How Free is Free? Creative Commons Explained

At times, designers may come across their own designs on the web, only to discover that no attribution was given. Generally speaking, this situation is easily remedied in social media. Users can be reported, and posts can be removed. However, what if you are a designer who sees your own work in a publication?

Typically, you either keep silent or act to protect your rights. What if the person who used your image claims the picture was freely available online? What if the person says nothing existed forbidding the use of your image? While copyright laws (thankfully) favor the content creator, legal conflicts can often become time-consuming and expensive.


However, the risk of piracy is one we designers must take. We need to showcase our work to gain credibility and attract clients. In order to be successful, we have to put ourselves out there.

To simplify the lives of designers and users, the company, Creative Commons, launched a huge project. Beginning in December 2002, they started offering copyright licenses for digital work. As time passed, they improved the set of licenses and created a global network. Presently, the “Creative Commons” network involves hundreds of researchers, activists, and advocates in more than 85 countries.

You’ve probably heard the term “Creative Commons” before. In fact, you’ve probably heard it countless times in copyright and intellectual property issues. However, many people don’t know the specifics of these licenses, and would benefit from having Creative Commons explained to them. 

Here’s how it works.

Once your design is ready for digital launch, you license it under certain uses and conditions or under public domain. Following the launch, people make use of your design piece by following your terms and conditions.

Creative Commons has a total of 7 sets of licenses:

CC0 – This license makes images available to the public domain. People are free to do whatever they wish with your design work. They don’t attribute the work to you, as you give it as a gift to everyone.

If you foresee no intellectual property issues, and you want anyone, anywhere to enjoy your work, this is the license for you.


CC BY (CC Attribution) – You may consider this license if you don’t mind people using, sharing, or modifying your work, with the understanding that they must give credit to you, the original author. Thus, this copyright license makes it easier for designers to ensure proper acquisition of their professionalism and design works. Additionally, designers can still provide freedom of expression and creativity to internet consumers. is among the common users of this license.

CC BY-SA (CC Attribution-ShareAlike) – This license allows using, sharing, and modification of the design work in question. The only difference from the CC BY license being that the author obliges people to share their further modifications with the same license. This is the type of license that Wikipedia uses.

CC BY-ND (CC Attribution-NoDerivatives) – In case you don’t want to come across your work’s modifications in the future, you should opt for this license. People are free to use and share your work, but they cannot make any modifications to it.

(Note: You should never modify any images available in GNU or FSF, as they have “Attribution but no derivatives” license, too.)

CC BY-NC (CC Attribution-NonCommercial) – This license is the right choice for authors who don’t mind others sharing, posting, and editing their work (as long as it is not used for commercial purposes.) In case you opt for this license, you are most likely to come across your work in a museum or in a gallery of modern arts.

CC BY-NC-SA (CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike) – This license is a 2-in-1 type of license. People are allowed to spread and modify your work, (unless they use it for commercial purposes) provided that they purchase the same license for modified versions in the future.

MIT Open Courseware has been using this license for a while now.

CC BY-NC-ND (CC Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives) –  This is another 2-in-1 license. People are free to use your work as long as they don’t sell or modify it.

Ted Talks apply this license for their digital materials.

Now that you’re familiar with these licenses, you can use them any time you make your works public. (It’s pretty easy to do, by the way.) Getting a license is a brief process that ensures your protection.

Creative Commons Image Licenses create a 2-way partnership. They protect not only your rights, but the rights of every single professional in the digisphere. This means during your career path, you should never use or edit other designers’ works, unless the works are under the corresponding license.  Whether you come across a picture in Wikipedia, Flickr, or, you should always keep in mind that it has a Creative Commons copyright license, and there are rules associated.


With this information in mind, let’s summarize the benefits of licensing your work under Creative Commons:

  1. There is no need to fear your work will ever bear the name of another designer. This gives you freedom to share your work on all available platforms. 
  2. The fact that you’re open to sharing your works with crowds will give you networking opportunities.  You have the opportunity to gain new contacts both in and out of the sector.
  3. Licensing your work can be a good investment for your future career. Making your work available encourages a loyal audience to develop.

Creative Commons is a tool working to both protect and elevate you in the design industry. How are you using these licenses? Tell us in the comments below!

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