Finding good source material for content, B-roll, photos, artwork, music, or other media assets can often be a challenge in putting together your production. One solution is purchasing image licenses from Getty Images or subscribing to sites such as Shutterstock and Dreamstime for royalty-free images. Other sites like Storyblocks offer royalty-free access to an expansive library of video and audio files.
These sites can be a great option; however, if your project is on a tight budget, this may force you to make lean choices.
Public domain media is a great free alternative, but either through scarcity of specific content or quality, it is still a limited option.
This is where assets under the Creative Commons License come in, and they are free to use in your project if you understand the conditions that come along with them.
What is a Creative Commons License?
Creative Commons is an American 501© non-profit organization that was founded in 2001. This organization was developed for the specific purpose of creating a regulated network available for creators to share their work with other creators. Working with the Center for the Public Domain, Creative Commons established a system of different licenses for creators to apply to their projects. Works under these licenses are free to be used by others. However, depending on the license involved, there are conditions for their use.
Creative Commons differs from the public domain. Work in the public domain is no longer under ownership from its creator, either through a donation to the public or through expired copyright. Assets in the Creative Common network are usually still under copyright by the original owner, but they are available for use through the proper attribution to their creators.
Types of Creative Commons Licenses
As stated on the official site, creativecommons.org:
Creative Commons licenses give everyone from individual creators to large institutions a standardized way to grant the public permission to use their creative work under copyright law. From the reuser’s perspective, the presence of a Creative Commons license on a copyrighted work answers the question, “What can I do with this work?
Creators are not obligated to make their media available to the public and can retain full rights to their work. Those who opt to be a part of the sharing network can select one of the following seven available CCL (Creative Commons Licenses). They are listed from most permission to least permissive:
CC0 (Creative Commons “Zero” or “Public Domain”
When a creator chooses CC0, they are essentially giving up their copyright claim to the work and entering it into the public domain for anyone to use freely without any conditions.
CC BY (Creative Commons BY Author)
This allows the most freedom for use out of all the Creative Common licenses. When an asset is labeled CC BY, you are free to use their work in any of your creations. You are free to adapt the material, make derivatives from it, or build new work off of it. You can even use it in commercial projects. The only requirement is that you give credit to the original author.
CC BY-SA (Creative Commons BY, “Share Alike”)
This is very similar to the previous license in that you may use the asset any way you want in your projects. However, in addition to crediting the author, under this license, the author is allowing you to use their work provided you apply the same “Share Alike” license to your project. You can use their creation freely if you share yours under the same license.
CC BY-NC (Creative Commons BY, “Non-Commercial”)
This license grants you the freedom to use the asset in any way you wish within your project—with attribution—provided that the project is not “for profit.” Hobby projects are fine, but advertising or commercial projects are not allowed under this license, even if you give credit to the creator.
CC BY-NC-SA (Creative Commons By, “Non Commercial” and “Share Alike”
This license is a combination of the previous two on this list. It allows you to use the asset—with attribution—as long as your usage of the media is in a noncommercial work. In addition, you will be required to apply the same terms to your new project and make it sharable and noncommercial for others to access.
CC BY-ND (Creative Commons BY, “No Derivatives”)
This grants you the right to use the asset in your project, whether commercial or not, with proper attribution to the original creator. The caveat is that you are not permitted to remix, adapt, or make any derivatives from this work. If the asset is a photograph, you may use the photograph as it is, but you may not edit or create new versions of the photo. It must remain intact in its original form.
CC BY-NC-ND (Creative Commons BY, “Non Commercial” and “No Derivatives”)
This is the most restrictive Creative Commons a creator may apply to their work. This allows another creator to use the asset for free in their project under the strict conditions that they must give credit to the creator, they may not alter the original work, and it must be for noncommercial projects only.
*Many times, licenses will have a numbered version (such as CC BY 3.0). The Creative Commons organization is active in updating and refining license terms to continue to provide international protection to content creators. As of the writing of this article, 4.0 is the current version of the terms and conditions. See the official website for more details.
Applying a License and Proper Attribution
You may choose and apply any of these licenses you wish as a creator. There are two necessary conditions to consider before choosing. The first is that you are the legal copyright holder and fully own the work. A photo you took yourself is eligible. A picture you found in the public domain is not, as you cannot claim ownership.
The second condition is understanding that once you choose and publish your work with a license, it make not be revoked. If you release your asset under the CC BY license and later change it to CC BY-NC (noncommercial), that change does not retroactively apply to those who may have already used it under the original license. You can’t take it back, so choose your license carefully.
To apply a license to the work is very straightforward; choose a license from the list and state it clearly with the work. It can be as simple as including it with the copyright notice (© 2022. This work is licensed under a CC BY License). You can also place it in a description or anywhere that is easy to see. It is also a good practice to make your license declaration a hyperlink to the official CC website for more information (CreativeCommons.org).
If you are using the work, providing attribution is as simple as displaying credit to the author and the details of the license. You can place attribution in end credits, as a caption, text embedded into the work, or in a video description box if you publish your work online.
For best practice, try to include the author’s name, name of work (if available), source of the file, and declaring the license applied.
Creative Commons has become an excellent way for artists to get their work out there and be included in more projects while providing new creators with additional content to build their own. An official search site is available to help you find assets in the Creative Common database. Visit search.creativecommons.org to use their online community search to find what you need within the network.