Among the most significant accomplishments of the early internet era was the release in December 2002, of the first set of licenses by the non-profit organization, Creative Commons. For small businesses, Creative Commons licensing provides the legal rights to use millions of photographs, recordings, articles and other intellectual property without going through the expensive and often lengthy process of negotiating usage rights. Likewise, it provides a means to share the content and creations you’d like to make available for reuse with the same ease and flexibility.

(Update: Since this article was posted, Creative Commons developed an additional license called Creative Commons 1.0 or CC0 or Creative Commons Zero. The new license is used to indicate that the work covered is completely in the public domain, with no restrictions or requirements related to attribution or commercial use.)

Why would someone want to ‘give away’ intellectual property?

While copyrights, trademarks and patents play an important role in protecting the intellectual property that serves as the cornerstone of many businesses, there are many times when a creator or owner of intellectual property has the incentive or desire to allow such property to be used by others. It is a long tradition in American history. For example, we’ve shared before how Benjamin Franklin chose to never patent or copyright any of his ground-breaking inventions or copious writings. “As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously,” he wrote.

Recently, the inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk announced that his car company, Tesla, has open-sourced all of its patents. “Technology leadership is not defined by patents, which history has repeatedly shown to be small protection indeed against a determined competitor, but rather by the ability of a company to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers. We believe that applying the open source philosophy to our patents will strengthen rather than diminish Tesla’s position in this regard,” he wrote.

Musk, like Franklin, believes that his company’s best interests will be served by having no patents, rather than by owning and strictly protecting such intellectual property.

Each business must make such a decision for itself. As with many things about running a company, there are no rules that work for 100% of businesses 100% of the time.

Why is there a need for Creative Commons licenses?

It may seem odd, but if you want to share usage rights of your intellectual property, you must start first with establishing ownership of it. For certain types of intellectual property (for this guide, we’re focusing on text, photography, video and other forms of content rather than the types of intellectual property one would patent), establishing ownership means copyrighting the work.

The Creative Commons licenses were established to meet the requirements of U.S. copyright law, and then to provide the means to share those rights in various ways. According to the organization, “Creative Commons licenses are not an alternative to copyright. They work alongside copyright and enable you to modify your copyright terms to best suit your needs.”

Creative Commons content doesn’t mean “free” content

When you see the term “Creative Commons,” on something, it does not mean “free” or that you can use such intellectual property in any way you’d like. Indeed, one of the reasons Creative Commons licenses exist is to provide creators the opportunity to grant usage rights to others under a wide range of specific conditions.

You are not ‘giving away’ your property: The six types of Creative Commons licenses

Please note that the only consistent requirement found in every one of the licenses below is to provide attribution to the creator and owner who is sharing the content. Don’t use Creative Commons licensed content unless you understand this requirement and you take time to learn how to include such an attribution where ever you use Creative Commons licensed material.

  • Use this tool from to help you decide what type of Creative Commons license is right for you.
  • Creative Commons has some examples of how you can mark the work you would like to license.
  • Creative Commons has helpful examples of how an attribution should appear with various types of media.



This license is the most restrictive of Creative Common’s six main licenses, only allowing others to download the works and share them with others as long as they credit the owner, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.



This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.



This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to “copyleft” free and open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. This is the license used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects.



This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.



This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.



This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.

Why would someone share their photographs, etc., via a Creative Commons license?

People often benefit from sharing their work. An enormous project like Wikipedia represents million of hours of people sharing their time and interest and content for what they believe is a worthy mission to collect a version of the world’s knowledge. Wikipedia is licensed under the most generous Creative Commons license. Likewise, individual photographers–hobbyists and professionals, alike–share tens of millions of photos on Flickr for reasons ranging from marketing their services to wanting a larger audience to see their work.

Where to find photographs with Creative Commons licensing


In the past, the best way to find photographs was to use Flickr’s advanced search tool (see screen shot, above). More recently, using Google’s “Image Search,” a “search by rights” option is available under a pulldown menu (see screen shot, below).


What does “non-commercial” mean?

One of the most confusing facets of Creative Commons is the definition of the term “non commercial.” For example, some people who share photos on Flickr, using the Creative Commons “attribution, non-commercial” license may believe they are not giving permission to a commercial organization, rather they are making the work available to a non-profit organization.

According to a 2009 study commissioned by Creative Commons regarding the perception by users and contributors of the the term non-commercial, suggest that U.S. creators and users approach the question of noncommercial use similarly. They generally consider uses that earn users money or involve online advertising to be commercial, while uses by organizations, by individuals, or for charitable purposes are less commercial but not decidedly noncommercial. Similarly, uses by for-profit companies are typically considered more commercial.

In general (and this is an observation, not legal advice), if attribution is given with a link to the source, Creative Commons non-commercial photos seem to be acceptable if used in the context of editorial content, even if the page carries advertising somewhere outside of the editorial portion of the page. This issue remains vague, but is rarely contentious.

As approximately 30 percent of Creative Commons visuals allow commercial use, the best thing to do might be to play it safe and look for work that allows any usage.

How to contribute content to the “Public Domain”

Sometimes, people don’t want to merely grant certain rights for using their intellectual property; they want to donate it to the public domain with no strings attached. Creative Commons has come up with a means to do this, as well. It’s called the Public Domain Mark and you can use this tool at to generate a tag to accompany such work.

(Featured Illustration via

Update: When we originally posted this guide, the wiki maintained by Creative Commons was offline. Later, when the site was back online, we added some links to that helpful resource. We also updated some of the information in the section on the definition of non-commercial. While it did not change the substance of the section, it added information from the wiki that helped to clarify what is, by purpose, ambiguous.

(A Note about and Creative Commons: The Wiki maintained by found at the address, is licensed under a Creative Commons share-and-share-alike license. Other sections of the site are copyrighted. As we noted, there are no 100% answers 100% of the time for 100% of the people.)

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