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What is Creative Commons? CC Licenses Explained

If you’ve ever found yourself asking “what is creative commons?”, you’re not alone. As far as photographers and other image copyright holders are concerned, Creative Commons licenses are an easy way to license your images for free. At the same time, Creative Commons licenses, or “CC licenses” as they are also known, are sometimes also responsible for causing confusion among photographers and image users alike.

The reason for this stems from the term “free of cost” often being interpreted as meaning “free of rules”, which is not actually the case. This confusion often leaves many users and photographers alike wondering, “what are Creative Commons licenses exactly?” In the following sections we’ll outline everything you need to know about dealing with CC licenses to give you a clear understanding of how these licenses work.

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What Are Creative Commons Licenses?

Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organization that provides authors with ready-made license agreements for the purpose of sharing legally-protected content. CC licenses are an easy way to contractually regulate the use of copyright protected work. They are valid worldwide, which means they are applicable internationally.

Creative Commons itself is neither a publisher of content nor a contracting party of authors and rights owners who distribute their content under CC-licensed agreements. Creative Commons licenses themselves are used by the authors at their own discretion to regulate how their content can be use.

What Are the Different Types of Creative Commons Licenses?

Four Creative Commons licensing options can be combined to form a total of six different CC license agreements. What they all have in common is that CC-licensed work can only be offered free of charge. In addition, a copyright and source must always be cited. Another important characteristic of CC licenses is that they are irrevocable. This means that once a usage permit has been granted, it may not be withdrawn retrospectively.

To identify work with a Creative Commons license, a symbol and letter code is used to represent a specific license. There are three main differences between different licenses – the processing of a work,  the passing on of a modification of the work, and use for commercial purposes.

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What Do the Letter Codes of the Six Different CC Licenses Mean?

The most important conditions for the use of a work are recognizable by the name of the respective CC license type:

CC BY (Attribution): This is the simplest type of CC license; the user is only required to provide the name of the author. Works with this type of CC license can be edited and can also be used for commercial purposes.

CC BY-SA (Attribution & Share Alike): This license restricts the passing on of a variation of photography. It must remain in the same conditions as the initial work.

CC BY-ND (Attribution & No Editing): Images with this CC license may not be edited. Unprocessed, however, these images can be used for commercial purposes.

CC BY-NC (Attribution & No Commercial Use): This CC license restricts images to non-commercial use only.  Images with this license, therefore, cannot be used for commercial purposes, such as in an online shop or for products for resale.

CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution, No Commercial Use & Share Alike): This CC license only permits non-commercial use of an image. In addition, edits of the work may only be passed on under the same conditions.

CC BY-NC-ND (Attribution, No Commercial Use & No Editing): With this CC license, images may only be used for non-commercial purposes. Editing the original work is not permitted.

Using the appropriate abbreviation allows authors to clearly and easily define usage terms for their work. Based on the CC license, the artist gives the content in question metadata that is clearly identifiable by the end-user. With these important license notices, international users, search engines and web browsers alike can all easily recognize how content may be used. The Creative Commons website makes license selection a simple process, allowing authors to find the most suitable license with just a few clicks.

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What Advantages Do CC Licenses Offer to the Copyright Holder?

Copyright holders have more options with CC licenses. Without this type of contract, rights holders only have the option of publishing their work under the legal standard protection moniker, “All Rights Reserved” or to not publish their work at all. This form of legal protection only works if you don’t want to make any specific provisions about how an image can be used when you publish it.

To be specific, “All Rights Reserved” means that third parties may not use an image at all. This does not always work in the author’s favor. If, for example, an author publishes their image with the intention of having it used, they would have to specifically grant these usage rights in the form of a license.

Generally speaking, creators often don’t have the required legal expertise in copyright necessary for designing proper, legally sound licensing agreements for their images. Alternatively, finding a lawyer to take care of this process can be quite expensive. CC licenses, on the other hand, offer a practical and cost-free solution if you don’t want to put your work out unprotected. At the very least, CC licenses add a level of legal certainty to both image creators and users.

A major advantage of using a CC license to distribute your content on the web is ease of use – CC licenses eliminate the need for creating complicated licensing agreements. Moreover, simply marking a CC-licensed work with the appropriate abbreviation is sufficient.

Apart from clearly defined usage provisions, the use of CC licenses offers several other benefits. Some photographers use CC licenses for their work because they are in favor of free and open access to created work in some form. In fact, it is not uncommon to see open license models being used by many members of the photography community. Many creators also see the use of CC licenses as a way to contribute to available resources online by adding their own images.

In addition, many photographers use CC licenses as a way to encourage the use of their work online in an attempt to build their reputation. Without free licensing in the form of CC licenses, users would have to request usage rights from a creator anytime they wanted to use an image. This often results in images being used without permission or not being used at all, neither of which are in the interest of the author.

For up-and-coming artists, having their work spread quickly is very beneficial towards helping them gain recognition for their work. Releasing work under a free license allows work to be spread quickly because it will show up on search engines and platforms when users search specifically for freely licensed content.

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What Are Some of the Disadvantages of CC Licenses?

Unconditional use is not possible when using a CC license to license images. Each of the six variants requires a user to at the very least name the author. It is in this regard that the disadvantages of a CC license become clear. Although they are easy to integrate, they do not offer the same possibilities as an individualized licensing agreement. For example, there is no way for a CC license to limit usage over time. In this regard, the only alternative for a photographer would be to use an individualized agreement.

Another notable aspect of CC licenses is that, once selected, they become legal agreements and cannot be recalled. If, for example, someone decides that a CC license is not suitable after they have already selected to use one, claiming ignorance about the terms and conditions of the license is not a suitable defense. The general consensus towards CC licensing is that anyone using them should be aware of what rights they may be giving away beforehand.

While not a disadvantage of Creative Commons licenses exclusively, it’s worth noting that content copyrights can still be violated if the license’s terms and conditions are not followed. Although Creative Commons licensed content can be used free of charge without  permission from the rights holder, it is still a copyright violation to violate licensing terms.

Whether or not the author is able to demand payment for damages resulting from such an infringement is assessed depending on the incident. In principle, payment for damages may be due even if a Creative Commons license is infringed upon.

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Where Are the Best Places to Make Your CC Images Available?

Countless platforms for publishing and finding royalty-free images exist. Below are some of the most well-known royalty-free image platforms at the moment.

Wikimedia Commons: One of the best-known royalty-free platforms is Wikimedia Commons. With a stockpile of over 39 million image files, the portal is one of the most important providers of free images. A majority of the content uploaded to Wikimedia Commons is licensed under Creative Commons.

Flickr: Digital images and short videos can be uploaded and shared directly to Flickr from a computer, but also easily via e-mail or smartphone. The Vancouver-based company offers its users various Creative Commons contracts to easily regulate rights of use.

Fotolia: Acquired by Adobe Stock in 2015, Fotolia sells so-called royalty-free images in the form of single downloads or in subscription based packages. As a photographer, if you want to offer your work on this platform, you must identify yourself, meaning that you cannot offer work anonymously.

Pixabay: This platform currently has about 1.4 million images in their database and they offer a high-quality, free alternative to traditional stock photo platforms. Interestingly enough, advertising from the stock photo platform Shutterstock can be found on Pixbay’s site. This is because Pixbay works are offered on Shutterstock under their own Pixabay license.

500px: Founded in Toronto in 2009, the 500px photo community has over 13 million registered users from 190 countries and sees itself as a platform for inspiration and exposure to other photographers. Their goal is to present the best works of professional photographers and ambitious amateurs.

Unsplash, Pexels,, & more: Other popular databases that regularly upload royalty-free images are Unsplash, Pexels, and On other platforms such as 4FreePhotos and, groups of photographers have joined forces to make their royalty-free photos available to the general public.

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What Can You Do If CC-Licensed Work Is Misused, Has Incorrect Attribution, Etc.?

CC-licensed content may continue to be used as long as users comply with the terms of the applicable license. Despite clear legal regulation, it is not uncommon for photos to be published without attribution, even though the photographer did not consent to the anonymous publication. Thus, the author escapes a valuable advertising opportunity; he can enforce attribution with a warning or, if necessary, also with legal action – a claim which courts usually recognize. When claims like these are taken to court, the photographer usually gets a 100% surcharge on top of the licensing fee as compensation.

What can you do if CC images are distributed with incomplete or incorrect license information? In this case, the author of a work can react with a warning. Creators of Creative Commons works may require that some form of attribution be chosen.

Even if it is a free publication under a CC license, the photographer may still claim damages. In this case, the amount is calculated on the basis of the prospective value of the photograph, which can be determined by fee recommendation indexes such as the German MFM table, the English AOP calculator, or other similar license calculation methods.

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What Has Been Updated in the Current CC License Version 4.0?

Creative Commons version 4.0 licenses reflect current attribution practices on the internet by making it much easier to clearly assigning author data. To do so, image creators must create a “Credits” page on their website. Image users then get a link to this page with attribution information and a link to the original URL. Now bloggers, journalists, or businesses can link to this page while using the work of an author online, rather than specifying the usual license code and author’s name. With this handy innovation, any image can be quickly and easily tracked back to the source and license, while creators get the attention they deserve for their work.

If you do not want to be named as the creator of an image for whatever reason, you as the creator can now request that your attribution be removed. Creative Commons 3.0 licenses had already enabled this option for certain work but version 4.0 opens this possibility up for all applications.

Another innovation is the use of Creative Commons licenses worldwide, which originally only catered to the US legal system and was incompatible with various local laws. Creative Commons has spent six years working with legal experts around the world to import the system into over 60 countries. This so-called “porting” does not apply with Creative Commons 4.0; licenses are now universally valid and ready for immediate use worldwide.

Also new is the 30-day bug fix window provided by Creative Commons 4.0 licenses. Under the updated licensing model, image users have 30 days to resolve violations before licenses are considered technically flawed.

Written by Dr. Daniela Mohr



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