An Introduction to Creative Commons Licensing for Your Photographs

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 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 or see more of his photos at Flickr.

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

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Some Older Comments

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  • J. November 17, 2010 05:16 am

    I am currently taking a photography class and we shot portraits of each other in class last week and we are to have one good photo and one bad photo printed out and bring them to class for discussion. I went to Wal-Mart and met up with one of my classmates who was having problems receiving her photos. She ordered them on-line and went there to pick them up and the sales associate told her she could not have them unless she had the copyright because the photos are portraits. She told her they were for our class and told her I was there getting mine printed as well. I got my photos, but another classmate is now having problems getting hers due to this copyright issue. How do I get a copyright? Why would I need one anyway? I am the photographer and just because they are portraits of people does not mean they were made by a professional. Any one with a good camera and a little knowledge about photography can make good portraits.

  • Corey October 24, 2010 08:11 am

    So after reading this I got more confused, sadly.
    What I'm looking for, as a license, is I have all rights, my models to at least leave credit with a link, caption with website, etc back to me. I do not want my models to reproduce prints or online copies of my work.
    Is there a particular license I'm for this? Thanks!!

  • Corey October 24, 2010 08:10 am

    So after reading this I got more confused, sadly.
    What I'm looking for, as a license, is I have all rights, my models to at least leave credit with a link, caption with website, etc back to me. I do not want my models to reproduce prints or online copies of my work.
    Is there a particular license I'm for this? Thanks!!

  • Denise May 26, 2010 03:14 pm

    I'm hobby level photographer and a freelance writer with a couple low level blogs (as in, they pay, but just pocket change). I mostly use my own photos, but sometimes I don't have the right image.

    I often limit my photo searches to "commercial" use, because I'm not really sure just what non-commercial means. Is it ok to use a non-commercial photo for a blog where the writer get paid? I'm not selling your photo, but I'm hoping that a your photo will help draw eyeballs to my post, thus allowing the website/client I write for pay me.

    What do you think? Where do you draw the line for non-commercial use? Do you mean I can use your photo to illustrate my writing, but not to print on a coffee mug?

    If I could start using non-commercial photos it would really open up a lot more images. And, just so you know the blogger's end of the story, we don't often have time to contact the photographer to see if it's ok. I need a photo NOW and if I'm not sure about the rights, I'll just move on and try to find another good one.

    Also, it's interesting to read how many photographers are interested in where their images end up. I think I'll start dropping more emails to thank people for letting me use their images.

  • Leslie Nicole May 21, 2010 04:31 am

    This has given me a new perspective in regards to my own image licensing.

    One thing that makes me nervous though are the free textures, etc offered under a cc license with the stipulation that credit and a link is given. What happens in 5 years when FlickrUserAlias account no longer exists, you use said texture in a photograph that is published - copyright complications? Makes me a little nervous.

  • Zack Jones January 20, 2010 03:58 am


    I appreciate your comment and can see your point. After reading the CC information and doing some additional research I did change my images to attribution, noncommercial and share alike. As I understand it this license would allow a site such as DPS to use one of my images in a blog post, give me credit for the original but not include it in one of of their eBooks which I would assume would be considered a commercial use without getting prior permission from me. If I'm mistaken someone please correct me. I doubt, seriously, that adding my images to the CC license pool is really going to make much of a difference.

    If you're bored browse through my phtostream at flickr I doubt you'll find anything that's going to have an impact on your wallet :)

  • Mike January 18, 2010 06:57 pm

    I am not saying to not show the work, simply saying to not give away the license. The flood of images have led to good enough is better cause it's free. This dimishes the art.

  • Connor January 17, 2010 10:34 am

    Well, Mike, maybe photography isn't a good career choice for you anymore? Gear is cheap, talent is plentiful and not everyone wants to make money from it. Expecting people to not share their work just so you can continue making money is both selfish and foolish.

    I think the photographers who will make money in today's climate will be the ones who treat their photos like marketing instead of a product. Give away the photos to build up a following so you can get paid to create... not paid for the creations. Money is still there for people who want to do portraits, weddings, commercial work, etc. But the days of being paid for the photos and not the photographing are probably over.

  • Mike January 16, 2010 04:03 pm

    Zack said "
    Photography is a passion and not a source of income so why not share."

    I understand that you want to share, and that is great, but think about what ever your current job is and how you would feel if one day everyone did it for free, so your services were no longer needed. The flood of images has made it near impossible to feed ones self and family.

  • Devansh January 16, 2010 08:22 am

    @ tabletopdrummer (Donnie)

    This website will answer all your questions (and more), about the business aspect of photography. The site is not just for professional photographers, but also for photographers like you and me, who pursue photography as a passion, and wouldn't mind earning a few bucks every now and then.

  • Zack Jones January 16, 2010 05:38 am

    CC has been a mystery for me for quite some time. I just wish there was a "You can use my image -- just tell me that you're doing so" license. I would be interested in seeing where any of my images may be used. I'm going to switch my images (all 15,000+ on flickr to CC and see what happens). Photography is a passion and not a source of income so why not share.

  • Greg Taylor January 16, 2010 02:27 am

    Creative commons has been a way for my photos to reach outside of my sphere of influence. Some of my concert photography has been used on various blogs by people I don't know. All of my photos are watermarked with my name and website. Typically, I see spikes in traffic on my website and blog after a photo has been posted with the proper attribution.

  • james jordan January 16, 2010 02:16 am

    One caveat concerning CC -- if you have any inkling that you may eventually want to offer a photo for sale via stock sites like iStock or Getty, think hard before going CC. If the photo started out with any kind of CC license, the only option available to you is Royalty-Free, which usually pays far less than Rights Managed licenses.

  • tabletopdrummer (Donnie) January 16, 2010 02:00 am

    And this is all new to me too. I do not know the ropes of selling or displaying pictures on the web, or as a public place type of setting.
    I find all of this interresting. I have often wondered what kind of precautions, and steps that would need to be taken in order to sell photographs. It seems a bit overwhelming. And several questions come to mind.
    Starting with putting your name somewhere on the photo, and how to go about it. The best ideas for selling your photos out in public. And keeping it all together without getting yourself in some kind of snafu.
    I've thought about trying to sell some of my photos on consignment at a shop, or at a fleamarket or festival type setting. But am unsure if that would be worth it, or what would need to be done and such.
    Can someone point me to an answer on these type of questions? Or any insight?

  • B January 15, 2010 11:28 pm

    I've used a CC licence on my photos on Flickr for a while, and some have been used on various websites. What I have found is that people won't always get in touch when doing so - while I don't expect them to ask permission (because of the licence) it would be nice to know. I google myself from time to time and discover one of my photos on some blog - which only works in a few cases where they've played nice and attributed the photo to me. I'd prefer it if the CC licence terms included a "notify" component.

  • Devansh January 15, 2010 06:27 pm

    Hi Chris, After reading this post I have converted myself from being a "All rights reserved" person, to a "Some rights reserved", person. I found your pro-CC arguments quite compelling, and I have changed the licensing of ALL my photographs on Flickr, to NC-SA. Photography is not my primary income generating activity, and I do not expect any compensation (other than credit and a link back) from anyone using any of my shots on a blog or anywhere else. Suggestion given by Linus Bohman , also appeals to me, from this day forward, I will upload, only low-res copys of my shots, on Flickr. (500px on the long side, except for panoramas).

    "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."

    The qutation above says it all for me. (rather than saying the same thing, using slightly different word, I find it easier to just copy and paste, lol.)

  • Christoph January 15, 2010 02:23 pm

    Thanks, David :)

  • Shellie20 January 15, 2010 01:01 pm

    If you want the ins and outs re Creative Commons, see this link -

  • charity January 15, 2010 08:30 am

    I enjoyed the banter following this article. I am a relatively new photographer, although my work various which requires different rights for different photographs. I dearly appreciate the options that everyone shared, since I have a business degree in common sense, but don't always know which direction to point it. I usually will grant rights to the subject, but limit other publications. It is good to know I can protect my work in all venues, but still have the exposure I need.

    Thank you for sharing.

  • Saad January 15, 2010 06:05 am

    Interesting. Fortunately, I have got only one photo on wikipedia under creative commons.

    If used properly, I'm sure it can allow me personally to display more of my photos and get credit for it.

  • Jesse January 15, 2010 03:42 am

    I just meant usually articles posted on here sound great by title, get me excited to learn some sort of technique or something, but usually fall short. I guess the title here including introduction should have precluded me from criticizing like I did, but I just feel that instead of linking to the FAQ, maybe a plain english description of the CC licenses would have been great to tie it all in...

  • Bengt January 15, 2010 03:33 am

    You can always use Ipernity. They have a cc option as flickr have difference is that you can share your PSD and Word if you want....

  • Tyler Westcott January 15, 2010 02:56 am

    I had formerly used the Creative Commons "by-nc-nd" license and have since completely switched everything over to "All rights reserved" after learning one fact. The CC license is irrevocable. That is to say, you can subsequently change the licensing terms of your image, but if someone acquires your photo before then (perhaps already downloaded, or hosted it on a blog) that photo has a life of its own under the original license - they're free to continue using it and redistributing it onwards - there's no obligation to respect the new terms of the originator (though most people are accommodating, in my experience). To me this just means that in the rare instances you'd like to set up a licensing arrangement other than CC, it's hard to go back.

    The CC license, through flickr, really generated a lot more interest (from people searching only for CC images), and I do miss that.

  • David Ford January 15, 2010 02:18 am

    Much like Cristoph above and, it would seem, many others, I use a BY-NC-SA license for my photographs (I will admit that I was also convinced by Cory's arguments). It's a great mechanism for getting your creative work out there, whilst maintaining some control over how your work is used or re-published.

    Thanks for posting this here, Chris. Licensing is an important issue for photographers to consider, and for those of us who think traditional copyright is far too constrictive, CC is the best alternative.

  • Linus Bohman January 15, 2010 01:15 am

    I use a Creative Commons license on all the photos I post on flickr (cc-attrib). So far that has resulted in my photos being used on a lot of blogs and even in a commercial campaign in Britain, I've been told. I like it a lot but understand why others may not.

    One suggestion is to upload lower resolution of your images and make those available to use for free. Meanwhile leave the high res off the internet (or maybe on stock/personal sites selling them). This way you get potential screen exposure while still retaining full control of print versions.

  • Jonathan January 15, 2010 01:05 am

    I recently started using a CC license (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike) on all the photos I post, and I've discovered a few people are using my photos. As an amateur with still much to learn, it's gratifying to find that a few of my photos are being appreciated enough that they're being used by others on their websites.

    I guess I don't understand your criticism. This article is titled "An Introduction." Also, the author does include a link to the Creative Commons FAQ page, which does have a thorough description of all the creative commons options.

  • Christoph January 15, 2010 12:40 am

    Creative Commons Licensing is really great. The people behind the license also do a very good job of explaining it for your viewers (or customers).

    Personally, I publish my pictures under a BY-NC-SA (Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike) license. This allows everyone to use them for private purposes but does not allow people to make money using my pictures (which I'm fine with, but I like to be asked about it before they do). At the same time, people can use my work (for example as a texture) and make new art, which has to be shared again. This leads to a lot of great pictures being availble for free for everyone :)

    The dark side: as you say, it won't stop people form stealing (or ignoring the license) - but nothing will. Yet, it's kind of sad to see how people use images but stop reading the license after "BY". Hey, you forgot the "Share Alike" and "non-commercial"! Displaying my picture and linking back is NOT enough. Now, I'm usually not too strict about the SA part, but I have to say I'm not amused if my photos are displayed in a cloud of Google ads.

    I'd be happy to hear about everyone's experience in this area and how they deal with these problems.

    Oh, and don't forget to check out my BY-NC-SA pictures ;)

  • Jesse January 15, 2010 12:35 am

    No quick and dirty on the different options you speak of? Many of these articles seem like a tease. I start out thinking, "alright, I want to learn about this," but ultimately end up thinking I just read the intro to the article with no substance beyond it..