A simple guide to sharing and using Creative Commons pictures

Creative Commons licences are supposedly a simple way to share your creative works, or use those created by others. But the whole thing has become Byzantine in its complexity.

The Creative Commons website says the aim of project is this:

Use Creative Commons tools to help share your work. Our free, easy-to-use copyright licenses provide a simple, standardized way to give your permission to share and use your creative work— on conditions of your choice.

Note those words: “simple, standardized”. Yeah right.

How it actually works

Go contemplate the Wikipedia entry summarising the available licences. Actually, don’t do that. It will just give you a headache. Twenty years on, there are four kinds of rights, seven regularly used licences and a multiplicity of legal issues.

How is a person who wants to share a photograph or who wants to use someone else’s supposed to know what’s what here? Fear not.

I have spent a fair amount of time delving into commons licences and have boiled it down to something that makes sense to me. I hope it will make things understandable for you too.

Step 1: Forget the numbering system

My first tip is to stop trying to figure out what all the numbers mean. Here’s a list I gathered showing the licences and their associated numbers:

CC Zero
1.0 Generic (CC BY 1.0)
2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
2.5 Generic (CC BY 2.5)
ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
ShareAlike 2.5 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.5)
3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)
4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)
NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-ND 4.0)
NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)
NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

You eyes glazed over round about line four, I’m sure.

For what it’s worth, the numbers seem to reflect the evolution of these licences over the years. But in my view they are not central to understanding what any given licence actually does.

Step 2: Look at the letters

Let’s take the list again, boiled down to its essentials:

CC0 (this is public domain, often found on government picture services)

Read that list slowly and you’ll see that all the licences are just a combination of several sets of initials.

Step 3: Understand what the initials stand for

Now – what I am about to say is not the official stuff they say on the Creative Commons site. It is the way I understand them (and I am not a lawyer – but these understandings have not failed me yet).

CC – this is a Creative Commons licence.
BY – you need to give credit to the creator (see more about that below).
SA – use this picture with the same licence that it originally had (SA is share-alike).
ND – don’t make derivative works. You can use this picture but don’t fiddle with it. Don’t crop it or photoshop it or give it a sepia tint. Just leave it the way you found it.
NC – don’t use for commercial purposes. No adverts or billboards or flyers. (News organisations are a grey area – some opinion says news organisations are non-commercial and can use the pics; others say don’t take the risk).

An example

The most complex set of initials: CC-BY-NC-ND means you can download the pic and use it – but you can’t change it in any way and you can’t use it commercially. Yes to taking the whole thing and putting it in your school project; no to putting it on your blog if you make any money from it in any way, or if you might make money in the future, or if you use it to promote your business.

So: look at the combination of letters in the licence, and you’ll know which set of restrictions applies.

How to find out what the licence of a picture is

Sadly, there isn’t a simple answer to this. On Flickr for instance, the licence is displayed on the right of the screen below the picture, with the CC icons, and a link to the licence.

Flickr licence

The licence field as displayed on Flickr

On the Wikimedia Commons website, the licence is below the picture, also on the right hand side, and has the text version of the licence rather than the icons.

Wikimedia Commons licence

The licence as displayed on Wikimedia Commons

In short, for each picture you need to look for the licence field. It will usually be pretty easy to spot. If there is no licence, then just move on!

What does this mean if you want to share your work with a CC licence?

It means think through what might happen to it, like this:

You took a picture of a flower in your garden and you want to share it with the world.
If you don’t care at all where it gets used but you’d like acknowledgement, licence it as a CC BY.
If you don’t want people sharing your picture onwards under other licences, then make it CC + BY + SA
If you would feel resentful if the local nursery used it in their marketing, crediting you but not paying you, put a CC + BY + SA + NC on it.
If you worry that somehow it will be cropped and used on the brochure of a cause you disagree with (say a GMO, or as the case may be, non-GMO brochure) – then make it CC + BY + ND + NC.

What does this mean if you want to use CC pictures in some project/blog/article/brochure:

CC, BY, SA – all cool, use away but don’t change the licence.
ND – don’t fiddle with the image in any way (and if your website automatically crops or shrinks images, probably best to stay on the safe side and not use)
NC – don’t go there unless you are 100 percent certain there is no commercial application here (that means even a poster for the school cake sale).

And the one core thing you must always do?

At the core of all these licences is the concept of attribution (those BY letters)  – that means giving credit to the person who took the picture. Err on the side of detail in all cases:

Give their name
Note the place where you found it (Flickr, Wikimedia Commons)
Do a link back to the source of the pics – that means the full URL of the pic (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34094358), not just the main website (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page).
In the caption, give as much of the detail in the original description as you can (this is the haziest of the CC rules – in years of hunting for pictures, I have observed that there is often no clear “description”. Just copy and paste whatever you can find).
In the caption or as a link, indicate the original licence of the picture.

Look at the way I have credited the feature image for this article below – that gives you the idea.

And that’s it. CC made simple.


Blogging 101: How to find a free picture that really is free
Tips for making content look good on the web
Copyright: What it is, why it is important

Main picture: A license compatibility chart when you want to combine or mix two CC licensed works by Kennisland, Wikimedia Commons, public domain licence

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