Can I use that image? A guide to Creative Commons licenses

If you’re a blog writer like me, you probably know the importance of using images. They make blog posts visually appealing, and the text easy to read. So for a blogger looking to use images in their articles and posts, knowing about Creative Commons and its licenses is crucial.

As a writer, I use open-source images from free services like Pexels, Pixabay, Unsplash, or Freepik in my articles and blog posts. They’re royalty-free, and I can use them anywhere without worries.

But large as their repositories may be, they’re still limited. You can’t expect to find every picture for free over there.

Why can’t I just use Google Images?

Well, it’s not that straightforward. Not every image on Google (or Bing, if you’re a sociopath) is free to use. An image takes time and effort on the part of an artist or photographer. And using their hard work without their permission isn’t ethical… or legal.

And the same goes for Pinterest and free wallpapers websites — unless you know which image you can freely use, you can’t use it.

How do I know which images I can use?

This is where you need to know about Creative Commons (CC) licensing. Creative Commons Licenses allow free distribution of an otherwise copyrighted work. While it applies to different types of content, I’ll be focusing on images and photographs.

Simply put, any image with a Creative Commons License is free to use. The extent of how you can use it is what you need to know.

What’s Creative Commons?

Creative Commons allows artists to license their work under one of 7 categories. The type of license determines whether the piece of work:

  • can be used commercially
  • can be remixed (edited, cropped, modified)
  • requires accreditation (name of artist and type of license)

All Creative Commons Licenses at least allow non-commercial use of the image or photographs with no restrictions. Non-commercial use means you’re not earning from the work that features the image.

Check the table below for a quick reference. It lists all 7 creative commons licenses, plus their scope:

Advanced Excel knowledge went into making this table

Note that after using an image licensed under one of these categories, you cannot put any of your own restrictions on it.

Creative Commons Licenses Explained

Without going into the nitty-gritty, I’ll explain each license type briefly.

1. Attribution License (CC BY)

  • You can copy and distribute these images for any purpose, including commercial use.
  • You can modify, crop, or edit the image for use.
  • You have to credit the original author and link the license the image was marked with.

2. Attribution-ShareAlike License (CC BY-SA)

  • You can copy and distribute these images for any purpose, including commercial use.
  • You can modify, crop, or edit the image for use. However, the modified image must be put under the same license as the original work.
  • You have to credit the original author and link the license the image was marked with.

3. Attribution-NoDerivatives License (CC BY-ND)

  • You can copy and distribute these images for any purpose, including commercial use.
  • You cannot modify, crop, or edit the image for use.
  • You have to credit the original author and link the license the image was marked with.

4. Attribution-NonCommercial License (CC BY-NC)

  • You can copy and distribute these images, but only for non-commercial purposes.
  • You can modify, crop, or edit the image for use.
  • You have to credit the original author and link the license the image was marked with.

5. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License (CC BY-NC-SA)

  • You can copy and distribute these images, but only for non-commercial purposes.
  • You can modify, crop, or edit the image for use. However, the modified image must be put under the same license as the original work.
  • You have to credit the original author and link the license the image was marked with.

6. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives (CC BY-NC-ND)

  • You can copy and distribute these images, but only for non-commercial purposes.
  • You cannot modify, crop, or edit the image for use.
  • You have to credit the original author and link the license the image was marked with.

7. Creative Commons “No Rights Reserved” (CC0)

Images distributed under CC0 require no author credit or license link. You can modify the image to your liking, and use them for commercial or non-commercial purposes anywhere.

The free images you find on sites like Pexels, Pixabay, Unsplash, Freepik, etc., carry the CC0 mark.

8. Public Domain Mark

In addition to the 7 types of licenses I’ve mentioned above, some images carry the Public domain mark. These images have no known copyrights, or their copyrights are no longer in effect.

The only difference between CC0 and the public domain is that CC0 images never had any restrictions to begin with. This is not necessarily the case with public domain images. But for the purpose of usage, you can copy, modify, and distribute these images freely. Just like those under CC0.

How do I find Creative Commons images?

If you can’t find an image or photograph on free image websites, you can use Google images. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Go to images.google.com
  2. Depending on the browser, click on “Tools” or the three sliders icon
  3. Click on the “Usage Rights” option and select “Creative Commons licenses”. Google will now show only CC images.
Because everyone loves coffee…

4. Click an image. You will see the option of checking “License Details”. Click it and it will show you its CC license category, plus what usage it allows.

A no-copyright image! Thank you anonymous artist

5. And you’re done. Use the image keeping within its rights and you’ll never run into trouble.

Alternatively, you can head over to https://search.creativecommons.org/ and search images there.

To wrap it up:

  • If the license carries the letters NC, only use it for non-commercial purposes.
  • If the license carries the letters ND, use it only in its original form, without any modification.
  • Always credit the creator and provide a link to the license.
  • You can use CC0 and public domain images freely without crediting anyone.

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