Copyright Education

How do Creative Commons Licenses work? A short Guide

Explore the meaning of CC licensing, its types, and the possibilities it may offer for your photography business (CC by Kristina Alexanderson:, CC BY 2.0).

For photographers and image rights holders, Creative Commons licenses are an easy way to license photos for free. However, these photo licenses are not always easy to understand and that may cause some uncertainties. Find here what you, as a photographer need to remember when using CC licenses for your images.

Please note that the information in this article does not constitute legal advice. It is intended to inform you about general CC licensing practices. Please do more detailed research or seek legal advice in your specific case.

CC license meaning

How does the Creative Commons image license work?

What types of CC licenses are available?

What are the CC license types?

Where is the best place to make your CC images available?

Benefits and Drawbacks of Using CC Licensing

Is it a good idea to license your photos with Creative Commons?

What to do if your CC-licensed works are not used properly?


 CC license meaning

Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organization founded in the US. It provides creators with pre-written photo licensing agreements to share legally protected content. CC license agreements can be used to regulate the use of copyrighted works. They apply worldwide so that they can be used internationally.

Creative Commons is neither an exploiter nor a publisher of the content nor a contractual partner of authors and rights holders who distribute their content under CC license agreements. The authors use the CC license agreements to regulate how their content may be used.


How does the Creative Commons image license work?

With “All Rights Reserved,” you need special permission from a photographer to feature their photo. Anyone can use an image licensed under Creative Commons — so long as they follow certain conditions.

Except for CC0 (a public domain license), this always means giving credit to the creator. Some licenses place other conditions, such as barring changes to the work or re-releasing it under more restrictive licenses.


What types of CC licenses are available?

There are four license options (by-Attribution, sa-Share Alike, nc-No Commercial, nd-No Derivatives), which in different combinations result in six various license agreements. They all share that the works licensed via CC may only be offered free. In addition, copyright and source information must always be provided.

To mark a work with a Creative Commons license, use a Creative Commons symbol and letter code that stands for a particular scope of a license. The licenses differ in three main respects: concerning the editing of work, then with regard to the distribution of a variation of the work, and finally, concerning the use for commercial purposes.


What are the CC license types?

Here is the list of the main Creative Commons license types. The name of each type of CC license indicates the most critical conditions for using the work:

  • CC by (Attribution): The simplest license, the user is obliged only to indicate the author's name. It is allowed to use and edit the photo for private and commercial purposes.
  • CC by-sa (Attribution & Share Alike): This license restricts the sharing of an altered photo to the condition that it is shared under the same terms and license as the original work.
  • CC by-nd (Attribution & No Derivatives): The photo may not be edited with this license. However, it may be used unedited even for commercial purposes.
  • CC by-nc (Attribution & No Commercial Use): This license prohibits the commercial use of photographs. Therefore, it is not allowed to use the photo for commercial purposes, such as in an online store or for products for resale.
  • CC by-nc-sa (Attribution, Non-Commercial & Share Alike): This license only allows non-commercial use of the photo. Edits may also only be redistributed under the same conditions.
  • CC by-nc-nd (Attribution, No Commercial Use & No Derivatives): The image can be used for non-commercial purposes with this license. However, editing of the original is not permitted.

Depending on the license chosen, the author marks his work with the appropriate abbreviations. If you want to make the license selection easy, you can find an application on the Creative Commons website where you can find the proper license with just a few clicks.

Despite CC licenses, individual agreements may still be made between the rights holder and a user. For example, if a photographer posts his images online under a CC license with the conditions "Attribution & No Derivative Works, Non-Commercial" he may allow a requesting user to edit a particular image or permit commercial use.


Where is the best place to make your CC images available?

There are now countless platforms for free, royalty-free images on the Internet. One of the best known is Wikimedia Commons. With more than 87 million image files, the portal is one of the most important providers of free images. Most of the content uploaded to Wikimedia Commons is licensed under Creative Commons licenses.

Currently, Pixabay offers approximately 1.4 million pictures. The platform from Germany is a high-quality free alternative to stock photo providers.

The image agency Adobe Stock, formally called Fotolia until 2015, sells so-called royalty-free images as individual downloads, in monthly packages, or by subscription. Those who would like to offer their work here must first register.

The photo community 500px from Toronto has over 13 million registered users from 190 countries and sees itself as a platform for inspiration and contact with other photographers. Their aim is to present the best work of professional photographers and ambitious amateurs.

On Flickr digital images and short videos can be uploaded and shared directly from a computer but also conveniently via e-mail or smartphone. The Vancouver-based company offers its users various Creative Commons contracts to facilitate the granting of usage rights.

Other popular databases that regularly upload many new free images from all areas are Unsplash, Pexels, and

Here are some other websites where you can upload your images: 4FreePhotos, MorgueFile, Picjumbo, Pikwizard,, Openverse (formerly CC Search), Nappy (a website featuring Black and Brown people, and all of their images are completely free to download).


Benefits and Drawbacks of Using Creative Commons Licenses

How can you profit from applying Creative Commons licenses to your work?

1. CC Licensing is simple.

A good reason for using CC licenses when you distribute your own content on the internet is that they are easy to use. There is no need to create complicated licenses. It is enough to label a work with the appropriate abbreviation. Most major photo-sharing platforms allow you to license your work with a single click. You can also add the CC license as EXIF data in Photoshop or Lightroom.

CC licenses offer a practical and free solution if you don't want to put your work online completely unprotected. If the content is at least CC-licensed, there is less legal uncertainty on both sides.

2. CC licensing gives you exposure.

CC licenses won’t completely safeguard your images from image theft, but they ensure some percentage of users link back to your images. A simple attribution (which is required in almost all types of CC licenses) can bring considerable traffic to a beginner photographer's website as well as significant promotional benefits to the author. 

Tip: You can always license out the edited JPEGs and keep the high-quality RAW or TIFF files in order to still have proof of the image ownership.

3. CC licensing demonstrates openness.

Some photographers use CC licenses for their works because they show that they support open and free access to cultural assets in general. In many communities, it is now natural to use open licensing models. Some creators also want to contribute to increasing the common pool of material by adding their images.

Some photographers are happy to have their work picked up and re-used. Without free licensing via CC licenses, the author would first have to be contacted for each use of a photo - an effort that often leads to images either not being used at all or being used without permission. Neither is in the interest of the author.

What are the disadvantages of using Creative Commons licenses?

1. CC licenses are the constant constellations of specific rights.

Although they are easy to integrate, they offer nowhere near the possibilities of an individually agreed license. For example, there is no license with which use can be limited in time. In this case, the photographer cannot avoid an individual agreement - and in such a case, it is over with simplicity.

2. Creative Commons licenses are irrevocable.

That means that: if you republish an image with a more restrictive license or a "non-commercial" condition, this does not apply to copies made before the change.

3. Using Creative Commons licenses doesn't guarantee that your Copyrights won't be infringed.

Content under Creative Commons licenses can be used free of charge without having to ask the author or rights holder. However, anyone who disregards the license conditions loses this authorization - and... infringes copyright. 

4. Not every aspect of CC licensing is clearly regulated.

Some CC license points are fuzzy. For example, the license terms do not explain in detail what is meant by the term "commercial". It is only roughly defined that commercial usage is mainly aimed at a business advantage or a monetary disposition that is contractually owed.


So, is it a good idea to license your photos with Creative Commons?

On the one hand, Creative Commons is a perfect option if you want your photos to be easily shared and widely seen. Numerous amateur and professional photographers take advantage of so-called "flexible copyright".

On the other hand, licensing terms are often misunderstood, abused, or completely ignored. Some photographers also see no purpose in using Creative Commons licenses and prefer traditional licenses. However, the fact is that many creatives entrust their works to Creative Commons and actually benefit from this form of license.


What to do if your CC-licensed works are not used properly?

CC-licensed content can be used as long as users comply with the terms of the respective license. Anyone who does not comply with these conditions or does but inadequately - is using the work in breach of contract and is infringing the photographer´s copyright - with all the consequences that this can have.

Such violations of the Creative Commons licenses may be subject to warnings or even legal action. Even if it is a free publication under a CC license, the author of the image can claim damages in these cases. 

Have you noticed a copyright infringement of your work but don´t know how to approach the copyright infringer? The Fair Licensing team gladly helps you to deal with this issue.

Fair Licensing is a web platform that helps you to directly contact infringers and make them an offer to settle the case by purchasing a license from you. World wide. Without any middlemen involved. The fair and friendly way.

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