What Is Creative Commons and Non-Commercial Use?


Did you know that most of the images, music, and other content on the internet are not free to reuse for your own purposes? In most cases, unless you have permission to use a piece of media, doing so is illegal.

This is where the Creative Commons license comes in. The system allows creators to share their content online freely with others, imposing only minimal restrictions on its use.

Let’s take a look at what Creative Commons is, how to interpret a Creative Commons license, and what “non-commercial use” means.

What Is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons is the name of an American non-profit company that releases copyright licenses to the public at no cost. These licenses are known as Creative Commons licenses, and were first issued in 2002.

The reason that Creative Commons (CC) licenses exist is to provide creators with an easy way to define how other people can use their content. CC licenses also protect normal users, as they don’t have to worry about copyright infringement as long as they follow the rules of the license.

The Creative Commons organization provides a variety of easy-to-understand licenses that content creators can freely use. Creators display these alongside their licensed works, which plainly describe the terms of fair play for anyone using them.

Creative Commons vs. Copyrighted Content

Not all content is CC-licensed. Consider the various types of media you’ll commonly find online:

  • Music on YouTube or SoundCloud
  • Images on Google Images, Flickr, or DeviantArt
  • A book or piece of educational material on a scholarly website

With these and pretty much every other kind of media online, chances are that it either has a license that forbids you to use it, or has no license at all. Both of these mean that unless you obtain permission from the content creator, using that content in your own work is illegal. Simply providing attribution isn’t enough.

You’ve probably noticed a copyright symbol and/or an “All Rights Reserved” note on music, movies, books, and other content. That means the creator retains all rights to the media.

All Rights Reserved showing on CD
Image credit: Anna Cervova/Wikimedia Commons

In many cases online, there’s no clearly defined license, so you can’t assume that the creator is OK with you using what they’ve made.

While it’s still against the rules, content owners of course can’t track down everyone who pastes their image into a slideshow for a school presentation, or uses their song in a family video. But if you use copyrighted content in high-profile work, you could get in serious trouble.

Creative Commons Definitions

The Creative Commons license has four conditions you can add. Depending on what combination of conditions appear, there are six major possible license types. Let’s take a look at these to better understand the available license options.

Creative Commons License Conditions

Each license condition has a matching symbol and abbreviation, letting you easily identify what a particular license lets you do.

First up is the Attribution (BY) condition, which is present in almost all licenses. This means that when using the content, you must give credit to the author in the way they request. Usually, this means doing so in a way that makes it clear the creator does not endorse your work.


Next is Share-alike (SA). This condition means that anyone who modifies the material must distribute their derivative work under the same license. They cannot add conditions without the original author’s permission.


The third condition is Non-commercial (NC). Under this condition, you can use a work freely for anything except “commercial purposes.” The exact definition of this is often unclear, so we look at it in more detail below.


Finally, the No Derivative Works (ND) condition rounds out the bunch. This prevents people from modifying your work in any way. They can only copy or display the original content unless they have the author’s permission. This condition is incompatible with Share-alike.


Types of Creative Commons Licenses

Now that you know the four possible CC conditions, below are the six standard CC license types from least to most restrictive.

Remember that SA and ND are mutually exclusive, which reduces the number of possible combinations. In addition, because almost everyone who uses a CC license requires attribution, licenses that don’t include BY are rare.

A special case is CC0, which isn’t technically a license. This allows creators to waive all rights to their work and allow anyone in the world to use it for any purpose without asking. It’s technically different than something being in the public domain, but most people use CC0 and “public domain” interchangeably.

CC0 Public License

CC BY lets people distribute and remix content, even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit the original author.

CC BY License

CC BY-SA allows people to republish your content, including derivatives, even for commercial purposes. However, they must credit you and relicense the new content under the same terms as yours. This setup is known as “copyleft” in open source software licensing, and is what Wikipedia uses.

CC BY SA License

CC BY-ND gives people permission to reuse your work, even in commercial settings. However, they cannot distribute modifications, and must give you credit.

CC BY ND License

A CC BY-NC enables users to display and remix content in non-commercial settings. Under this license, you don’t have to relicense derivative works with the same conditions, but you must provide attribution.

CC BY NC License

CC BY-NC-SA lets people use and modify your work in non-commercial ways. However, they must give you credit and license new creations with identical terms.

CC BY NC SA License

Finally, CC BY-NC-ND is the most restrictive. It lets people download and share content as long as they provide credit, but prevents them from changing the work or using it in a commercial manner.

CC BY NC ND License

What Does “Non-Commercial Use” Mean?

Almost all aspects of Creative Commons licenses are clear-cut, aside from the “non-commercial use” clause, which often confuses people. The Creative Commons Wiki’s NonCommercial interpretation page states the following:

“NonCommercial means not primarily intended for or directed towards commercial advantage or monetary compensation.”

This is helpful, but still leaves room for question. To take a pair of instances, using an image on an invitation to a baby shower would be non-commercial. However, placing that same image on an invitation to an auction would fall under commercial use.

Below are some additional examples of commercial and non-commercial use that help illustrate what’s allowed:

  • Non-commercial use includes school or work presentations, research, home decorations, and similar uses.
  • Commercial use includes books for sale, paid journals, advertisements, and the like.

It’s important to note that not-for-profit and non-commercial are different. A non-profit company would not be allowed to use an affected image to sell a poster as part of a fundraiser. Because the goal is to make money, regardless of who is making the money, this is a commercial use.

However, a for-profit company could use a song in question for an internal video celebrating the company’s anniversary. Even though the company is for-profit, it is not using the song to make money, so this is acceptable.

How to Get a Creative Commons License

You don’t have to apply for a CC license to use one—they’re provided free of charge for anyone to use. You should to make sure your content is eligible for Creative Commons before licensing it in this way. Have a look at the Get a CC License page for some background info and FAQs before you jump in.

From there, head to the Creative Commons Choose a License page. Here you can answer a few quick questions on how you want to distribute your work. This will dynamically update the page to show the Creative Commons license that matches your choices.

CC License Picker

At the bottom, you’ll find copyable HTML code that will display the license on your website. People can click this to read a summary of how that license works.

How to Find Creative Commons Content

Thankfully, it’s not difficult to locate content licensed under CC.

If you’re looking for images, check out the Creative Commons search engine. This lets you search a vast library of images, also allowing you to specify if you want something you can use for commercial purposes or modify.

You can also enable Creative Commons search on Google Images. Click Tools and expand the Usage rights section for several options corresponding to license types. Failing that, check out the best sites for copyright-free images if you didn’t find what you needed anywhere else.

Google CC Image Search

Images aren’t the only type of Creative Commons content available. We’ve covered the best places to download copyright-free music

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. And for a bit of everything, check out the best sites for free stock videos, audio, and icons

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Creative Commons Is Great for Everyone

In the end, Creative Commons benefits all parties. Creators enjoy more exposure as others interact with their work. Those who use the media have access to a variety of legal content. And it helps the internet at large by allowing people to build off others’ work to create something even better.

If you’re a content creator, you should know how to see who’s stolen your photos and what you can do about it

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