Understanding Creative Commons Licenses

It doesn’t matter if you’re a student, a scholar, or just someone with a blog: we all run into issues finding images that you’re allowed to use on your website, in your research, or in an advertisement. While copyright laws have avenues for use, it’s not guaranteed that you can use the image you want, and the process of getting access to that image may be slow. That’s why looking at images with a Creative Commons license are a great alternative to traditional copyrighted images.

A Creative Commons license is a more flexible option than copyright and can be used on images, or basically any other kind of shareable work. When a creator chooses a Creative Commons license, people do not need to ask for their explicit permission to use their work. However, that doesn’t mean that the creator gives up control of the image; rather, they choose one of six current options for their Creative Commons license:

  • Attribution: The most lenient license. The attribution license lets others do what they please with your work, so long as they credit the original creator.
  • Attribution-ShareAlike: Similar to the attribution license, though all derivatives of the original work must be licensed under identical terms to that original.
  • Attribution-NoDerivs: This allows others to use the work as they please, so long as they do not change or manipulate it, and credit the creator.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial: This license allows people to use and tweak the work freely, except for commercial enterprises. The derivative works do not have to be licensed under identical terms.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike: Same as above except derivative works must be licensed under identical terms.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs: The most restrictive license. Others may download the work, but they cannot change them or use them commercially.

All-in-all, most Creative Commons works have “some rights reserved.” As a consumer, you have the responsibility to look up license of any Creative Commons work you hope to use (which isn’t very hard – most of the time any limitations are listed).

Here are some examples of images with differing Creative Commons licenses:

The only stipulation on this image is that I must provide proper attribution. “Albert Cavalier King Charles Spaniel” was taken by Glen Bowman on July 21, 2013 and is hosted on flickr.com.

This image of a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel only requires creator attribution. It can be used commercially so long as I acknowledge Glen Bowman, the photo’s creator. So if I so chose, I could hypothetically edit this photo to use as a welcome banner on my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel appreciation blog, include it in a PowerPoint I use for my veterinary school class, or copy it in an advertisement for my dog-walking business.

This Creative Commons licensed image requires proper attribution. “Cavalier King Charles Spaniel” was taken by James Watson (kingjimmy81) on August 17, 2013, and is hosted on Flickr.com.

This image of a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel has a more restrictive license than the above image. You can share the image in any medium or format, but you must give appropriate credit to James Watson, the creator. You cannot use it commercially, and you cannot distribute derivatives of the photo. So I could include this on my Cavalier King Charles appreciation blog with proper attribution, but could not edit it to make it into a banner on the homepage. And while using it in my veterinary school PowerPoint is still okay, I could not use it in an advertisement for my dog-walking business.

If you’re interested in finding Creative Commons works, you can use the Creative Commons Search function, which links up to various search engines, including Google, Google Images, Wikimedia Commons, and Flickr. If you’re interested in learning more about Creative Commons licenses, check out the Scholarly Commons’ Creative Commons basics page, as well as our use/creation of Creative Commons licenses page. If you’re interested in learning more about intellectual property in general, visit the Main Library’s Intellectual Property LibGuide, or get in touch with the library’s copyright specialist, Sara Benson (srbenson@illinois.edu).

Public Domain and Creativity

This post was guest authored by Scholarly Communication & Publishing Graduate Assistant Nicole Moriah Rhodes.

The first American copyright law protected works for fourteen years after they were published and gave the copyright owner the opportunity to renew the copyright for another fourteen years. Few did, and works passed quickly into the public domain.

The copyright term is much longer now–it varies, but you, a human, will likely own many copyrights until 70 years after you die. Some people argue that a long copyright term increases the incentive to make creative work.

However, despite the longer term, statistical analysis of the number of copyright registrations through changes in population, economy, US law, and available technology doesn’t find that increasing copyright protection increases the number of copyrighted works. Raymond Shih Ray Ku, Jiayang Sun, & Yiying Fan (2009) find that the people advocating for broader copyright laws probably aren’t advocating for an increase in the amount of creative work: the best indicator of the number of new creative works among the variables in their study is population. Their data suggest that “Laws that reduce or otherwise limit copyright protection are actually more likely to increase the number of new works” (1673) than laws granting more protection.

Such a long period of copyright protection leaves a lot of content unusable to other creators. This comic about documentary filmmakers demonstrates how stringent copyright protections can prevent creative remixing and impede the accurate representation of the world. Work in the public domain can be shared freely, but our real lives are full of content protected by copyright, and people trying to make documentaries can be inhibited by copyright even on incidental work. When they want to use copyrighted material under the fair use doctrine, the threat of lawsuits can have a chilling effect.

Lawrence Lessig (2004) uses the phrase “Walt Disney creativity” to describe “a form of expression and genius that builds upon the culture around us and makes it something different” (24). Disney’s Cinderella, Disney’s live-action Cinderella, fanfiction, and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries could all be considered examples of Walt Disney creativity. But Disney had access to fairly recent work in his time. As Lessig writes:

“Thus, most of the content from the nineteenth century was free for Disney to use and build upon in 1928. It was free for anyone— whether connected or not, whether rich or not, whether approved or not—to use and build upon.

“From 1790 until 1978, the average copyright term was never more than thirty-two years, meaning that most culture just a generation and a half old was free for anyone to build upon without the permission of anyone else. Today’s equivalent would be for creative work from the 1960s and 1970s to now be free for the next Walt Disney to build upon without permission. Yet today, the public domain is presumptive only for content from before the Great Depression.” (24-25)

Michael Hart, the creator of Project Gutenberg and a longtime Urbana resident, viewed copyright law as impeding the abundance that technology could create, beginning with the very first copyright laws after the invention of the Gutenberg Press. While Ku, Sun, & Fan (2009) do find that copyright law helps create and protect both wealth and jobs and allows creators to be rewarded for their work rather than requiring sponsorship, they advocate for reducing copyright protection where it impedes distribution or creativity.

“Because copyright law works in the negative—effectively saying ‘do not use this work, do not copy this work, do not imitate this work’—we are not sending a message that society values the creation of new works. We are only sending the message that we should stay away from those works already created” (1722).

Creative Commons is one venture designed to allow creators to share their work for other creators’ use while preserving the level of protection they choose. However, the default is still a system that restricts access to cultural works past the time when the creator might care, and can even keep works from being preserved so they will be usable when they enter the public domain. Creators should be able to benefit from the work they create, but increasing protections does not necessarily increase those benefits. Excessive copyright terms keep us from being able to discuss and rethink our common culture.

If Creative Commons Licenses Were Cookies

A plate of cookies (not licenses). This image, however, is licensed under CC-0, and is part of the public domain.

NOTE: This post is not meant as legal advice, but as a humorous piece.

Creative Commons is a licensing scheme set up to supplement copyright and help creators allow others to use their work, and to have more control over the ways that the work is used. These licenses have become increasingly recognized in courts around the world and yes, people have gotten sued for not following the terms of CC licenses. Cookies, known to the rest of the English speaking world as biscuits, are delicious sugary circular wonderfulness. But what could they have in common? More than you may think.

CC-0 Public Domain:

A brigadeiro is technically a cookie because it’s round and sweet; however, it is more of a part of the greater category of desserts, much like saying something is public domain is less of a licensing statement than a revocation of the rights guaranteed under copyright law.


When your content is under a CC-BY license you can build whatever you want out of it, much like gingerbread. This could include men, houses, reindeer, or whatever, but you still recognize your creation as gingerbread.


Anzac Day cookies are a defining dessert in Australian cuisine and are used to celebrate either Anzac Day or Australian heritage, but you can add your own local twist on this favorite like frosting, much like using a CC-BY SA license, so your new creations have to be licensed the same way like how you wouldn’t make “Anzac Day” cookies for the Fourth of July.


Like the famous or perhaps infamous Berger Cookies of Baltimore MD, this license will let you make your own content and even sell it, but the creator wants the content the same no matter what. Some people say trans fats are dangerous, but Berger Cookies says they are absolutely necessary and will fight you if you say they should change their recipe.


Similar to Speculoos, which are traditional and standardized cookies in regard to shape and flavor, but spawned a popular American cookie spread also called Speculoos, CC-BY-NC content can’t be commercial but the derivatives can be different and licensed differently from the original as long as they stay noncommercial.


Girl Scout Cookies have been around for exactly 100 years. The most restrictive type of CC license can, of course, be compared to the most restrictive type of cookie. The Girl Scouts retain a lot of control over their cookies: who can make them, who can sell them, what time of year they are sold, to the point where the recipes remain hidden, though they are presumably not made with real Girl Scouts.

Don’t forget to check out the CC licensing documentation to learn more and see examples that won’t make you hungry!


More Resources:


What are your thoughts on Creative Commons?  What are some other cookies that remind you of Creative Commons licenses? Are brigadeiros cookies? Let us know in the comments!

Works Cited:

100 Years of Cookie History – Girl Scouts. (2017). Retrieved June 16, 2017, from http://www.girlscouts.org/en/cookies/all-about-cookies/100-years-of-cookie-history.html

Chase, D. (2017, January 25). Research & Subject Guides: Copyright, Fair Use & the Creative Commons: Home. Retrieved June 16, 2017, from http://guides.library.stonybrook.edu/copyright/home

Glyn Moody. (2016, July 13). Festival uses CC-licensed pic without attribution, pays the price. Retrieved June 16, 2017, from https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2016/07/creative-commons-photo-misused-lawsuit/

Gorelick, R. (2013, November 22). FDA trans-fat ban threatens Berger cookies. The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved from http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/dining/baltimore-diner-blog/bs-fo-berger-cookie-trans-fat-ban-20131122-story.html

Licenses and Examples. (n.d.). Retrieved June 16, 2017, from https://creativecommons.org/share-your-work/licensing-types-examples/licensing-examples/

Lynne Olver. (2015, March 18). Food Timeline: food history research service. Retrieved June 16, 2017, from http://www.foodtimeline.org/index.html