What is Creative Commons, and why use it?

In the digital media units I teach at Deakin University, my unit chair Dr Adam Brown mandates the use of either self-created media or Creative Commons media in the content our students create. Before I started teaching in these subjects, I, like many of my students, didn’t really think critically, ethically, or creatively about where I sourced my media from. It is very ‘normal’ to simply do a quick search through google and use a piece of media without checking the license, seeking out permission, or even crediting the work. This is, for many reasons, pretty problematic. The obvious concern is that it might be breaching copyright law, and thus might get you – or someone you work for – into legal trouble. Another important thing to consider is the rights of creators of work. It’s pretty devastating for creators to put time and energy into something, and then have it taken without credit by others. 

Enter, Creative Commons! It has now revolutionised how I use images, music, and even video footage when I am creating content.

So, what is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons is best thought of as a global community that provides access to a large range of creative works for people to legally use and share.

It provides a licensing system which allows creators to release their creative work online so others can use it without asking permission, as long as they adhere to the license conditions. For users, it provides you with access to so much creative content, that is legal and ethical for you to use. This includes, music, photographs, graphics, video footage, and much more!

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Graphic created in Canva by Emma Whatman, 2018.

As the graphic above highlights, using creative commons material can inspire creativity and is a vital industry standard skill to have. In my experience, I have found that a knowledge of creative commons is undervalued in education, yet it is so highly valued in various industries. Incorporating this knowledge into your work puts you a cut above the rest, and really can demonstrate some vital skills.

When first diving into the world of creative commons, it can be a little confusing. What licenses are there? What does each license mean? How do you find material, and when you find it, how do you correctly reference them? So, let’s take a walk through.

License types

creative commons licenses
Graphic created in Canva by Emma Whatman, 2018

The graphic on the right highlights the six main creative commons licenses. When you source creative commons media, it should have one of these six licenses attached to it.

Each license indicates the conditions attached to the work, and so long as you adhere to these conditions you are free to use the media. There is one consistent requirement across all of these licenses, and that is that you must provide linked attribution to the creator/work. As you’ll see in the graphic, other conditions follow, which relate to making changes to the media, or profiting from the media. Generally, I look for CC BY (Attribution) media as it is the most open license, so as long as you provide attribution, you are free to edit, merge with other media, and use it commercially. If you’d like some more detail, this poster has plenty of useful information about the license types.

Finding Creative Commons Material

The first place you should head to (and bookmark) is: https://search.creativecommons.org/. Without this gem, I’d spend so much time trawling through the expanse of the internet. As you’ll see, it offers the ability to search for different forms of creative commons media through specific sites. My personal favourites are Flikr for images, SoundCloud and YouTube for music, and YouTube for video footage. You simply choose the site you wish to search through, and enter in your search term. As someone who has been using CC material for over two years now, this method of finding material hasn’t failed me yet, although it’s important to always double-check the specific media item you want to use has been shared with the licence (search tools don’t always work perfectly!).

Another thing I do is keep a folder on my browser full of useful and exciting CC material. I’ll add to this list when reading blogs, or browsing the internet generally – if I see something that has a CC license that I know might be useful to me in the future, you better believe I’m saving it!

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‘Creative Fingerprint’ by Kyle Pearce (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Search terms are where you might need to get a bit more creative, rather than literal. Often, when my students are writing a blog post or making a video on a context related to digital and social media, I see the same kind of social media brand image pop up (something like this for example), and I encourage them to think more conceptually about the point they’re trying to make, which often results in a more creative piece of work.

While this might be challenging at first, I can’t say enough just how important thinking outside of the box, and developing creative strategies both are.

Referencing Creative Commons material

Providing attribution is the most important part of using creative commons material. According to the Australian CC website, in order to correctly attribute, you must:

  • Provide the author’s name and the title of the work
  • If possible, provide a link back to the source of the work
  • Provide a link to the CC licence that applies to the original work
  • Indicate if you made any changes to the work
  • Keep intact any copyright notice the author has provided
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‘Lagoon Nebula’ by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (CC BY 2.0)

The site suggests various ways that this might look, by far the best way to credit CC material is:

  • Insert the title of the work and edit the title of the work so that it’s an active hyperlink to the original source
  • Insert the name of the creator
  • Insert the kind of license and edit the license text so that it is a hyperlink to the license explanation page.

If you’re creating something where the hyperlinks aren’t clickable (for example, a printed PDF) then you should include the links in brackets, rather than hyperlinking. This reference should appear whenever you use CC material, whether that’s in a blog post, on YouTube, or on a graphic (as I’ve demonstated above). There’s more in depth information here too.

Some final thoughts…

A common question and concern I hear from my students is with respect to screenshots or photos of websites, apps and social media profiles. According to the Australian copyright council, this kind of content is also covered under copyright. This means that without permission, you can’t take a screenshot of an app, software or a website without the permission of the developer and you can’t take a photo or screenshot of someone else’s social media content (a tweet, facebook post or Instagram page) without their permission.

While this can be frustrating, there are some workarounds! For example, you can hyperlink to the website or post rather than taking a screenshot of it, as you’re sending your readers/viewers to the original content without breaching copyright. Another commonly overlooked idea is to contact the owner and ask for their permission. Many of my students in the past have done this, and depending on the content, most creators are more than happy for screenshots or photos to be used, as it’s free advertising and will bring traffic to their sites or content! A great example is this video on gamification by AJ who contacted both Habitica and Duolingo and asked to use some screenshots – both companies were more than happy for her to do so! You don’t know until you ask.

Thoughts? Questions? Concerns?

If you have any thoughts or questions, or you feel there’s something I haven’t addressed here, please leave me a comment below! Happy creating!


**Header image: Creative Commons – CC stickers by Kristina Alexanderson (CC BY 2.0)

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6 thoughts on “What is Creative Commons, and why use it?

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  1. Such an important topic and so often overlooked. Plenty of people seem to think ‘anything goes’ these days, probably because it’s just so easy to save an image from the web and place it into your work. And let’s face it – there IS a lot of free stuff on the internet, so maybe the lines have become blurred as to what represents a piece of creative work that should be acknowledged, and what’s just there for the taking.

    In a unit I did last trimester, there was a video of an artist who routinely used other people’s work in his pieces, without seeking permission or giving credit. Even after it was explained to him that he needed to either seek permission or use CC material, he resisted the idea on the grounds that ‘all art is derivative’ (in other words, it’s my right to use whatever I find). He seemed to consider seeking permission or giving credit an intrusive administrative overhead that interfered with his artistic freedom. For a professional artist to take such an approach seemed quite naive to me. It’s easy enough to just do the right thing.

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    1. Thanks for your response, Heather! That’s a very interesting case study, and art and artists are something I’ve seen pop up a bit when discussing copyright. I know that in the US, some artists are able to get away with the fair use clause in the copyright act (which is much different in Aus), or satire (applicable in both the US and Australia) but I know some artists have been hit with massive fines and law suits. It’s something to consider..

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  2. Wow Emma! Great post and easy to read. This would be a fantastic read for any student at the commencement of study. Only suggestion I would make is perhaps a lead in to how students can make their own work CC material for sharing. A beach video I took and posted to YouTube as part of my studies I took the effort to make CC because of my understanding gleaned through you and Adam.

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  3. Excellent topic Emma. It is easy to just lift and use materials from the Web without attributing the sources. Referencing materials will make it transparent for the reader to verify the information. This is particularly important in the current world of abundant fake news and false attribution. Even mainstream newspapers have fallen into the trap of recycling fake news.

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