Designer’s Guide to Creative Commons

9 min read
Bryant Tutterow

When starting out and building a design business or creative agency, it is important to protect your intellectual property and the creative work you originate. A fast, easy and free way to do that is by utilizing Creative Commons and their free legal tools to share and use creative work globally.

What is Creative Commons and how does it help designers?

Creative Commons is a technical infrastructure and legal resource allowing for widespread development and sharing of digital creative work. The vision of Creative Commons is to realize the full potential of the Internet through universal access to research and education, with full cultural participation driving a new era of development, growth and productivity. In order to achieve its vision of universal access, Creative Commons provides a free public infrastructure with a balance between the accessibility of the Internet and the standardization required by copyright law.

As a designer of original work, one of the greatest ways to increase your influence is by allowing others the right to share, use, and even build upon a work you’ve created.

In my opinion, the best way to manage that sharing is by publishing it under a Creative Commons license. From the flexibility in license options allowing your work to be used as intended, to the protection and peace-of-mind it provides to the people who use your work without the worry of copyright infringement, Creative Commons eliminates much of the complexity with sharing on the web.

The foundational services of Creative Commons is its copyright licenses, which provide a standardized process for sharing creative work in the digital space while allowing the developer of that creative work the flexibility to specify permissions of use. This infrastructure also reduces the amount of communication required to contact the creator and ask for permission to use their work. The terms of use are clearly defined and as a designer, as long as you follow these terms, you are free to build upon their work.

There are hundreds of millions of work products utilizing Creative Commons — from images to videos, songs and academic materials. All of these items are free to use, as long as you follow the copyright terms.

Why marketers love Creative Commons

As someone who is happy to promote the work of others, Creative Commons has been an extremely valuable service throughout my career. My past experience in highly regulated industries gave me a daily dose of legal compliance and the need to develop clear-cut processes to maximize the use of others’ creative work with extensive due diligence for following proper protocol.

I remember the days before Creative Commons when we had to reach out to each designer individually for documentation stating that we were allowed to use a photo or video clip to aid in making a point on a blog post. This was not simply an email saying yes; in the beginning, we were required to get the creator to sign (in pen) a very scary sounding document and send it back to us. If we were not able to get documentation with specific items required by our compliance attorneys, we could not use the work.

Creative Commons changed that arduous process forever.

What you should know before licensing with Creative Commons

Copyright law has been around since 1790, and there weren’t any computers back then. In 2001, Creative Commons started its mission to solve for how to most efficiently copyright digital assets on the web. The basis of copyright law is to have explicit permission, granted in advance, to utilize the work of another. Creative Commons provides a balance in maintaining the protection of the creator while providing a simple way to grant copyright permissions that allow for content to be copied, distributed, edited, and built upon.

There are eight different levels of permission (six registered license types) a creator is able to utilize in granting copyright usage to their creative work.

The first permission option is Public Domain.


The Public Domain Mark operates as a tag or a label, allowing institutions like museums, libraries and others with such historical knowledge to communicate that a creative work is no longer restricted by copyright and can be freely used by others. The mark is often used to allow others to verify a work’s copyright status and learn more about the work. This type of mark is obviously not used with new creative work — and in my opinion you should leave the Public Domain to experts in this area.

There are several cases where copyright law in certain countries or jurisdictions have unusually long copyright terms, which may mean that a work free from copyright restrictions most everywhere in the world could still be protected by the copyright laws of that particular country. Creative Commons recommends that a Public Domain Mark not be used unless a creative work is free and clear of copyright law universally.

The second permission option is CC0.

With CC0, you can waive all rights to your creative work, making it free and clear to be reused by all. It is your gift to the world. The biggest item to understand with this option is that you cannot limit anyone from using your work — even if it might be used in a way that you find morally offensive or that goes against your publicity or privacy rights. A competitor might use work licensed as CC0. And, of course, you cannot waive rights to a work you do not own — so be careful to avoid any possible third-party infringement.

Since this is not a registration process with Creative Commons, this option can leave you more exposed from a legal perspective. The CC0 tool from Creative Commons guides you through the process of generating HTML with embedded metadata for marking your work as being available under CC0. Your work will not be associated with CC0 or made available under CC0 until you publish it marked as being so.

More permission options

The final six permission options can be registered through Creative Commons and provide a copyright license of your work. The Creative Commons license structure utilizes three primary layers in design: Legal Code, Human Readable and Machine Readable. Each license at its foundation is a traditional legal instrument, written with the appropriate legal language and code to provide copyright protection.

By combining legal code, human readable and machine readable licensing, Creative Commons is able to deliver on its vision of universal access to creative works while maintaining copyright protection for users.

Since most creators are not lawyers, Creative Commons provides a “Commons Deed” with the most important copyright information in a format that a “normal human” can read. This Commons Deed is not an official legal document or license but rather a helpful reference to understand your rights. Finally, in order to make is easy for new creative work to be discovered, Creative Commons provides a “machine readable” version of the license in a format easily understood by search engines and office productivity tools. They call this “machine readable” format the CC Rights Expression Language.

How to select the proper Creative Commons license

The specifics of each license type are outlined below in the License Decision Tree.

Creative Commons License Decision Tree
Creative Commons License Decision Tree

Attribution CC BY


This is the license I recommend if you want to maximize the sharing and reuse of your creative work. It is the most accommodating license allowing others to distribute, remix, tweak and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation.

Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA


Utilizing this license will ensure that all derivatives of your original work will be shared just as you wanted for your initial creation. This license still allows others to remix, tweak and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This is a very popular license for those who wish to ensure their work remains shareable and free to use for anyone. It is commonly used by open reference organizations like Wikipedia.

Attribution-NoDerivs CC BY-ND


If you are not comfortable with your creative work being modified but are still agreeable to it be distributed freely for commercial and non-commercial purposes, then this is the proper license for you. This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.

Attribution-Non Commercial CC BY-NC


If you are OK with your work being modified or built upon by others but do not wish for it to be used for commercial purposes, then this license is the correct choice. While this license lets others modify and/or build upon your work for non-commercial purposes as long as they acknowledge you, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike CC BY-NC-SA


If you are OK with your work being modified for non-commercial activities and would like to maintain that all future derivatives are licensed under the identical terms of your original, then this is the proper license for you.

Attribution-Non Commercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND


This license is the most restrictive of all license types.  It only allows others to share and download your creative work while crediting you.  The work cannot be modified in any way or used for commercial purposes.

Here is a great tool that will assist you in making the correct licensing choice:

The future of Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools. They are working to increase the adoption of their tools while continuing to support their users with a robust infrastructure. At the end of the day the users are building the commons itself. Creative Commons exists because of the time and support provided by users who believe in the power of a global commons. They volunteer time and provide donations in support of that vision. If you find Creative Commons to be as useful as I do, please consider a donation to keep the commons thriving.