Creative Commons Explained In Plain English

One of the best ways to find usable copyrighted works, especially images, is to find someone who wants to share their work under a Creative Commons license. Since 2002, Creative Commons has been giving creators a way to share their work without having to relinquish copyright or individually license their work. These licenses have provided the public with the ability to use works under set circumstances without needing to pay for a license or pass along royalties.

Unfortunately, most people don’t know what all these little icons mean and how the licenses work. This has led to challenges for creators who find their work being used in ways not intended, as well as users who pluck out a work and use it only to find that the creator is unhappy and seeing a DMCA Takedown. Neither situation is ideal and is contrary to what the creators of the Creative Commons license program set out to do.

Many people who find works that are covered by one of the following license want to do right and not upset the original creator of the work. Few people purposefully ignore a license and just do whatever they wish. But what do the little icons mean? And once I understand the icons, are there certain rules I need to follow?

Key things to know:

  • Every Creative Commons license requires giving appropriate credit. It’s important to understand this, and to also know what this phrase “appropriate credit” means.
  • A Creative Commons licensor (the person granting you the license) may not revoke your license so long as you are following the terms of the license. This is often a sticking point because many do not provide credit as required.
  • There are 6 Creative Commons license and they apply worldwide.
  • The license, once granted, lasts as long as the copyright on the work so long as the license is used properly.

Note: These specifically reference Creative Commons 4.0, but the explanations also apply to prior versions.


Attribution Only– This one is likely the most straightforward of all the Creative Commons licenses because it’s the one they all build from. This license requires anyone who uses the copyrighted work to provide “appropriate credit” AND indicate what, if any, changes were made. In plain English, it means you have to give credit. According to the Creative Commons the credit must be in a certain way. Interesting that this is one of the most broad categories but most people actually get it wrong.

Creative Commons defines “appropriate credit” as (a) the name of the creator and attribution parties, (b) a copyright notice, (c) a license notice, (d) a disclaimer notice, and (e) a link to the material.

Once you understand that then you can do whatever else you wish with the work, regardless of whether it is for commercial, non-commercial, non-profit, educational, internal purposes at work, etc. Doesn’t matter how you use or distribute the work, give credit and say how you’ve changed the work and you’re good to go.

In reality, though, what I usually see is a “photo courtesy of” remark with a name. Sometimes the name is hyperlinked to the original work, but not always. And, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a use where the user indicated what changes they made.

Bottom Line: every CC license user needs to get better at giving credit!

CC BY SA - Creative Commons By Share Alike

Attribution, ShareAlike – This license is often confusing to many people. It carries with it all the same flexibility as the Attribution Only license but it brings along with it the rights YOU have to give to YOUR new work. In plain English, this license means that once you complete your changes to the underlying work then your new work, when shared, carries with it the exact same license and you can not prohibit others from changing or sharing your work. This license is the foundation for the idea of open-source works where various people “improve” upon others work. It’s like hitting the ‘Save’ instead of the ‘Save As’ button.

Creative Commons By No Derivatives

Attribution, No Derivatives – This license is kind of the opposite of what you can do with the Attribution Only license. You have to give credit, or used in the Creative Commons license “appropriate credit”, but you can’t change the work in any way. Want to crop it? No. Lighten it up a bit? Nope. Make it black and white? Again, No. In plain English, this license means you can use the work for ANY – commercial, non-commercial, educational, work, gaming, or what have you – purpose, so long as you provide the license-required credit and not alter the work in any way.

Creative Commons BY non commercial

Attribution, Non-Commercial – This license is a little trickier because there is no clear definition of what “commercial” means as far as Creative Commons licenses go and thus “non-commercial” is not as black and white as you may think. Under the Creative Commons license, “commercial” is defined as “primarily intended for commercial advantage or monetary gain”.  When Creative Commons licenses were created we didn’t have the concept of social media sharing that we do now. The value placed on posting photos on social networks may be to gain a commercial advantage in the form of likes or pins or tweets, etc. It hasn’t been further defined from when the original understanding of commercial advantage had a decidedly different paradigm than it does now.

Of course, as with all Creative Commons licenses, with this one you must provide attribution, as defined by the license. However, you are able to add to, modify, change, etc., the underlying work so long as YOU are not doing it in a commercial way. THEN if you were to share or distribute the work you may only do so in a non-commercial manner. Put that in to plain English, please!

We’ve got a number of things going on here.

A – provide attribution
B – you changing the underlying work in a non-commercial way
C – you sharing the new work in a non-commercial way
D – licensing the new work

So let’s tackle these separately.

A – provide attribution. That’s easy enough, you’ve got this! (Note: see above)

B – you changing the underlying work in a non-commercial way. If you plan to make changes you can not do it in a commercial manner. Obviously, that means you can’t charge for your work. This is important if you’re a designer and need to create something for a client or if you work in-house and are modifying something for use within your own organization. Those are obvious “commercial” activities – getting paid for your work. While it would only be speculation, as there is no case law or commons commentary, as to whether “in kind” compensation would amount to “commercial” if you’re not normally in the business of charging or being paid for your work. But, for the most post, I don’t think this is the sticking point with this license, it’s the next part.

C – you sharing the new work in a non-commercial way. Obviously, you can’t put it up for sale or charge clients for this new work. But can you ask for donations but make it available whether or not someone gives? Can you include it on your website where you have ads, affiliate links, and/or other paid business relationships? Can you include it on your website if your website is basically an advertisement to hire you? These are all gray areas and if a problem arises you’d need to deal with it on an individual basis. The difficulty is that just because one creator may see a means of sharing as commercial doesn’t mean others necessarily do.

D – licensing your new work. You may attach any Creative Commons license you wish to the new work. This may seem crazy. You can’t sell your new work, but you can license it to someone else (for no money) and they can use it for either commercial or non-commercial purposes. That doesn’t sound right, does it? You can’t make money off the new work, but someone else can. But, yes, that’s exactly what this means.

Creative commons by non commercial share alike

Attribution, Non-Commercial, and Share Alike – Now that we’ve established the basics, this one starts to put them together. This one makes a change from the prior Attribution, Non-Commercial and adds on the Share Alike license.

Again, in plain English it’s the same as the prior license except when it comes to how YOU share the new work. The new work MUST  be licensed in the same manner as the work you started with. So, since you started with an “Attribution, Non-Commercial” license you must license your new work in the same way. Whereas with the “Attribution, Non-Commercial” you can license your new work as either commercial or non-commercial, with this Share Alike license you may not provide a different license on your new work than you had on the underlying work. It’s that idea of fairness, really.

Creative Commons By non commercial no derivatives

Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivatives – Basically, with this license all you’re able to do is share the work. Of course, you must provide “appropriate credit”, but you can not modify the work in any manner then distribute it even if the distribution is not for commercial gain. With this license, all you’re allowed to do is share it for free with other people and in doing so give credit to the original creator.

Added 2/15/14:

Public Domain also referred to as CC ZeroPublic Domain (CC0) – I had a number of people ask me about public domain works. While that’s a separate discussion, I want you to know there is a Creative Commons designation (CC0 1.0 Universal) for works someone wants to place in the public domain. Since the assumption is all works are subject to copyright unless otherwise designated or known, if a creator wants to make their work available without any restrictions they can add what is called the “CC0” or “CCZero” designation. A work that carries this designation has “No Rights Reserved” and is free of copyright restrictions, and likely other restrictions (i.e., moral, publicity, and privacy rights). This is a very broad designation and it is clearly understood within the Creative Commons community that no work carries this designation unless it is explicitly marked as a CC0 work.

Thank you for reading all the way through this. I know it’s a lot, but I hope you now have a better understanding of what all these licenses mean. Does this help you better understand how to use Creative Commons work? Do you feel more confident that your work will be used as you intended?