Creative Commons Licenses: Advantages and Drawbacks

What are Creative Commons licenses?

Creative Commons is a free licensing system designed to make it easier for creative people to share their work and make it freely available for people to use (

This article examines the benefits, perils and pitfalls of using Creative Commons Licences. If you are doing creative work and want to share your work, you can consider if the Creative Commons license is right for you. There is no need for a formal registration process; you can simply indicate somewhere on or by a specific work that you are publishing it under one of the six licenses:

  • Attribution (CC BY) (The user needs to credit the creator)
  • Attribution Share Alike (CC BY-SA) (The user needs to credit the creator and the the new work, whatever it is, should have the same Creative Commons license.
  • Attribution No Derivatives (CC BY-ND) (The user needs to credit the creator; the user may use, but may not adapt or remix the original work).
  • Attribution Non-Commercial (CC BY-NC)(The user needs to credit the creator; the work may only be used for free for non-commercial purposes; however, the creator, is free to make other arrangements for people who want to use the work commercially)
  • Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike (CC BY-NC-SA)
  • Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives (CC BY-NC-ND)

Why should content creators use Creative Commons Licenses them?

Artists, musicians, photographers, bloggers and video-makers can consider consider using Creative Commons licenses to make their work available to a wider audience. It can also help others—like students, charities, amateur filmmakers or simply fellow hobbyists—create their own work.

Creative Commons licences are becoming more popular. Many media sites sharing like YouTube, Vimeo, Wikimedia Commons and Flickr include functions that allows users to post Creative Commons content (with Vimeo, the default sharing setting is a Creative Commons license). This Creative Commons licensing feature is typically found under Advanced Settings or Sharing Options.

These media sharing sites, as well as search engines like Google (in Google’s case, this function is found under Advanced Search), also enable people to search specifically for Creative Commons content, so if you upload your content using such a license, it may bring your work more exposure through such searches. However, Not a lot of people know about these search filters yet, so you are unlikely to see a huge increase in views/traffic.

Search for Creative Commons work using the YouTube search filter
Search for Creative Commons work using YouTube’s search filter

What are the drawbacks of Creative Commons licences?

Although Creative Commons licenses are very useful they can be misused, so content creators and content users need to be careful.

1. If you are a content user, can you guarantee that the content creator had the rights to publish that content under a Creative Commons license?
This may be the fatal flaw of the Creative Commons system; in order for it to work properly, everyone needs to be familiar with concepts like copyright law and public domain. For example, Person A may publish under a Creative Commons license a recording of her saxophone quartet’s version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Person A may think that this composition is in the public domain, but the quartet was using an arrangement that is protected by copyright as it is a substantial adaptation of the original Beethoven work. Therefore, Person A did not actually have the right to issue the work under a Creative Commons license. Person B then comes across the song and uses it in a video that he uploads to YouTube, and he publishes that video under a Creative Commons license. Then twenty other people make use of that video to create their own videos. The problem is that Person B and the twenty other people are now guilty of copyright infringement and could have their videos taken down. This kind of inadvertent copyright infringement is popping up quite frequently on YouTube’s help discussion forum.

2. They last forever…kind of
For the creator: Once you license your work, or state that you are issuing your work under a Creative Commons license, the license is irrevocable. One day down the line, you might want to make your work ‘less free’. For example, perhaps your photography hobby has now turned into a profession. You would not be able to cancel the Creative Commons licenses you applied to all of your old work.

For the user: Not all creators follow the above rule and people often change or cancel the licenses. For example, on Flickr, a photographer can upload photos with a Creative Commons license and then some time later change the copyright on the photos to ‘All Rights Reserved’. If you really want to be safe, when you download anything listed under Creative Commons and plan to use it in your own work, it would be a good idea to get a screen capture of the webpage and write down the date downloaded, the site URL and the type of license the work was published under. Here’s a case in which YouTuber meloST used the YouTube video editor to create his own videos from CC-licensed YouTube videos. Sometime later, the uploader of one of the videos removed the CC licensing and then had two of meloST’s videos taken down, earning him two copyright strikes and putting his channel in jeopardy:!msg/youtube/HEMd4WQcTlk/Z4xEqVXDHvgJ

3. Are you sure that you are OK with all possible uses of your work?
Let’s say, for example, you have strong views on a social issue like gay marriage. Would you mind if someone used your photo of two men as an illustration in a popular blog article espousing completely the opposite view and then having your name attached to it. Under the Creative Commons system, you can demand to have your name removed, but would you mind having your work used to support something you are strongly opposed to? The international Creative Commons licenses do include a moral rights clause stating that end users “must not distort, mutilate, modify or take other derogatory action in relation to the Work which would be prejudicial to the Original Author’s honor or reputation.” However, it is difficult to see how this clause could be used by you, the photographer, in the given example, which simply involves opposing points of view. After all, what is considered immoral or reputation-damaging by one person, may not be considered so bad by the community in general. The blog writer may even consider his/her use of your photo to be doing you a favor in terms of your honor and reputation.

4. Is everyone involved in your work OK with all the possible uses?
And what about the two men in the photo? Perhaps it is just a photo of two of your friends taken during a trip to the beach. Suddenly, because of the blog’s popularity, the photo starts appearing in Facebook feeds and before long, your two straight friends have become poster boys for homosexuality. Notwithstanding their own views on gay rights, would they be comfortable with their new role as symbols. A similar thing happened to a Texan teen, whose images, published by a friend on Flickr with a CC BY license, were used in a Virgin Mobile advertising campaign in Australia that presented her in an unflattering light ( Her family attempted to sue various parties, but was unsuccessful (the main stumbling block was that there was no clear jurisdiction).

5. Creative Commons licenses can easily be abused by scrapers
Scrapers are people who collect, often using automated software, content produced by others and then republish the content with the goal being to drive people to their own website and earn advertising dollars (this is called ‘web scraping’). If all of your photos, videos or blog entries are published under Creative Commons licenses, there is nothing to stop a scraper from downloading and re-uploading ALL your work into what essentially becomes a mirror site. If you find out your Creative Commons licensed work is scraped, there is not much you can do about it, especially if your name is included somewhere on the page. If your work is NOT published under a Creative Commons license, however, you can act to have the copied content removed

6. The licences may be too specific, not specific enough or may clash
Here are some examples:

  1. Can images with a Non-Derivative license be used unaltered to make a video?
  2. What exactly does non-commercial mean? Are monetized YouTube videos commercial? What about a company-produced video that features one of its products but doesn’t actually try to sell the product? Is that still commercial use?
  3. If you create a video that uses an Attribution (BY) Share Alike (SA) image that you found along with music that you received permission to use, should you slap a Share Alike license on your own video? If you don’t, the use of the image infringes the rights of the photographer. If you do, you are infringing on the copyright held by the composer/musician.
  4. Can you upload a video you made that contains music issued under an CC-NC license to YouTube and publish it under YouTube’s Creative Common’s system (CC-BY)?
  5. If I take a photo of graffiti, can I then publish it under a licence allowing for commercial purposes?

I can answer all of the above questions based on my understanding of the related laws: 1) No, they can’t. 2. There are grey areas; Yes, it is;  Yes, it is. 3) You would need to get permission from the musician to do that. 4) No. 5) Most likely no, but it would depend on the extent to which the photo includes things other than the graffiti (the person or organisation that owns the wall the graffiti was painted on owns the copyright to the actual graffiti unless other arrangements were made with the artist).

However, different people might give you completely different answers.


Content creators need to look carefully at the pitfalls of Creative Commons licenses before deciding whether they are willing to share their work permanently under those terms. Content users need to especially careful when using Creative Commons work. They should only use work from creators they have full confidence in and should keep a clear record of the licenses (e.g, they should take screen shots)  .

My own use of Creative Commons

I rarely use Creative Commons works in my own work. One exception might be to use attributed CC photos in something like class notes.

I used to use it for my music compositions music, but was put off by the permanent nature of the license and by seeing scrapers re-publishing my work. To make my work available for use, I set up my own terms of use with specific terms governing scraping, remixing and altering and an option for people who monetize videos using my music on YouTube.

I currently use it for some photos (CC-BY-NC), but never for photos with people in them. These I publish using the ‘All Rights Reserved’ setting.

I don’t use CC licenses with blog posts. Why give someone the right to republish your work in it’s entirety when it is just as effective for the other person to quote a paragraph and then have a “read the original article link” at the end of the paragraph?

Related Articles

Music: Public Domain, Fair Use, Copyright and YouTube: Guidelines for video-makers
The Illegal Downloading Debate: Is it OK to Download Songs without Paying?

~by longzijun


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4 thoughts on “Creative Commons Licenses: Advantages and Drawbacks

  1. Great Article. We have a bunch of creative commons YouTube videos and I worry that one day we might not want people using our videos. But we thought the extra exposure couldn’t hurt since all our videos include marketing / advertising for our products… So who knows… GREAT ARTICLE thank you!

  2. […] like YouTube, Vimeo, and Flickr have features that allow users to publish Creative Commons content(Zijun, 2013). Therefore, if the creator uses this license to upload content, it is possible to make the work […]

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