Note: While the information contained in this post is not intended 
to be legal advice, we hope it helps empower you 
to make informed decisions regarding your content.

The ability of artists to control the use of their content is vital for commercial licensing. Creative Commons licenses — simple copyright licenses that artists may choose to control the use of their content on the internet — have been popular on websites such as Flickr and Picasa, which offer the option of sharing images under one of six Creative Commons licenses.

While these licenses offer simplicity, they may not be right for all artists. Here are 5 crucial questions you should ask yourself before using a Creative Commons license.

1. Do I want to be compensated for the use my content?

It is important to note that none of the Creative Commons licenses require a fee to be paid to the artist. You should evaluate which types of rights you are willing to grant without getting paid for use. For example, if you hope to license content commercially for a fee, you are unlikely to be willing to allow others to use that same content commercially at no cost under a Creative Commons license.

You should also consider the implications of using a Creative Commons license with your content, even when the license is restricted to non-commercial uses, as it may affect your ability to license that content for a fee later. For example, if a particular image becomes very prevalent, it may not be as marketable down the line to potential customers who are frequently looking for “fresh” content.

While some artists feel that sharing content and allowing others to use the content is benefit enough, others might find that the ability to commercialize their content is also important. Commercial artists should be wary of how the usage of content covered by the Creative Commons licenses may run up against their efforts to license content for a fee.

2. Does it matter that a user of my content could be compensated for their use of my content, though I will not be compensated?

If a Creative Commons license that allows commercial use applies to content, it is possible that the user of the content will be allowed to sell the content or otherwise profit from it. Since the license is irrevocable, there may be little that artists can do to prevent this, even if they later decide they only want a non-commercial Creative Commons license to control the use of their content.

For example, Flickr recently announced that it plans to sell prints of Creative Commons images. The company will keep all revenue from sales of prints covered by the Creative Commons commercial attribution licenses. So, when considering a Creative Commons license, pay close attention to the rights granted by the license. You may not be happy with the end result if someone profits from your content in a manner you may not have considered.

3. Is there a possibility I might want to restrict or revoke the rights granted under the Creative Commons license?

If you think you might want the option to remove a Creative Commons license from your content at some point, you should be aware that Creative Commons licenses are irrevocable. This means that if a person uses an image under a specific Creative Commons license, that person may use the image under the same license in perpetuity.

If the applicable Creative Commons license is later changed for that same image, future users may only use the image in the manner specified by the new Creative Commons license. Or, if the Creative Commons license is removed altogether, then users will not be able to use the image without further permission from the artist.

Of course, this isn’t altogether different from licensing content through agencies or stock sites, where licenses to content generally remain in effect even after the content is no longer available for licensing. Note as well that all of the Creative Commons licenses allow “downstream recipients” the same rights granted under the original license. This means that all recipients of the content are automatically given the same rights to use the content as under the original license, and once they have these rights, they are irrevocable.

Even if an artist were to later change the Creative Commons license applied to a specific image where the image was originally posted, the change would not apply to downstream recipients of the same image covered by the previous Creative Commons license.

As a result, licensing through an agency or stock site is superior in terms of the ability to remove content from being licensed further once an artist decides he or she no longer wants to license the content anymore.

4. How important is it that I am able to identify the user of my content if there is misuse?

Creative Commons licenses can provide clarity and standardization for uses in digital media. The Creative Commons license symbols/acronyms can communicate the rights that are available more quickly than reading an entire license..

However, this also means that the user need not ever communicate with the artist. As a result, it is unlikely that the artist will know the identity of all users of the content. If your content features friends or family members, you may want the ability to identify and contact a user if your content is being used in a way which is unflattering, offensive, defamatory, or even illegal.

Although artists might face this same issue when licensing content through agencies and stock sites, it is the practice of many agencies and stock sites to obtain identifying information of customers. As a result, an agency or stock site may be able to help you pursue misusers of content. It is much more difficult to prevent misuse by anonymous users on the internet. For artists who prefer the ability to track the users of their content, a Creative Commons license may not provide enough protection.

5. How important is it to me that the users of my content abide by the Creative Commons license?

Creative Commons licenses clearly outline permissible uses and restrictions on applicable content. However, it is always possible that a user of an artist’s content may intentionally or unintentionally use content incorrectly. For example, a user may forget to provide attribution to the artist, or may blatantly disregard the restrictions in the Creative Commons license.

It is already difficult to police, identify, and prevent potential misuse of your content online, especially in light of the limitless audience it may have. While you could attempt to enforce your rights against a user who is misusing the Creative Commons license, to do so is time and resource intensive. Although the problem of license misuse can also occur for content licensed through agencies and stock sites, both are generally able to assist artists with resources to identify misusers and the ability to pursue misuse, where necessary.

There is no correct way to license your content — it all comes down to what you value most when making your content available for licensing. While some artists may prefer to share their content openly and with few restrictions, others may value the ability to commercialize their content or to have more control over how it is used.

Artists who gain more benefit from exposure and sharing their work may find that the simplicity of Creative Commons licenses are suitable for their uses. Artists who want to commercialize content and who desire more control over its use may find that licensing through agencies or stock sites is more consistent with their goals.

As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to contact us at submit@shutterstock.com.