ‘non-commercial’ is more of a grey area. According to the FAQ of the Creative Commons website:

“CC’s NonCommercial (NC) licenses prohibit uses that are ‘primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or monetary compensation.’ This is intended to capture the intention of the NC-using community without placing detailed restrictions that are either too broad or too narrow.

“Please note that CC’s definition does not turn on the type of user: if you are a nonprofit or charitable organization, your use of an NC-licensed work could still run afoul of the NC restriction, and if you are a for-profit entity, your use of an NC-licensed work does not necessarily mean you have violated the term. Whether a use is commercial will depend on the specifics of the situation and the intentions of the user.

So essentially, there are no definitive rules as to the difference between ‘commercial’ or ‘non-commercial’. It’s therefore a good idea to only use content that is explicitly marked for commercial use.

Creative Commons Buttons
Creative Commons Licenses for Commercial Use

You could argue that using an image on your blog, or on social media, is not a direct commercial use. By CC’s definition, it depends on the situation and intentions of the user. So if you really want to use content that has been given a non-commercial license, take the time to contact the author and ask for permission. This simple act of common courtesy may prevent any problems from arising in the long term.

When contacting the author, give a brief overview of what you want to use their content for and why. People are often open to getting their work published if it generates a link back to them – the worst they can do is say no!

Six Licenses Explained

When using Creative Commons, you can choose from six different types of license. Attribution is always compulsory and the rest of the licence may include one or two of the other elements:

  • Attribution: The image can be distributed and modified, even commercially, providing you give credit
  • Attribution-NoDerivs: The image can be used unchanged, even commercially, providing you give credit
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike: The image can be distributed and modified, but not commercially, providing you give credit
  • Attribution-ShareAlike: The image can be distributed and modified, even commercially, so long as modified versions are licensed under the same terms, providing you give credit
  • Attribution-NonCommercial: The image can be distributed and modified on non-commercial terms, providing you give credit
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs: Images can be downloaded and shared with others but not changed in any way or used commercially, providing you give credit

You will notice that all of the above require you to give credit to the original author, a small price to pay for free content. The only exception to this rule is when images have a Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license, meaning you can copy, modify and distribute content for commercial use without permission or linking to the source. This license is much less common.

Creative Commons Zero
Creative Commons Zero (CC0)


Creative Commons is a great advancement in content sharing, but you must exercise caution when using other people’s work. It also provides you with a level of protection if you want other people, or businesses, to share your own content.

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Creative Commons: Understanding Free Content

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