Creative Commons Licensing Explained for Digital Product Sellers
Creative Commons Licensing Explained for Digital Product Sellers
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Creative Commons Licensing Explained for Digital Product Sellers


Content creators and digital product sellers need to understand copyright and licensing in order to legally and ethically publish and sell their work online. Creative Commons licenses provide an alternative to traditional copyright by allowing creators to choose flexible options for sharing their work. This guide will explain what Creative Commons is, the different types of CC licenses, how to apply them, and tips for digital product sellers using Creative Commons licensing.

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons (CC) is a nonprofit organization that enables content creators to share their work on flexible terms, rather than the default of full copyright protection. CC licenses give creators options to allow certain uses of their work without permission, while retaining copyright. This makes it easier for others to legally share, use, and remix creative content.

There are several types of CC licenses, each allowing different levels of use. For example, some licenses allow commercial use and remixing, while other more restrictive licenses do not. We’ll explore the differences below. CC licenses are free for anyone to use and are considered more permissive than full copyright, but stricter than public domain.

Brief History of Creative Commons

Creative Commons was founded in 2001 by Lawrence Lessig, Hal Abelson, and Eric Eldred. It was inspired by the free and open-source software movement and a desire to facilitate more open sharing of creative works. CC hoped to address some challenges with traditional copyright:

  • All rights reserved by default, requiring permission for any use
  • Difficult to leverage new opportunities like digital sharing
  • No middle ground between full copyright and public domain

The first set of CC licenses was released in December 2002 after being drafted by legal experts. Creative Commons has gone through a few versions of licenses over the years, each intended to address ambiguities and improve understanding. The current 4.0 license suite was released in 2013.

CC licenses have been adopted by major institutions like Wikipedia, Flickr, SoundCloud, and governments. There are over 1.6 billion CC licensed works today, making it easier to legally share creativity and knowledge.

How Creative Commons Licenses Work

Creative Commons licenses give creators options to allow certain uses of their work without needing direct permission. Each CC license has different rules and requirements based on conditions selected by the creator. For example, a creator can choose:

  • Whether to allow commercial uses
  • Whether to allow modifications to their work
  • Requirement to attribute the original creator

Once a CC license is applied to a work, that sets the terms of use. It functions as a non-exclusive license granting permissions upfront rather than needing to ask. CC licenses do not replace copyright. The creator still retains full copyright protection outside uses permitted in the license. Works under CC license can still be enforced under copyright law if used outside license terms.

CC licenses are applied by the original creator of a work. The licenses travel with the work, so whoever has it must adhere to the terms set by the creator. Most CC licenses require attribution to the original creator. Licenses are normally indicated by CC icons indicating the permissions granted.

Types of Creative Commons Licenses

There are six main types of Creative Commons licenses. They are all built by combining four license conditions, resulting in different levels of permissions:

  • Attribution (BY): Others must give credit to the original creator
  • ShareAlike (SA): Adaptations must be shared under the same terms
  • NonCommercial (NC): Cannot be used for commercial purposes
  • NoDerivatives (ND): Cannot remix or modify the work

Here are the six types of CC licenses and what they allow:

1. Attribution (CC BY)

  • Others can distribute, remix, modify, and build upon the work
  • Only requirement is they must credit the original creator
  • Most permissive CC license that maximizes dissemination

This license is used when creators want their work to freely spread with the only requirement being attribution. It provides a lot of freedom for others to reuse the work.

2. Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)

  • Allows commercial use, distribution, modifications
  • Requires crediting the original creator
  • Requires derivative works be shared under the same terms

This license allows remixing but requires adaptations use the same CC BY-SA license. It ensures the work and adaptations remain open for sharing. Often used for open educational resources.

3. Attribution-NoDerivatives (CC BY-ND)

  • Allows commercial use and distribution
  • Requires credit
  • Prohibits making modifications or adaptations

This license only allows exact copies of the work to be shared. It prevents people from altering, remixing, or building upon the work without permission. The work must always be shared full and intact.

4. Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC)

  • Allows others to remix, modify, and build upon the work
  • Requires attribution
  • Prohibits commercial use

This license lets people modify the work and share adaptations, but not use commercially. Non-commercial uses like sharing educational materials are allowed. Good for creators who still want to control commercial use.

5. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA)

  • Allows adaptations but prohibits commercial use
  • Requires crediting the creator and sharing adaptations under the same terms

This is the most restrictive CC license. Derivative works can be shared but cannot be used commercially. Adaptations must use CC BY-NC-SA so all new work is non-commercial.

6. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives (CC BY-NC-ND)

  • Allows download and sharing copies non-commercially
  • Requires credit
  • Prohibits modifying work or using commercially in any way

This, along with the Creative Commons Zero license, are the most restrictive options. This license only allows people to download or share complete copies of the work for non-commercial purposes and nothing else.

These six licenses make up the core Creative Commons license suite. There are also public domain tools like CC0 for fully relinquishing rights.

How to Apply a Creative Commons License

Applying a Creative Commons license to your work is straightforward. Follow these basic steps:

1. Decide which CC license to use

Look at the six core licenses and public domain options. Consider how much you want to allow others to use, modify, and share your work commercially. Select the license that fits your preferences.

2. Indicate the license on your work

Add a notice like “This work is licensed under CC BY” along with the CC license icon. Include it on the work itself and any copyright notices. Adding machine-readable metadata makes it easier for search engines to identify the licensing.

3. Provide attribution information

Most CC licenses require users to credit you, the creator. Make it easy by providing details like your name, the title, source link, etc. Provide clear guidelines for attribution.

4. Publish the work with the CC license

Upload the work to your website, marketplace, etc. Include the CC license details you added to the work itself as well as in any relevant descriptions, terms of use, or legal agreements.

5. Optionally register the license

While not required, you can register your CC license to have the added benefits of tracking your work and helping users discover the license terms.

Once you take these steps, your work is released under the CC license terms you selected. Anyone using that work is then bound by the conditions you chose. Changing or revoking the license in the future generally is not advisable.

Benefits of Using Creative Commons

There are a number of reasons why content creators choose Creative Commons licenses:

More Options Than All Rights Reserved

CC empowers creators to customize permissions beyond the restrictions of full copyright. You can choose the level of sharing and openness for your needs.

Greater Legal Sharing & Collaboration

By granting upfront permissions, CC makes it easier to legally use, remix, and share creative works. This facilitates more collaboration and innovation.

Attribution for Your Work

Most CC licenses require users to credit you as the original creator. This preserves authorship while enabling broader usage.

Increased Distribution & Exposure

Permissive CC licenses like BY and BY-SA can help spread your work far and wide by allowing more sharing.

Fits With Open Culture Movements

CC licenses promote the values of open access, collaboration, and democratization of knowledge reflected in many creator communities.

Global, Standardized Licensing

The standardized CC licenses make it easy to release your work globally under consistent terms everyone understands.

If your goals include sharing your work freely, retaining attribution, or supporting open knowledge, Creative Commons can help achieve those aims. The flexibility of CC empowers each creator to decide what works for their needs.

Popular Digital Creative Commons Uses

Creative Commons licenses are commonly used by creators and sites in the digital realm. Here are some examples:

Open Educational Resources

Many educators and institutions license course materials, textbooks, videos, and other educational resources under Creative Commons. This facilitates legal sharing and improvements by other teachers globally. Popular sites like Khan Academy and MIT OpenCourseWare use CC licensing.

Stock Media Sites

Stock photo and video sites often have a section of CC licensed media creators have submitted. This media can be used for free under certain CC terms, which increases discovery. Sites like Flickr, Pixabay, Pexels, and Wikimedia Commons host CC licensed photos.

Musicians & Record Labels

Many independent musicians like Amanda Palmer choose to release songs under CC licenses that allow sharing but not commercial use. There are also open music labels like Opsound and Magnatune that use CC licensing.

Blogs & News Sites

Lots of individual bloggers and even some online media outlets use CC licensing to allow reproduction of articles with attribution. This helps writers gain exposure.

Governments & Non-Profits

Government and non-profit institutions like NASA, the White House, TED, and Wikipedia release a great deal of material under Creative Commons licenses that support their educational missions.

As Creative Commons licensing has matured, it has been adopted by major content platforms and industries. The standardized approach makes it easy for creators to share their work while retaining rights.

Pros & Cons of Using Creative Commons

Here are some key benefits as well as drawbacks to keep in mind when considering Creative Commons licensing:


  • More flexible than all rights reserved copyright
  • Legal sharing & collaboration enabled
  • Required attribution benefits creators
  • Increases distribution and visibility
  • Promotes open culture & innovation
  • Standardized and global system


  • Some rights given up that could provide income
  • Little control over commercial use depending on license
  • Can still be infringed outside license terms
  • Hard to revoke or change once applied
  • Not recognized by all jurisdictions

Creative Commons gives creators more options to share their work. But permissions granted can be hard to take back, so choice of license should align with long-term goals for your work.

Tips for Using Creative Commons Licenses

Here are some tips when using Creative Commons licenses for your creative work:

Clearly Indicate the License

Make sure to clearly specify which CC license you are using both on the work itself and wherever it is distributed online. This avoids confusion over what is allowed.

Attribute Yourself Properly

Most CC licenses require attribution. Make it easy for others to credit you by providing your name and other info. Give clear guidelines.

Monitor Adoption

Check in occasionally to see how your CC licensed work is being shared and attribute. This helps spot any misuse as well as shows the benefits.

Consider Your Goals & Field

Think hard about whether the permissions granted in a CC license fit your goals for commercial use and adaptations. Research common practices in your creative field as well.

Double Check License Compatibility

If remixing works available under different CC licenses, ensure they are compatible terms for your usage. Incompatible licenses can cause issues.

Register Your License

While optional, registering your license via Creative Commons can provide helpful tracking of your work and legal proof of license terms.

Provide Attribution for Others Too

When reusing CC licensed works, carefully follow attribution requirements to respect creative wishes. Credit both original creators and adaptations.

Using Creative Commons licenses requires care to understand permissions granted and proper attribution. But when used appropriately, they offer creators great alternatives to more restrictive copyright.

Creative Commons Licenses for Digital Products

Creative Commons licensing can be a good option for creators selling digital products like ebooks, courses, graphics, music, 3D models, photographs, and more. Here we’ll look at how CC licenses work specifically for digital products.

Compatible Types of Digital Products

In general, CC licenses work well for digital products that involve creative expression or knowledge sharing, where your primary goals include:

  • Wide distribution and sharing of your work
  • Gaining exposure and attribution
  • Supporting collaboration and improvements by others
  • Contributing to open information

Some specific types of digital products commonly released under Creative Commons licenses:

  • Ebooks, guides, reports
  • Online video courses or tutorials
  • Digital templates, graphics, illustrations
  • 3D models and digital designs
  • Audio files like music and podcasts
  • Photos and digital artworks
  • Educational resources and lessons
  • Open source software

Digital products that are primarily informational, educational, or expressive creations tend to be suitable for CC licensing. It enables broader exposure and contribution for those types of works.

CC Licenses Less Suitable for Some Digital Products

However, CC licenses may not be the best fit for certain types of proprietary digital products where you want to retain full control over sharing and commercial usage, like:

  • Premium software or apps
  • Password protected membership sites or communities
  • Licensed fonts, graphics, or templates
  • Commercially valuable data or tools
  • Professional services delivered digitally

For digital products focused on commercial value over sharing and collaboration, standard copyright or paid licensing may be preferable to Creative Commons.

Most Suitable CC Licenses for Digital Products

If releasing your digital product under a CC license, some good options to consider are:

  • CC BY – Allowingadaptations with only attribution required is the most open and permissive option. Maximizes potential exposure and collaboration.
  • CC BY-NC – For creators who still want control over commercial use, this option prohibits commercial activity while allowing adaptations with attribution.
  • CC BY-ND – To prevent modifications while enabling sharing, this license allows only exact redistribution commercially or non-commercially with attribution.
  • CC BY-SA – This license permits adaptations but requires they be shared under the same terms. Great for collaborative projects.

These licenses strike a balance many digital creators are looking for between sharing/collaboration and retaining commercial rights or creative control.

Offer Premium Commercial Options Too

One effective strategy used by digital creators is to offer a freely shareable CC licensed version, then also sell premium commercial offerings. For example:

  • A free CC licensed ebook, plus paid licensed translations and print editions
  • CC licensed course videos, plus paid access to exclusive member forums
  • CC music, but premium versions without ads/attribution

Mixing free sharing with ways to still monetize your work commercially can be very powerful.

Double Check Third Party Content

If your digital product incorporates other CC licensed works or content under regular copyright, be sure your CC license usage complies with those terms. Make sure attributions are handled properly as well.

Applying an appropriate Creative Commons license to your digital products can expand your audience reach tremendously while preserving commercial opportunities. It empowers the digital community to legally share and even improve upon your work.

Finding CC Licensed Works to Use

One of the major advantages of Creative Commons licensing is creators can reuse and remix CC licensed material, following the terms set by the licensor. Here are places to find CC licensed works to leverage legally:

Creative Commons Search

The main Creative Commons search engine allows filtering media like images, videos, and texts by specific CC license types. Helpful for finding material you can reuse.

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons hosts over 60 million CC licensed media files, from photos to sounds to 3D models. Great resource for creators and educators.


Flickr has a huge repository CC licensed photography from its community. You can search by license type.

CC Music Archive

This site catalogs musical tracks released under Creative Commons licenses that can be used. Artists often contribute their songs.


Pixabay offers over 1.9 million public domain CC0 photos, vector graphics, and videos that have no copyright restrictions.


Openclipart is a community contributing open source clipart images and assets with no copyright restrictions via Creative Commons Zero.


Many artists on this community publish creative works under various Creative Commons licenses available to legally use.

There are huge amounts of CC licensed content available, much of it able to be adapted and shared. Search engines like Google also make it easier to find this content.

Attributing CC Licensed Works Properly

A key requirement when using CC licensed material is to provide proper attribution to the original creator and follow license terms. Here are some tips:

  • Clearly indicate the CC license and any disclaimers provided in the original work
  • Credit the creator/artist by the name they indicate
  • If specified, note the title and source URL of the original work
  • Indicate any modifications you made or that your work is a remix
  • Include attribution info near your usage of the content
  • Attribute individual assets used, don’t just give general attribution
  • Retain any copyright notices if the CC license requires it
  • Your attribution should be reasonable and proportional to what you used

Providing credit to the creator and pointing users to the original source is important not just for compliance, but supports creators who share their work.

What if My Copyright is Infringed Under CC License?

While rare, there are occasions where others misuse CC licensed works outside the terms set by the creator:

Commercial Use of NC/ND Licensed Works

If your CC license prohibits commercial use or modifications, any selling or remixing without permission would infringe your rights.

Inadequate Attribution

Many CC licenses require attribution. Not crediting you properly or attempting to claim the work as theirs would be infringing.

What if My Copyright is Infringed Under CC License? (Cont.)

While rare, there are occasions where others misuse CC licensed works outside the terms set by the creator:

Commercial Use of NC/ND Licensed Works

If your CC license prohibits commercial use or modifications, any selling or remixing without permission would infringe your rights.

Inadequate Attribution

Many CC licenses require attribution. Not crediting you properly or attempting to claim the work as theirs would be infringing.

Exceeding Permission Scope

Using a CC licensed photograph on product packaging when the license prohibits commercial use, or distributing licensed music via file sharing when license specifies non-commercial sharing only, would be examples of exceeding the scope of permissions granted in the CC license.

What You Can Do About CC License Infringement

If your Creative Commons licensed work is used outside the terms you specified, there are a few actions recommended:

  • Attempt to contact the infringing party, point out violation of the CC license terms, and request they correct improper usage or take down content. Many will comply if made aware.
  • Where content is hosted online, you can contact the host site and utilize the DMCA process to request removal of infringing materials. Cite your ownership and the CC license terms being violated.
  • If needed, you can engage an attorney and/or issue a DMCA takedown notice. The infringing works would still be protected by copyright outside what the CC license permits.
  • For repeated or willful violations, you can sue for copyright infringement damages under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and other relevant laws. The CC license itself serves as supporting documentation of the terms for use of your content that were infringed.
  • Registering your CC license through Creative Commons can provide further legal proof of your license terms should litigation ever become necessary.

The vast majority of CC license users will be compliant. But occasionally issues arise, and creators have options to protect their copyright and interests.

Best Practices for Digital Stores Using CC Licenses

For digital marketplaces and ecommerce stores selling CC licensed products, here are some best practices to follow:

Clearly Display License Terms

Make sure Creative Commons license terms, icons and disclaimers are prominently displayed on product pages and descriptions. This informs customers of permissions.

Attribute CC Licensors

For any CC licensed works you incorporate, provide attribution to original creators as specified in the license. Have clear attribution guidelines for your contributors.

Develop CC License Policies

Have clear policies, Terms of Service, and user agreements that cover proper CC license usage, take downs for infringement, etc. to protect all parties.

Allow Search Filtering by License

Let customers easily find and filter for CC licensed products. This improves discovery of open materials.

Support CC Metadata Standards

Follow metadata standards for CC licenses to make integrations and discovery easier. Participate in shared repositories of CC licensed works.

Compensate Creators

Even for CC licensed goods, ensure creators are being fairly compensated. Offer convenient ways for users to provide donations and support.

Follow Best Commercial Practices

For products with NC licenses, go the extra mile to keep them separated from commercial offerings. Avoid appearance of commercialization.

With thoughtful policies and practices, digital marketplaces can become great homes for Creative Commons licensed products that make it easier to legally share knowledge and creativity.


Creative Commons provides a powerful alternative to traditional copyright for content creators seeking to maximize access, sharing, and attribution for their work. The standardized CC licenses allow customization of what permissions to grant upfront for others to reuse content under defined terms. For digital products, CC licenses enable creators to share freely with collaborators and the broader community while still protecting commercial rights. Marketplaces should develop supportive policies and practices around CC licensing to comply with license terms. When leveraged intentionally, Creative Commons licenses can expand the exposure and life of creative works online.

FAQ for Creative Commons Licensing Explained for Digital Product Sellers

1. What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons (CC) is a nonprofit organization that offers creators flexible options to share their work while retaining copyright. It provides alternatives to traditional copyright by allowing creators to choose from various licenses that specify how others can use their work.

2. Why should digital product sellers consider using Creative Commons licenses?

Using Creative Commons licenses allows digital product sellers to reach a wider audience by enabling legal sharing, remixing, and reuse of their work. It also promotes collaboration and innovation while ensuring proper attribution to the original creators.

3. How do Creative Commons licenses work?

CC licenses are applied by creators to their works and specify the permissions granted for others to use, remix, and share the work. There are six main types of CC licenses, each with different conditions regarding commercial use, modifications, and attribution.

4. What are the benefits of using Creative Commons licenses?

Some benefits of using CC licenses include greater exposure and distribution of your work, increased collaboration opportunities, preservation of attribution, and alignment with open culture movements.

5. What are some examples of digital products suitable for Creative Commons licensing?

Digital products like ebooks, online courses, graphics, music, photos, and educational resources are often released under CC licenses. However, it’s important to consider your goals and whether CC licensing aligns with them.

6. How can I find CC licensed works to use in my own projects?

You can find CC licensed works through platforms like Creative Commons Search, Wikimedia Commons, Flickr, and various other websites that host CC licensed content. Always ensure proper attribution when using CC licensed works.

7. What should I do if my CC licensed work is infringed?

If your CC licensed work is used outside the terms specified in the license, you can attempt to contact the infringing party and request compliance. If necessary, you can also utilize the DMCA process to request removal of infringing content or pursue legal action.

8. What are some best practices for digital stores selling CC licensed products?

Digital stores should clearly display license terms on product pages, attribute CC licensors properly, develop CC license policies, allow search filtering by license, support CC metadata standards, compensate creators, and follow best commercial practices.

9. How can I apply a Creative Commons license to my own digital products?

To apply a CC license to your digital products, decide which license best fits your goals, indicate the license on your work, provide attribution information, publish the work with the CC license, and optionally register the license for added benefits.

10. Can I sell digital products under Creative Commons licenses?

Yes, you can sell digital products under Creative Commons licenses, but it’s important to choose the right license that aligns with your commercial goals and preferences. Some CC licenses allow commercial use with proper attribution, while others restrict commercial activities.


By Dani Davis

A true visionary in the realms of tech writing, digital storytelling, and e-commerce, Daniel Davis (known as Dani) has carved out an exceptional career spanning over 15 years. Born and raised in San Francisco, Dani's innate affinity for technology and creative expression propelled them to explore the intricacies of computer science while honing their storytelling abilities. Their unique blend of technical expertise and narrative prowess laid the foundation for their multifaceted success. Dani's journey has been marked by groundbreaking achievements, including authoring bestselling books that demystify complex technological concepts through captivating narratives. As the founder of the influential online platform "TechTales," Dani has created a hub for educational content, podcasts, and video essays that cater to tech enthusiasts worldwide. Moreover, as the head writer of, a leading resource for e-commerce and digital marketing, Dani has established themselves as a preeminent authority in the field of online business and entrepreneurship. Their consulting work, speaking engagements, and advocacy efforts have inspired countless individuals, solidifying their legacy as a true pioneer in the digital age.

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