Don’t buy stock images until you understand these important copyright basics

The Creative Commons copyright licenses give everyone from individual creators to large companies and institutions a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work.

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that works to increase the amount of creative works available in “the commons” — the body of work that is available to the public for free and legal sharing, use, re-purposing, and remixing.

Don’t assume you can use a work without permission or credit just because its licensed under Creative Commons. These licenses are not an alternative to copyright. They apply on top of copyright, meaning creators modify their copyright terms to best suit their needs.

Attribution (CC BY)

Others may distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon a work as long as credit is given to the original author. Commercial use is allowed under this license.

Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike (CC BY-NC-SA)

Under this license others may remix, tweak, and build upon a creative work for non-commercial purposes, as long as they credit the original author and license their new creations under the identical terms.

Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivs (CC BY-NC-ND)

The most restrictive of all, this CC license only allows others to download works and share them with others as long as they credit the original author. Modifications and commercial use are prohibited under this license.

Public Domain (CC0)

Original author of a creative work has waived all rights, making it available to the public as a whole, and therefore not subject to copyright. Images found on Stockpile are covered under the CC0 license.

Creative Commons: About The Licenses
What is Creative Commons?

Other licensing terms to know

There are some licensing terms you may encounter when searching for creative commons images on various image databases:

Commercial Use

Works intended to be used for a business or directly/indirectly for financial gain. Simply put, if you plan on using the work to make money be sure commercial use is allowed.


Indicates whether the work can be altered or used to create a new work. Generally, a modification rises to the level of an adaptation under copyright law when the modified work is based on the prior work but manifests sufficient new creativity to be copyrightable, such as a translation of a novel from one language to another, or the creation of a screenplay based on a novel.

Unfortunately the subject of digital image manipulation isn’t entirely cut and dry. It’s recommended that you read this article to learn more about what is considered a modification under copyright law.

Understanding photo rights: What you can do with photos you are not allowed to modify

U.S Government Works

The gold standard for U.S. based political and news websites, a work of the United States government is “a work prepared by an officer or employee” of the federal government “as part of that person’s official duties.”

These works are not generally entitled to domestic copyright protection under U.S. law. Be aware this only applies to U.S. domestic copyright as the U.S. government asserts that it can still hold the copyright to those works in other countries.

Copyright status of work by the U.S. government

No known copyright

Steer clear of images marked “no known copyright” as there is no certainty that the work can be used by anyone other than the original creator. You will run a big legal risk using these images on your website.

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