A Closer Look at Creative Commons Licensing


We’ve spoken about copyright before on here on LWI, but a lot of scribblers are still unaware of some of the pitfalls out there, especially when it comes to the Creative Commons (CC) licenses. As I’ve often said, when it comes to copyright infringement for both content and images, it is always better to err on the side of caution.  Unless you’re a hundred percent certain that using someone else’s work can’t possibly get you sued, don’t use it.  When it comes to this issue, ignorance of the law doesn’t count.  You are always at fault even if you don’t know what copyright means, and as such, if you’re sued you’re more than likely going to have to pay up.

While titles of books are not subject to copyright, and you can use them as you please, the content of books and also songs are very much so, unless they are clearly in the public domain.  Stay well away from music.  Never use song lyrics in your books without specific written permission from the copyright holders, unless you are positive that they are in the public domain – not even a single recognisable sentence.  It’s not worth the risk.  Legally, using a phrase of ten words or less is considered fair use if you’re happy to take the chance.  Plain lists can’t be copyrighted.  For instance, a list of varieties of birds.  Recipes can’t be copyrighted either.  Unless you actually do very obviously copy and paste another writer’s recipes right down to the same words for the method. Another point to consider is that there are many images that get loaded and labelled as CC0 that are in fact not owned by the people who have loaded them. Another biggie is when using images of people. Unless you have a model release please don’t ever use free images of people for your commercial work. Free fonts downloaded onto your computer also have licences, so be sure of any limitations before you use them in your books.

Anything with a CC licence isn’t automatically free to use in any way you choose and for any purpose, so it’s always a good idea to check properly first. You’re generally safe with public domain works, although you should take note of the fact that just because something like the Mona Lisa is in the public domain and if you take a photo of it, you can indeed do anything you want to with it, photos by other photographers are subject to copyright unless they licence their images CC0. So let’s have a look at the CC licences.

Creative Commons Zero (CC0) works are purposely given this licence particularly because their authors/artists want them to be as freely available worldwide for any use by anyone. You can change them, paint moustaches on them, or use them for your commercial and non-commercial work just as you like, with the only potential problems being when they contain images of people or copyrighted places.



You can distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon this work, even commercially, as long as you credit the artist/author for the original creation. So in this instance all you would have to do for use in or on your book would be to place the credit in the front matter. This would apply even if the work used is only a small element of a bigger work created by yourself.



You can redistribute for both commercial and non-commercial work, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to the author/artist/creator. Once again, credit in your front matter, but with the added proviso that it can only be used exactly as it is. No changes at all including the use of only a portion of it.



You can remix, tweak, and build on it non-commercially with credit to the creator, and the proviso that you licence your new creation under the identical terms. This is not going to do for your book, unless your book is permanently free, and even then I would think that you would be able to find something else suitable with a CC0 licence. For just playing around to publish on your blog, this would be fine—just don’t forget the credit.



You can remix, tweak, and build upon once again but also for commercial purposes with credit to the creator and identical licensing terms. This means that your new work using this would also have to bear the CC BY-SA licence online. You would have to REALLY want to use this for your book to go to so much trouble.



You can remix, tweak, and build upon non-commercially with credit to the creator, but you don’t have to licence your new work on the same terms.



You can download and share with others with credit to the creator, but you are not allowed to change them in any way or use them commercially.

So it’s good to remember that when a font, image, or article is labelled Creative Commons, especially on Wikipedia, it’s always important to look at the exact CC license it’s using before using it for your commercial project. There are many great sites, such as Pixabay and Fontsquirrel where you can download freebies to help you on your way to published awesomeness so there is no need to upload straight from Google searches. Still, it’s always best to check before using anyway.



Author: jorobinson176

South African writer.

33 thoughts on “A Closer Look at Creative Commons Licensing”

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  1. Really useful post. I didn’t know exactly what all those letters meant. Great to know, thank you for putting it into ‘plain speak’ for us, it has certainly helped me. We really do have to take this seriously.


  2. I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on ‘illegal images’. As you mentioned, CCO is free to use for anyone, and you also mentioned that anybody could load a CCO picture and say it is. How would we know if it wasn’t really CCO? I’m dealing with this issue right now?


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