Social Media Magazine

Free Images: Understanding Creative Commons Licenses

Posted on the 10 October 2013 by Tom Jamieson @tomjamieson_

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Everybody tells you to….

Use amazing images on your blog

Why? It entices people to click on your posts, share them on social media and of course read them.

We are visual creatures! However, finding great images is never a simple task.

There are a number of great websites available to find free images, but most of the best ones use images with Creative Commons Licenses. My personal favourites are CompFight and Photo Pin. These websites provide a great way to search for Flickr images with Creative Commons licenses.

When you use these images, you need to make sure that you have the right kind of license for your particular purpose.

Both of these image sites offer a filter (on the left) to help narrow the license options for you (eg. commercial, non-commercial OR creative commons). However, this is not enough.  In order to make sure you are using the right license, and complying with the terms of that license…….you need to understand Creative Commons Licenses!

Confused by Creative Commons Licenses?

First let’s talk about what you can do with the images under Creative Commons Licenses, just so you know you are in the right place.

The following are the main things you can do:

  • Copy the work
  • Distribute the work
  • Display the work publicly
  • Use the work digitally
  • Use the work in another medium as is

So in other words you can take all the images you find and use them for many purposes.

You should also be aware that the license:

  • Applies Worldwide
  • Lasts for the life of the Copyright
  • Is not revocable (cannot change)

So do not fear that the owner will change the rules on you after you use the image, or that you are using it in the wrong country or way.

However, you still need to be sure you are using the right license.

What license type should you use?

There are three main attributes of Creative Commons licenses that you should look for when searching for a free image:

  • to Share — to copy, distribute and transmit the work
  • to Remix — to adapt the work
  • to make commercial use of the work

** These attributes are listed on the license at the top under “You are free: “

Shareable Images

If the image is available to share, it means you can take it as is and use it on your site (as long as you attribute the author – more on that later).

This does not mean you can use it as a book cover (ie commercially) or that you can change the image (remix/derivative).

So if the image you find has only this license attribute, and you want to change it or use it for a business related activity – find another image.

Remixable Images

This is the more flexible than Shareable, and but includes sharing by default.

A strange term I know, but remix basically means that you can change the image or create “derviative” works, as they say.

I almost always use this image type of license – as I add text, and change the image in minor ways to make it more appealing (cropping, effects, resizing etc).

Commercial Images

Commercial  includes Shareable also and adds the ability to use for commercial purposes.

So if you find an image with this license, you are all set to use it on your new e-book.

It does not automatically imply remix/change though, so be careful.

Further Details on the Licenses

When looking at the license of a photo on Flickr for example, you will come across symbols or codes that tell you what the license offers.

The following image provides a very detailed breakdown of what each code and symbol means.


Click here to view full infographic

By using the first part of the image above, you can determine where on the scale you want to be and what licenses you can therefore use.

The second part of the graphic shows what each license code means in terms of how you can use it.

The main things to watch out for are:

  • ND – you cannot change the image
  • NC – you cannot use the image commercially
  • SA – you must offer the same license freedom on your image
  • BY – you must attribute the owner (* Always actually)

Not happy with the license conditions?

All of the creative commons licenses conditions allow and disallow certain things.

If you want specific permission to do something with a photo you like, don’t be afraid to ask because many photographers do not know what they are allowing when they publish their photos on Flickr, or don’t mind if they are asked.

If you never ask you will never know! That is what grandma always said :>

Give the Author some credit – Image Attribution

It may not seem clear, but all Creative Commons licenses include the BY code so you must always attribute the author.

But what does that mean? It means you need to credit the author on your site by adding certain information.

When you are using Photo Pin or Comp Fight they provide the html and text you should use for attribution.

Simply copy that into your html either:

  • below the image
  • at the bottom of the post

I usually add this at the bottom of the post because it is cleaner and ensures the text does not appear in my post previews (I often have an image first in my post so any text under it will appear first in the post preview – not good).

If you plan to attribute manually – the attribution should include

  • The Author (including source link)
  • The Title (if there is one)
  • The license (including license link)

By using the code from Photo Pin and Compfight you will not really have to worry about the above – just copy what they provide.


Using free images to enhance your website or blog post is a great way to go and gives you quality images at no cost.

Make sure you are using images with the right license and that you are attributing the author.

If you are unsure – do not use the image. There are plenty of others out there. If you do incorrectly use an image, someone might come knocking on your door one day – because it is easy to find out if you have used someone’s image via Google Reverse Image Search.

Are you using free images? Do you check the license before you use it? Let me know in the comments below.

Header Photo Credit: Domiriel via Compfight cc

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By Alvin Carne
posted on 02 December at 00:00
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There is definately a lot to know about this subject. I like all the points you made.