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Creative Commons licenses: using licensed media, photos, videos, and music in your content

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Are you using Creative Commons-licensed works for your content?

My friend Sarah owns a small bakery.

Every morning, she bakes the most delicious cakes and pastries.

But Sarah knows that to really sell her goodies, she needs mouthwatering photos for her website and social media.

The problem? Hiring a professional photographer every day would cost more than the ingredients for all her cakes combined!

This is where Sarah figures out a sweet solution: a treasure chest of ready-made photos she can use.

It’s like having a pantry full of decorations for her cakes but, for her online presence.

She doesn’t have to make every sprinkle from scratch; she can pick and choose beautiful images that make her treats look irresistible.

Now, let’s talk about this treasure chest of images, videos, and music that people like Sarah can use: Creative Commons.

Who doesn’t need media?

Like Sara and her bakery, the average business owner needs media to create content.

When you’re showing off your business online, and making content for your brand, you always need some kind of picture or video.

You might need photos for your website and social media, music for your videos and podcasts, or videos for promotional ads.

If you had to pay to make new photos, videos, or songs every time, it would cost way too much! Think about how many pages on a website need photos or illustrations.

Some people put up lots of photos and videos on social media every day.

Most businesses can’t afford to make all of these themselves.

If you run a hair salon, for example, you probably don’t have time to draw all the little pictures for your website.

And paying someone to make special drawings just for you can be expensive.

This is where something called creative licenses helps out.

These licenses let you use copyrighted media stuff like stock photos, videos, music, and illustrations that someone else made.

Depending on the license, the people who made these media let you use their work.

They still own it, and you might have to give them credit (as it’s protected by copyright) but you can technically use them for free.

Does this still sound tricky?

I get it. It’s a lot to understand at first.

So let me help you learn about creative licenses, the good and not-so-good parts of using this kind of stuff, who actually owns the rights to the pictures and videos, and how you can use these media in your own posts and pages.

What is Creative Commons (CC) and how does it protect creators who want to share their work?

Before getting into the specifics of the different creative licenses (you might just get a headache trying to understand them right now), let’s clarify the basics.

What is CC?

Creative Commons, or CC, is a nonprofit organization that has made creative content more available to the public for free and legal sharing.

They have created a standard that allows creatives to share their licensed work while still retaining their ownership.

If you’re an artist, for example, you can choose what types of permissions you are giving people to use your work, such as:

  • Allowing commercial use or restricting it to personal, creative use only
  • Allowing alteration or restricting it to the original format only

This arrangement works well for both creators and people who need media.

As a brand, you can easily get access to high-quality media for free; you only usually have to credit the original creator.

As a creator, you can enforce your rights as a copyright holder while still sharing your work with a wide range of people.

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The CC has standardized the rights of creators to their works and how they want them to be shared.

Overall, this arrangement helps prevent plagiarism and theft of creative media online.

Want to learn the difference between plagiarism and inspiration? We have a guide here:

➡️Imitation VS Inspiration: How to spot a plagiarized design

Get to know the different types of Creative Commons licenses

Now that you know why Creative Commons licenses exist in the first place and who is enforcing them, let’s get into the confusing part: the types of licenses.

With each type of creative license, the copyright owner grants permission for you to use their work within the terms of use.

There are six different types of licenses:

CC BY: Attribution only

This license only requires you to give the creator credit for the work as an attribution.

You can freely use, distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon the licensed work, even if you are using it for a commercial project.

This is the least restrictive CC license, as you can do whatever you want with the work as long as you credit the copyright owner for it.

You are allowed to create derivatives from it.

If you are using an image of a deer, for example, you can create an illustration inspired by that deer, and you would own the rights to that illustration.

You won’t have to credit the photographer anymore.

CC BY-SA: Attribution and shared adaptations

This license is similar to CC BY, but if you create any adaptation or derivative material from the work, it should still be licensed and credited to the original copyright owner.

Going by the deer image sample, if you create a deer illustration based on the image, you will still have to credit the photographer.

You don’t own the rights to your deer illustration.

CC BY-ND: Attribution and no derivatives permitted

This license is also similar to CC BY, but you are not allowed to change the original work or use it as an inspiration for your work.

You can only use it as it is and credit the creator for using it.

Going by the same deer image sample, you can only use the image as is for your website or post with a credit to the photographer.

If you create any derivative work, like an illustration, it would be considered copyright infringement. (yikes!)

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The previous CC licenses allow you to use the works to sell or promote products and services.

CC BY-NC: Attribution and non-commercial work only

Make sure to watch out for these licenses!

Unlike the previous CC licenses, this one does not allow you to use the media for commercial use.

Commercial use means using it to sell a product or service, so you cannot use these works for your ads and promotional material.

You can still use this for educational purposes or non-profit content as long as you credit the creator.

A loophole for this is that if you create a derivative work or adaptation, you are free to use it as your own without credit. (Still not for commercial use, though!)

So, for example, if you have the same deer image with this license, you can create a deer illustration inspired by it, and it would not need credit.

However, you still cannot use that deer for commercial use.

CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution, non-commercial use, and shared adaptations

This license is similar to CC-BY-NC, but it now enforces that if you use the media for any derivative work, you will have to credit the creator.

With the same deer example, you can use your deer illustration, but you will have to credit the photographer and not use it for commercial use.

CC BY-NC-ND: Attribution, non-commercial use, and no adaptations

This license is the most restrictive out of the six.

This is similar to CC BY, as you can’t use the work for non-commercial use, but this one does not allow you to modify the work as well.

Make sure not to try and copy these works or use them to sell or promote products and services if you don’t want a copyright infringement case!

Your best friend, the public domain dedication, or CC0

If you don’t want to deal with the complicated permissions of the six CC licenses, you can look for works with CC0 or CC zero.

It’s a lifesaver. I know.

These works are in the public domain.

This means that the creators gave up their copyright and have allowed worldwide use of their intellectual property.

You can use, distribute, remix, adapt, or be inspired by these works without restrictions or having to credit a creator.

Your only problem is that a lot of people are probably already using these, so they might feel generic and unoriginal.

That’s definitely not ideal if you’re using it for branding and want to stand out online.

The advantages of using creative licensed work

Why should you bother understanding the differences between the different CC licenses and public domain media?

Peace of mind with a CC license

One of the most significant advantages of using licensed photos, images, and icons is the legal peace of mind it provides.

When you use licensed visuals, you’re respecting the rights of creators and ensuring that your use of their work is within legal boundaries.

This can protect you from potential legal issues that can come with a load of associated costs and headaches.

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Avoid copyright issues by understanding the license for the designs you are using.

Imagine you’re a web developer creating a site for a high-profile client.

Using a licensed image means you can confidently showcase the client’s project, knowing you won’t face copyright infringement issues later.

You won’t have to redo your web development work just to get rid of content that infringes on copyright in the future!

Professionalism and quality

Licensed visuals often come from professional photographers and designers, ensuring high quality.

High-resolution images and well-designed icons can enhance the look and feel of your website, making it more appealing to visitors.

If you’re a creative agency handling multiple brands, using licensed icons and images lets you create a cohesive and polished look across all of your client’s materials.

You’re giving people the impression that you can afford to pay for professional-quality work for your websites and social media materials.

Supporting creators who own the copyright

When you use and attribute Creative Commons-licensed work, you support the creative community.

For example, if your business uses a licensed photo for a social media campaign and you give credit to the original photographer, your audience can see this and potentially drive traffic and recognition to the photographer’s portfolio.

It also fosters a culture of sharing and appreciation, encouraging more creators to contribute their work under CC licenses.

Is it your best choice to find Creative Commons licenses?

There may be some disadvantages to using CC licenses, such as:

Attribution requirements

One downside to using Creative Commons-licensed media is the attribution requirement, which can sometimes be extra work or not fit the aesthetic you are going for.

You may find it challenging to include attribution on every image if you are trying to go for a sleek, minimalist design.

All the attributions might disrupt the visual flow.

You cannot customize or remix the designs

Certain licenses, such as CC BY-ND, do not allow modifications.

This can be restrictive if you need to alter an image or icon to fit your design needs specifically. In certain cases, you might not be allowed to tweak an icon’s color to match your design’s theme.

Commercial use restrictions

Many Creative Commons licenses prohibit commercial use.

If you’re using images or icons for a commercial project, you must be careful to choose visuals that allow for such use.

If you’re a creative agency working on a client’s e-commerce site, you might face legal issues if you accidentally use these restricted images or videos.

Where to find high-quality CC licensed works

Here are some great resources where you can find high-quality, licensed visuals:


Offers a vast collection of high-resolution photos with a straightforward license that allows for both commercial and non-commercial use without the need for attribution.


Another excellent source for free, high-quality photos and videos with a similar license to Unsplash.


Hosts millions of photos, many of which are available under various Creative Commons licenses.

Be sure to check the specific license for each image.

Looking for more free design assets? Check out our guide here:

➡️Design on a budget: The best free design resources for agencies and brands

Avoiding copyright infringements with Creative Commons licenses

Using licensed photos, images, and icons can significantly enhance your website’s visual appeal and user experience.

By understanding the different types of Creative Commons licenses and carefully selecting high-quality visuals, you can create professional, attractive designs while respecting creators’ rights.

Remember, the key is to balance your design needs with legal considerations.

By doing so, you ensure that your website not only looks great but also operates within the bounds of the law.

You are ultimately supporting and fostering the creative community.

If you don’t want to deal with the complications of licensed visuals, have our professional designers at Deer Designer create these for you.

Easily request the designs you need, whether you are looking for web design, illustrations, social media posts, or more.

Book a client-fit call today!

Key takeaways

  • Creative Commons attributions help both brands look for media they can use and creators who want to share their work for specific uses.
  • When a work is licensed under a Creative Commons license, the creator allows others to use it while still retaining their copyright protection.
  • For CC BY, CC BY-SA, and CC BY-ND, you have permission from the copyright owner to use the work even commercially, as long as you have appropriate credit.
  • For CC BY-NC, CC BY-NC-SA, and CC BY-NC-ND, you are only allowed to use the work for non-commercial purposes.
  • Specific licenses also prohibit you from creating new work derived from or inspired by the original.
  • If you’re confused by copyright law and license terms, it’s safer to look for works in the public domain.