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An Introduction to Creative Commons Licensing for Your Photographs

A Guest Post by Chris Folsom.

In a past article I mentioned using Creative Commons licenses on your photographs. This one point seemed to raise more questions and controversy than anything else, so I thought I would speak more in depth on the subject.


I personally started using Creative Commons on my photos after having an email conversation with Cory Doctorow when one of my photos was shown on BoingBoing.net. He brought up the subject and I asked him many of the same questions I discuss in this article. The more I thought about my photography and goals, the more CC made sense for my work.

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons is a set of free and easy to use tools that allow you to define what level of access people have to your photographs. There is no single “Creative Commons” license… instead, Creative Commons provides for an entire spectrum of licensing options and it is up to you to decide what parts of CC you wish to apply to your images.

If I use a Creative Commons license am I giving up all control of my images?
Not at all! This seems to be the most prevalent misconception about how CC works. While you are certainly capable of licensing your work as public domain under Creative Commons, this is only one option among many available to you. For example, most of my work is licensed under the “Noncommercial, No Derivative Works” Creative Commons license. People are free to share my images as long as credit is given, but the photos can’t be altered or used for commercial works without my express permission.

It is entirely up to you how restrictive or open your licensing is. Creative Commons is simply a framework of tools to work with.

But aren’t you afraid someone will steal your images?

Honestly, I don’t believe any licensing mechanism will keep people from stealing your images. If a photo is available to view on the internet, someone may use it regardless of whether you reserve all rights on the photo or not. Licensing your works under Creative Commons does not make it any easier or harder to infringe on your copyright.

What is the benefit of using Creative Commons?

As a photographer, I want my images to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. That, beyond all else, is my ultimate goal. Creative Commons helps me achieve that goal in ways that “All Rights Reserved” doesn’t. My particular use of CC licensing encourages other people to share my image with credit (and usually a link) back to me. When I started licensing my images with under Creative Commons, I saw a huge increase in the number of sites showing and linking back to my images. There are many tools and search engines available to find CC works and I want my photos to be available to them.

What about getting paid?

Creative Commons doesn’t get in the way of you being paid for your work. Once again, you can set the level of licensing to as much or as little as you want. If you choose to reserve the right to have your image published commercially, you can do so. Regardless of my licensing, I still have photos shown in galleries and still sell prints and books containing my images. In actuality, I credit much of my success in photography to Creative Commons as it has increased my exposure and thus brought in new viewers and potential clients. I genuinely believe that if you do good work and your work is seen by enough people, the opportunities to make money will follow.

Whether or not you choose to apply some form of Creative Commons licensing to your work will ultimately come down to your personal goals and desires for how your photography is seen. If you want to have absolute and total control over your photos and make sure nobody uses them in a manner you don’t approve of, Creative Commons may not be a good fit for you. Also, if you are that concerned about controlling your photos, you probably shouldn’t be posting your images on the internet to begin with. However, if you believe (as I do) that your work should be seen by as many people as possible, the open nature of Creative Commons will help you achieve that goal.

Spend some time looking through the Creative Commons FAQ and see if it is a good fit for you and your work.

-1.jpgChris Folsom is a hobbyist photographer who spends much of his time photographing abandoned buildings. You can view his site at www.studiotempura.com or see more of his photos at Flickr.

His photos have been published in newspapers and on numerous websites.

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