Here is an easy-to-read overview of what is allowed (and restricted) under different types of Creative Commons licenses.

Maria Boicova-Wynants,

Mediator, Business Writer, Trademark and Patent Attorney

To allow or not to allow: Overview of the Creative Commons licenses

While it is natural to consider a physical painting to be an object of copyright, in the case of digital images (even a photo of the very same painting) there is a tendency to perceive them as “free” and “available to use as one pleases”. Obviously, this is a false idea. Everyone who has ever downloaded an image from the Internet has come across the statement that “Image might be subject to copyright”. This is essentially self-explanatory and unless there is an explicit statement to the contrary, one has to always assume that there is a copyright holder for the image s/he is downloading from the Internet. Of course, some of the images come from “free images and royalty-free stock”, while some others have certain licensing attached. In fact, almost all images have certain licensing attached, even seemingly “free” ones. For example, Pixabay which is known for hundreds of thousands of “free” photos for all tastes still operates under a license. It is a very wide permitting proprietary license, but still, there are explicitly described cases of prohibited use. In other words, no, you cannot do whatever you please even with the “free” images of Pixabay. While some platforms opted for having their own proprietary license, in many cases users choose what is called a Creative Commons license. There are seven types of them with their own peculiarities and in this article, I will provide a brief overview of them.

First of all, Creative Commons is a US-based non-profit organization founded in 2001 by Lawrence Lessig, Hal Abelson, and Eric Eldred. Realizing that there is a substantial risk inherent in the self-created licenses, as well as trying to strike the balance between public and private interests, Creative Commons (CC) crafted a set of standardized terms-of-use definitions, translated and adapted for various jurisdictions. The important milestones in acceptance for CC came (1) in 2009 when the Wikipedia and other Wikimedia Foundation projects migrated to the use of one of its licenses, as well as (2) in 2019 when the European Commission adopted CC licenses for sharing digital resources it creates, thus, joining governments of New Zealand and the Netherlands.

There are four conditions explicitly addressed in the CC framework, the combination of which determines the particular type of license. These conditions are: 

1.           Attribution condition (abbreviated as BY); 

2.           Share alike condition (abbreviated as SA); 

3.           No derivative works condition (abbreviated as ND); and finally 

4.           Non-Commercial condition (abbreviated as NC). 

The first condition is straightforward. Namely, if the license asks for attribution, a user is required to properly identify the creator of a work. All types of CC licenses (except CC0) call for this condition. Also, the last condition is clear. If no commercial use is allowed, a user must not use the work for commercial purposes. The only thing to note here is that “non-commercial” does not necessarily equal “non-profit”. In other words, in evaluating the use not only the monetary compensation needs to be looked at but also a potential commercial advantage (be it reputational or cost-saving). 

The SA condition implies that the derivative works should be shared under the same license. That means that a user is allowed to alter, transform, or build upon the licensed work, however for the subsequent distribution of the derivative, the same licensing conditions need to be applied. Finally, the ND condition prohibits the distribution of the derivative works. Namely, a user is not allowed to alter, transform, or build upon the licensed work. One can still create, for example, smaller images or convert a digital file format, as long as these adaptations to the representation remain truthful to the original work. On the other hand, the cropping of images, as well as any additions like arrows, explanations, or the use of images in a new context would be prohibited under this condition. That means that if an image one is planning to use in a presentation or during a lecture has the ND condition attached, such use is, in fact, prohibited. 
A separate case to mention is the CC0 or CCZero license which essentially means that no rights are reserved. This type of license provides the degree of freedom comparable to the concept of a public domain. Thus, in the case of CC0, the license is free and open*, and a user can actually use the image “as s/he pleases”.

Speaking about CC0, it is also important to stress that this license cannot be revoked. In other words, if one decided to use a CC0 license that means that for as long as the material is protectable by copyright it will be distributed under “no rights reserved” condition. Even if after a while the creator would decide to stop distributing the work, s/he cannot change the licensing conditions. This, as any other license, does not mean that the copyright holder ceases to be one. A license is a way of granting (and determining the conditions of) the legal permission to use the work, not a way to transfer copyright. Therefore, the copyright holder can still use their work in any way they see fit, for example, to commercialize their own projects. 

To note, that the above mentioned Wikimedia Foundation for its projects opted for CC BY-SA, meaning that the attribution is required and the derivatives are allowed, yet they need to be shared under the same license. The European Commission opted for the CC BY (requiring attribution) and CC0 licenses. The Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth, and Sport, Tibor Navracsics commenting on the decision of the European Commission stated that they wanted to share the knowledge as openly and effectively as possible. This means that the reduction of technological and legal barriers, as well as clarity and easiness of compliance, are essential. In the view of the European Commission CC BY license received a top evaluation score, as universal, unrestricted, simple, cost-free, non-discriminatory, and transparent. 

As a conclusion, below is a short overview of the seven types of CC licenses based on the combinations of the four conditions described above. Thus:
1.           CC BY — means that the credit must be given to the creator, while the user is given the highest degree of freedom in respect of the use of the work. Also commercially.

2.           CC BY-SA — also means that the credit must be given, allows for commercial use, and adaptations, under the condition that the modified work is shared under identical licensing terms.

3.           CC BY-NC — the credit must be given to the creator and only non-commercial use is allowed.

4.           CC BY-NC-SA — the combination of the previous two, hence: the credit, non-commercial use, and the modified work to be shared under identical licensing terms.

5.           CC BY-ND — the attribution is required, the use even commercial is allowed, but as long as the work is used in the unadapted form.

6.           CC BY-NC-ND — is the most restrictive license, where only non-commercial use of unadapted work is allowed with the requirement to give credit to the creator. 

7.           CC0 — any use in any form with no requirement to give credit to the creator, in other words, a public dedication with no conditions.


* As a small side note on the “free” and “open”: “free” means that there are no costs involved, while “open” signifies that there are no restricting conditions like e.g. ND or NC. Hence, those two terms are not synonyms, even though sometimes they are mistakenly used as such.


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