What is Creative Commons & How Do I Use It?

Some content from the internet can be reused for free. Some can’t. In this post, we’ll cover how and why to use Creative Commons licensed content without getting in legal trouble.

Despite what many people may think, images on Google (or anywhere else on the Internet, for that matter) are not free to use. Believe it or not, some professionals make their living from those photographs. So every time you take one of the photos for free, the photographer is losing money.

Despite this, people still adopt the attitude of if it’s online, I can take it.” That’s why a project called Creative Commons is so valuable. It provides images for people to use, with the original creator getting attribution and recognition. No money changes hands, but Creative Commons gives the artist the right to say how their work can be used.

Creative Commons can also be used for books and music. For example, author Cory Doctorow has given away books for free under a Creative Commons license.

What are Creative Commons?

Creative Commons was a concept first introduced back in 2001 by Lawrence Lessig. As I just said, it gives artists a way to specify how their works can be used and in what setting. For example, some will allow you to use their work for a commercial “for-profit” website, and others won’t.  Some will allow you to alter the work to suit your own purposes, while others won’t.

How do you know what you can and cannot do? You would need to use a website or search engine that can search through Creative Commons work and see the artist’s license. We will get into that later.

The system isn’t perfect by any means. Court cases have been brought against people using Creative Commons images because the artist failed to understand the license they were assigned to it. But Creative Commons has tried to simplify the feature by providing a step-by-step guide.

The Various Creative Commons Licenses

Let’s now look at each license and what it means in terms of your rights to use something under that license.

Public Domain

Everybody knows what Public Domain is. It means that there is no copyright and no restrictions on the work whatsoever. You can therefore use the work for whatever you want. Commercial projects, non-commercial projects, you can marry it, bring out your own version, whatever.


Anyone who uses Wikipedia will know this license, as it is the one that Wikipedia operates upon. It is also used for open-source projects such as LibreOffice.

The license lets you change, build and remix the person’s work to create a new version (even for commercial purposes), provided you attribute the artist (with a link to their website, for example) and that you put the same license on your version.


This license lets you redistribute the work, provided you credit the original creator, and secondly, that the work is not changed in any shape or form.


With this one, no profiting from the original work, you must credit the original creator and give your version of their work the same license. Hence the “Share-Alike.”


This is the one that Creative Commons has described as “the most restrictive.” You can’t change anything about the work, you can’t use it for commercial purposes, and you must credit the original creator.


This is the one that probably gives you the most latitude in terms of what you are allowed to do. It would help if you still credited the artist of the original work, though. There’s no escaping that.


As the license clearly implies, you must credit the original creator, and you can remix, tweak or build upon the original work. But you are not allowed to profit from it. So no businesses can take images with this license.

How To Find Creative Commons Images

Now let’s take a look at some ways to find Creative Commons work. There are literally hundreds of places, so I will focus on what I think are the three best ones. You can find LOTS more with a simple Google search.

Creative Commons

I like using the Creative Commons search engine because it first makes it easier to filter out commercial and non-commercial images. You can also ask for only images that you can “modify, adapt, or build upon.” This is a good way to ensure you don’t accidentally do something that will get you in any legal jeopardy.

Secondly, it simultaneously checks Flickr, 500px, and the New York Public Library, among others.

When you find something you want to use, go to the top right-hand of the page and click the blue icon. This will copy the HTML that you will need to credit the original creator to your clipboard.

Then go to the webpage where the work will appear and CTRL+V (or CMD+V on a macOS) for the code to be shown).

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia provides images, audio, and video under the Creative Commons licenses, and it is often my go-to place when I need to find something.

So I entered “dog” into the search engine and images; I also got a few videos and an audio clip of a dog barking.


I used to use this very religiously, and I know many people who swear by Compfight when they need an image quickly. I don’t know the meaning of the name, so don’t ask me to explain that one.

When you enter a search term, make sure you then click on Creative Commons in the filters on the left. The images above the dotted line are paid stock photos. For the free Creative Commons ones, look below the dotted line.

Clicking on an image will then give you a download link for the image and the HTML you need to credit the image’s creator. If you look at the bottom of this article, you will see the link.


Creative Commons isn’t perfect, but it is a good attempt to regulate the Internet’s “Wild West.” Where people take whatever they want to the detriment of the media owner.

Photo Credit: DaPuglet Flickr via Compfight cc

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