Deep Dive: Understanding Creative Commons Licensing

These days, it seems like just about everybody is a content creator of some kind.

Whether it is a niche blogger with a passionate fanbase or an artistically-inclined programmer who builds websites as a side hustle. For these pursuits and more, there is perhaps no more valuable resource than the stock photo, and no more effective way to use than with a Creative Commons (CC) License.

For both free stock photos and premium stock content, understanding the specific licensing terms attached to individual images is key for staying protected against potentially devastating costs of copyright infringement.

While CC licenses go a long way towards providing automatic protection, they are most effective when paired with a thorough understanding of how they work.

In this guide, we are going to answer some of the most common questions about how Creative Commons Licenses work, as well as explore the different forms that these licenses can take and the possible repercussions for ignoring their conditions.

What Is a Creative Commons License for Stock Photos? buy image

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When an artist or photographer decided to contribute or sell and image to a stock photo site, they have the option of choosing the conditions under which that image (or other types of content) may be used and/or distributed.

Creative Commons is one of the most popular license types for stock photo contributors because it allows the original artist to select from a number of slightly different license types depending on their preferences. Creative Commons licenses are totally free, which allows contributors to get their work out to millions of users for a variety of uses.

For designers, bloggers, and marketing departments who are on the hunt for stock photos, Creative Commons is a beneficial system because of how easy it is to understand. Even though there are a number of different specific CC license varieties, it has been designed in such a way that makes it less complicated than some Royalty-Free license types.

The result of the Creative Commons effort has been astounding, with a vast collection of stock content to be downloaded, distributed, edited, and sold without breaking copyright law.

Does Creative Commons Eliminate Any Worries About Copyright? buy image

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It is a common misconception that simply because a stock photo has a CC license means that it is not also subject to copyright. CC licenses are issued in addition to copyright, not in substitution of it. This means that it is possible for a photographer to maintain full rights of their work while also allowing it to be distributed for free under certain circumstances.

The long and the short of it: CC-licensed images are still subject to copyright, which means that it is incredibly important to pay attention to the requirements and conditions of your content licenses.

The 4 License Conditions that Stock Photo Contributors Can Choose From

When an artist or photographer decides to use a Creative Commons license, they are given a number of different conditions to choose from that will be applied to their work. These conditions can be “mixed and matched” to create the ideal license for each piece of content.

  1. Attribution [by] – With the exception of Creative Commons Zero (more on that in a bit) all CC licenses require Attribution, which requires that credit must be given to the original artist whenever the content is being used. It is possible to get around the Attribution requirement by seeking the permission of the creator.
  2. Share Alike [sa] – The Share-Alike condition means that the stock photo or other type of content can be distributed, performed, displayed, or modified for just about anything. However, if the work is modified, then the modified work will also fall under the same CC license.
  3. Non-Commercial [nc] – As the name suggests, a Non-Commercial license condition means that only personal, artistic, and editorial uses are permitted unless the creator provides their written permission.
  4. No Derivatives [nd] – The No Derivative condition means that the piece of stock content cannot be modified without permission, however it can still be distributed and displayed.

The Six Different Creative Commons Licenses for Stock Photos

Depending on which of the above conditions the content creator decided on, they will then be granted one of the following sub-types of CC license. In these examples, note how every one of these license types includes the “BY” or Attribution condition.

  1. CC BY: Attribution –The most simplistic and accommodating license that is recommended for people who really want their content to get out and into the world.
  2. CC BY-SA: Attribution + ShareAlike-Stock photos that have a BY-SA license can be modified, but any modified version of the image must carry the same license (and thus, remain free to use and distribute).
  3. CC BY-ND: Attribution + No-Derivs- ND stands for No Derivatives, which simply means that the stock content under this type of license cannot be modified or adapted without specific permission from the creator.
  4. CC BY-NC: Attribution + NonCommercial- As the name suggests, Non-Commercial or NC license types can only be used for personal, artistic, or editorial use.
  5. CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution + NonCommercial + ShareAlike – This is the combination of both NC and SA, which means that the stock photo can be used and modified, but not for commercial purposes, and all modified or adapted versions must utilize the same license.
  6. CC BY-NC-ND: Attribution + NonCommercial + NoDerivs[BY-NC-SA] – This is certainly the most restriction-heavy CC license, but it is still extremely useful for contributors and designers alike. It allows images and content to be used only for personal use and only in its original form.

Creative Commons Zero (CC0): “No Rights Reserved”

There is a seventh type of CC license that is most commonly used in free stock photos, and that the Creative Commons Zero, or more commonly, CC0. The reason that CC0 is not listed with the above license types and sometimes not even included in discussions about CC licenses is that CC0 is basically Public Doman, meaning that the creator has waived all rights to the work in question, including attribution.

Because there are no restrictions on CC0 licensed content, this type of stock content is particularly useful for both personal and commercial applications alike. It has also allowed an incredible amount of resources and information to be disseminated the world over, helping doctors, teachers, artists, and students with all sorts of different endeavors.

What Happens if I Violate a Creative Commons License?

If you use a CC-licensed stock image in a way that is not permitted, then you can be on the hook for copyright infringement, which is not a good situation for anybody to be in. This is because CC licenses are only valid if all the relevant terms are being met; otherwise, the entire license becomes invalid.

Here is an example. Imagine a free stock photo you pulled off the web that is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND. There are three separate conditions for this image license: attribution, non-commercial, and no derivatives. Let’s say you put this image on your personal blog just the way it is. You’d be safe right? Not if you forgot the Attribution. As we mentioned above, ignoring even one of the license conditions causes the entire license to be invalid. So, in this example, your personal blog would be in breach of copyright.

How Much Can I Be Charged for Copyright Infringement? buy image

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According to on-the-books copyright law, you can still be held responsible for copyright infringement even if you:

  • Didn’t know you were in breach of copyright
  • Immediately removed the offending picture after a DMCA notice
  • Provide a link back to the image’s source
  • Are using the image in a non-commercial manner
  • Have a disclaimer on, near, or around the image

The number of damages that you might be responsible for will vary greatly depending on the specific case, but the lower end is between $3,000 and $5,000, while the larger and more commercial lawsuits can be worth millions.

How Likely Am I to Get Caught for Using an Image Without the Correct License?

The internet is a big place that is getting bigger every day, which is perhaps why so many people think that there is no way they are going to get caught using an image without permission. After all, nobody has the time to check through the whole internet just to catch one blogger or designer.

The truth is, image creators and stock content hosts both utilize advanced image-search technology that can tell them when, where, and how their work is being published online. In most cases, they will send a DMCA Takedown Notice and the issue will be resolved, but in some more egregious cases, they might file a lawsuit.

Long story short: if you receive a DMCA notice about a piece of content that you have shared, published, or distributed, then you should comply immediately with the takedown.

How to Not Get Sued for Copyright Infringement buy image

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While there are always risks associated with the commercial use of stock content, avoiding these risks is entirely possible with a little bit of education and some ongoing vigilance.

Here are some of the most effective ways to keep yourself legally, ethically, and creatively protected:

  • While there are many sites that offer free royalty-free stock images, it is almost always safer to purchase your stock images from a reputable stock agency. The more highly trusted stock agencies (Photocase, Shutterstock, etc.) have licensing options that are clearly stated and easy to understand.
  • Take the time to understand the licensing guidelines for the stock image or stock video clip that you are looking to purchase or download. If no licensing information is provided, that’s a good indicator that you should switch to a different stock photo agency.
  • Depending on the license type, you may be responsible for attributions for specific pieces of stock content (as is the case for most CC licenses). Disregarding your attribution requirements is an easy way to get your usage rights terminated, which can lead to copyright infringement.
  • If you are accused of a usage violation, the best thing to do is to stop using the image right away. While usage violations are not uncommon, it is also possible that a mistake has been made and it just needs a few days to be cleared up. The Importance of Images Being Legally VerifiedIf you’ve used stock images previously, whether you’ve paid for it or not, you’ll know that some form of attribution or additional verification is required. Reputable stock photo websites don’t just accept images from photographers, even if they’re shown what seems to be a valid CC license.The CC license and the validity of it have to be double-checked. Most stock image websites – paid or unpaid – have these checks in place, which takes a weight off your shoulder and saves you the time of double-checking.A legally verified image doesn’t just come with a stamp or seal of approval. Someone has actually worked behind the scenes to follow the verification procedures. The person who licenses the image has to follow specific steps in line with the law. Some of the steps needed include:
    • Being the legal copyright owner.
    • If the image is being used commercially, there has to be proof that the image has been approved and released by the model.
    • Property releases are also required if the shoot is based on places where people live.

    There are several kinds of licenses too, some of them require different permissions and documentation.

    Why do the images have to be legally verified?

    Without the extra checks and balances of legal verification, anyone can claim a photo as theirs, fake the license, and then distribute it dishonestly. With a legal verification, all the paperwork and permissions are double-checked to ensure its authenticity. In this way, if you purchase a photo from a reputable website, then you know that someone has done the legwork of making sure that the CC license is valid.

    If you’re getting images from a website that doesn’t have someone verifying the CC license, then you risk choosing an invalid image, using it, and opening yourself up to copyright infringement and a possible lawsuit. A CC license is important, and so is checking to make sure that the license you’re being shown has followed all the steps correctly.

    What are the most reliable free stock photo websites?

    While all paid stock images websites have a built-in CC license validity check, some free websites don’t take this as seriously. This could lead to a massive legal headache for you down the line, so we’ve compiled a list of free stock photo websites that follow the legal safety rules, while also considering your pocket.

    1. Unsplash: Unsplash is probably the crème de crème of free stock photo sites. All their photos can be downloaded and used for free for commercial and non-commercial purposes. It’s all legal, high quality, and can be used without permission.

    2. Pixabay: Fancy yourself a professional photographer, and want to build up a portfolio first? This where all the aspiring creatives come to share, although the content leans more towards a corporate-like feel. The copyright-free images and videos are released under the Pixbay License, which is available for anyone to use safely and legally and without permission. The beautiful images can even be used for commercial purposes.

    3. Pexels: Take a scroll down Pexel’s homepage and you’ll find a beautiful, perfectly curated page filled with portrait close-ups, well-timed nature pieces, and unique shots showing off the artist’s creativity. This, in addition to their vast collection, makes it the perfect space for Tumblrs and bloggers to draw inspiration from. The photos on Pexel don’t need attribution, but crediting the creative behind it never hurts!

    4. Gratisography: If the look and feel of stock photos put you off, then Gratisography should be your go-to image source. The popping, bright pink homepage, punctuated with a bright green banner, and focused on a dude with two post-it notes over his eyes and a tie around his head screams quirky, and Gratisographyowns the description proudly. They don’t have a vast library yet, but the unique images are free to use for both commercial and personal projects.

    5. Stockvault: Stockvault’s library isn’t as vast as Unsplash’s, but new images get added daily, it’s well-organized, which makes image searching easy, the images are moderated to ensure that the photographs are high resolution and ready to use. buy image

    Copyright 2020 Ingram Image / StockPhotoSecrets Shop, all rights reserved.

How to Determine the Type of License an Image Has

No matter where you get your stock photos, it is your responsibility to know the license type that applies to each piece of content. Many stock photo stores offer content under a multitude of different licenses, which can complicate things for people who aren’t paying attention.

If you are planning on using a stock photo for commercial purposes, then the costs of copyright infringement can be even greater, and therefore so is the need to be absolutely sure that it is properly licensed.

The best stock photo websites will provide the license information either right next to the photo or elsewhere on their website, usually under a “Licensing” or “Terms of Use” section.

Sourcing Creative Commons (CC) Stock Photos, Videos, & More

As we mentioned above, the best way to protect one’s self from the dangers of copyright infringement is to make sure that you are getting your stock images, photos, templates, videos, and everything else from reputable sources that are well-versed at image licensing.


  • Even free stock photos are subject to copyright
  • CC licenses can come in different forms; it is important to know the difference
  • The cost of a copyright infringement lawsuit can be devastating to anyone
  • It is your responsibility to follow the licensing requirements at all times, and therefore always worth it to take a few extra moments to double-check.

Are you a creative professional with more significant stock photo needs? Click here to take advantage of a limited time special offer.

Amos Struck
Amos Struck

I am a expert in the stock photo field. I focus on providing knowledge and solutions for buyers, contributors and agencies, aiming at contributing to the growth and development of the industry. I am the founder and editor of Stock Photo Press, one of the largest networks of online magazines in the industry. I am the founder of Microstock Expo, the only conference dedicated to the microstock segment. I created several software solutions in stock photography like AI based system, AI Upscaler and more.

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