Use of Creative Commons images on a website

Fani Sánchez

Written by Fani Sánchez

Oftentimes, due to lack of resources, we need to employ third-party works on our website. We use images to illustrate our service. We use infographics to illustrate our posts or articles. We use songs to add a soundtrack to our corporate videos to make them more vibrant. In all these cases, we frequently ask ourselves: can I use any multimedia file I find on the Internet with impunity? The answer is no, you can’t.

For today’s article we are going to review basic licenses it’s important to be familiar with if we want to utilise or reproduce third-party images on our website, and how we must do it to avoid getting into trouble.


CopyrightLet’s start with the most “restrictive” licenses. Copyright is the license that recognises a creator’s authorship rights for the creation of a piece of work. It is the most common and the most popular one. It’s the creepy old man of licenses, with many years of history behind it.

It stipulates that the authorship rights’ owner of any creation has full and exclusive authority over its reproduction and distribution, as well as over any creation deriving from their work.

The title doesn’t always coincide with the author or creator. It’s transferable, and there are tons of famous cases where authorship was bought for production of derivative works, like, for instance, films based on literary novels.

Creative Commons licenses

Creative CommonsCreative Commons is a non-profit organisation born in 2001.

Creative Commons licenses follow a more lax model, also called copyleft. Their main particularity is that they’re focussed on clearly establishing rights given to third parties, and less so on rights the author possesses (who, of course, also has rights over their work).

The first thing we need to understand is, Creative Commons licenses are perfectly compatible with Copyright licenses. The work continues to belong to an author, but those who want to use it, are given certain permissions to modify, distribute or copy it, under specified conditions.

CC movement

These licenses have fuelled the development of an entire movement, defined by creation of free content, which even gave way to emergence of events like HuesCC Film Festival (where all presented works are under Creative Commons licenses), or social platforms like Flickr, a large CC photography (for most part) and video catalogue, which often serves as a personal and professional portfolio.

OpenCourseWare would be the CC equivalent in the education field, as it allows free publication, copying and distribution of educational material (usually at a university level). Only in Spain there are already more than 20 universities affiliated to this programme.

Types of Creative Commons licenses

There are four standard licenses regulating third-party use of an author’s work:

CC Attribution license Attribution (BY): the creator allows third-party use in any circumstances, under the condition of being given proper attribution as the author.

Non commercial use license Non-commercial use (NC): a license beneficiary is allowed to copy, distribute, exhibit and represent the work and its derivative works under the condition of never using it for commercial purposes.

No Derivatives license No derivatives (ND): license beneficiaries are only allowed to copy, distribute and represent literal copies of the work, reserving the right to produce derivative works.

Share Alike license Share alike (SA): licenses beneficiaries have the right to distribute derivative works under the same license regulating the original work.

It also bears noting that we can combine these licenses to adapt them to distinct purposes. In reality, these combinations (and not single licenses) are most-frequently used. All of them share the condition of giving attribution to the author.

CC license combination

How to find and how to use third-party images on your website

Considering that most of you –our readers– are related in one way or another to the online marketing field, you probably have to turn to use of images more frequently, than to, say, music. For that reason, this post is going to focus on use of third-party pictures and photographs on a website.

We don’t always have to use images with CC licenses. There are sharing platforms and image banks with free or limited images that have their own conditions of use.

We can separate images you can use into two types:

  • Those with a CC license.
  • Those, which are regulated by privacy policies of the platform housing them.

Let’s put an example for the latter alternative, Stock Exchange is an image bank providing products you have to pay for, and also free ones, but under certain conditions. When you search for pictures on this kind of platforms, you don’t need to go all that far to find out the conditions of use for their images. image licenses
This link at the foot of the picture leads us to its license

Advanced search engines for CC-licensed images

  • Creative Commons search engine: this search engine covers all kind of multimedia content protected by CC licenses (which is not synonymous with “free”).
  • Advanced Flickr search: you can specify that you only wish to search for images with Creative Commons licenses, and even specify if you want to use them for commercial purposes, or to remix, adapt or use them as a basis for derivative works.
  • Advanced Yahoo! Image search: even though Flickr belongs to Yahoo! since 2005, it wasn’t until 2013 that the search engine integrated images from Flickr to its search results. In the present day, once you’ve entered a search query into its image tool, you can filter the results by clicking on the “Any License” dropdown menu in the right corner, and choosing the option that best suits you.

Using third-party images on our website

Depending on the license applied to the image, we can use it in one way or another. Once we understand what each license or combination of licenses permit, and under which conditions we can use those images we need (original, derivative works, etc.), we have to find out how to give due attribution to the author.

One of the most frequently asked questions is: How do I credit the author? Do I need to ask them for permission? Is it enough to mention their name? Should I also link the original content?

How to credit an author

The truth is, most works you will find online are protected by the “Attribution” condition. In this case, you only need to think logically. Asking for an author’s permission before using an image is fine, even when their work’s license is permissive. But if this process takes too long, or we don’t manage to contact them, we can just go ahead and use the image, or modify it if the license allows us to, and simply give credit to the author. Personally, I like to add a link to the original work. You can also add the CC license name protecting the image, and link to its conditions. For example:

CC attribution example
HLC guys celebrating the annual Summer Party, by Human Level Communications (CC BY-NC-SA)

In this particular case, this photo was taken from Human Level Communications’ Flickr profile. Every Flickr photo includes an area with information detailing the license protecting it, besides other data.

Information about CC licenses on Flickr

  • Advantages for the author. Many platforms are protected by this license. It’s less restrictive and, in general, more low cost or even free. It’s popular amongst Internet users because it contributes to spreading these works more widely. To sum it up, to publish works under Creative Commons licenses encourages publicity and promotion of the authors.
  • Advantages for third-party users. Low cost material provision.
  • Connections. Getting in touch with other authors (more frequently, within the same area of interest and that are relevant to your field) encourages the creation of highly diverse collaborative opportunities. These can, in turn, translate into more traffic towards your website, as well as links and other interesting proposals. Usually, authors feel flattered that their work is well-liked and prone to be referenced by others.

Don’t do to others…

In conclusion, using third-party images only requires a little bit of empathy and honesty. Most of the times, when we find images or other material we would like to use, their source is easily verifiable and attributable. We recommend you to use good practices and to always give credit when it is due, if you reproduce or modify an image, song, video or any other artistic creation.

Fani Sánchez
Autor: Fani Sánchez

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