How to Interpret Creative Commons Licenses

How to Interpret Creative Commons Licenses
July 17, 2018 No Comments » For Authors, Writing, Writing Advice Stacy Overby

With so many free resources, educational videos, and even free programs, many authors try their hand at doing the graphic design pieces to indie publishing. This can be an awesome way to save money. Let’s face it—being an indie author generally is not a super lucrative venture for those first few books. But, Author Beware: there are a whole variety of licensing rules and such to be careful of, lest you find yourself faced with a plagiarism accusation. Or, worse yet, a lawsuit. So just what do we need to know?

Commercial Use vs. Personal Use

The first thing you should understand is the difference between commercial use and personal use. The most obvious difference is that commercial things are things we sell, while personal use means just for you. A subtler difference, though, is looking at the intent of the thing. That is—what do you intend with what you are creating? Those teaser quotes we all love to create and share? Yeah, be careful what you use. See, even though you’re not selling the teaser quote itself, the fact you’re using it to advertise your book associates the elements of that quote with your product. That is pushing the limits of personal use and you risk ending up in trouble. Personal use is just that—only for you and a few friends. Anything beyond that gets problematic.

Now, there is one in between area just to complicate things a little more. While it is more unusual, you may see licenses that talk about limited commercial use. This means while that design element can be used commercially, limits exist on said use. One I’ve seen was for a font. The limitation stated for use only if the total volume of product sold did not exceed 500 units. As in, it was fine for commercial use if you sold no more than 500 units ever. I don’t know about you, but I certainly would like to sell over 500 copies of a book. So, if I didn’t want to limit my book to 500 copies ever, I would have to redesign my book before hitting that 500-mark and change the font, if not possibly the background image. Not something I would want to do regularly. Besides the work, it’s not good for branding and recognition.


Okay. We’ve gotten our general intended uses clarified. Now we can move on to looking at licenses. Yes, the legalese in these things can be difficult to wade through. However, you don’t want to skip it because you’re responsible for abiding by the terms of the license, regardless of when you use an element. I’ll go over most common ones to indie publishing here, called Creative Commons (or CC) licensing. This licensing is run by a non-profit focused on helping creative people share their work.

A circle surrounds two capital letter Cs.

A Creative Commons logo looks like this.

The safest license to use, and my number one go to license, is a Creative Commons Zero, or CC0, license. This is where the creator or owner of the content places the content as fully as possible into the public domain. Now, this differs from works that are considered public domain.

Public Domain

Public domain means no copyright, trademark, or patent laws apply. This most commonly happens when copyrights expire, the copyright is not renewed, the copyright owner places the material in the public domain, or copyright law does not apply. There are so many different jurisdictions that have a say over copyright, trademark, and patent material, occasional issues using a CC0 license exist since these jurisdictions don’t always communicate well. But, it is still the safest alternative outside of sticking 100% to public domain materials. The best part is that this license allows for pretty much any kind of use, including being able to modify the material and sell the material commercially. I should add one other caveat—be careful if your image depicts a real person, a trademark, or similarly easily recognizable objects. For example, a photo of a real person at Disney World with a CC0 license still needs to be used cautiously; because the image is of a live person, you’d need that person’s permission to be used commercially. Also, because Disney has about a bazillion trademarks/copyrights on their material, you could end up in trouble by implication because it looks like Disney is supporting or endorsing something when they are not. Make sense?

Okay, the next “level” or general type of license is an attribution license, often seen abbreviated as CC-by. Basically, this means the creator of the element in question wants credit for creating the original element. You can still modify and use it, even commercially, so long as you give that credit to the original creator. Again, not a bad deal as long as you remember that attribution part. And, the attribution must be done in a way that makes it clear. No sticking the attribution in two-point font down in a corner where most people will miss it. The attribution needs to be legible. I would suggest minimizing how often you use materials with this license in the teaser quotes and such. It ends up with too much going on in a little area.

There is a visual code to using CC Licenses.

Two other types of licenses are share-alike, or CC-By-SA, and no derivs, or CC-By-ND. These are a little more restrictive than the attribution only. Share-alike means you can use the material however you want as long as you give that credit and you license whatever you create in the same way. For example, if you use an image under the share-alike license for a teaser quote, you’d have to have that attribution to the original creator and you’d have to allow your teaser to be shared/modified by anyone else who found it. The no derivs—short for derivatives—is similar in that you can use the element in your stuff even commercially. However, you’re not allowed to change anything, and I mean anything, with this one. The element must be passed on whole to whoever wants it, while credit goes back to the original creator. See how we’re getting further and further into dangerous territory?

Now, there are similar licenses on the non-commercial side of this that work the same way. A non-commercial attribution, or CC-By-NC, license means you can’t use it commercially, and you must provide the attribution. But, beyond that, you can use the element how you want. The non-commercial attribution share-alike, or CC By-NC-SA, means the same as the commercial share-alike, with the only difference being you can’t use anything you create with it in a commercial manner. Finally, the non-commercial attribution no derivs, or CC By-NC-ND, means you cannot make any modifications or use it commercially, but can use the element unchanged in personal projects.

Is your head spinning yet? I don’t blame you if you’re a bit overwhelmed.


I hate to do this to you, but there are a few things separate from the Creative Commons licensing for fonts. Many fonts available use the Creative Commons or a similar type of licensing. However, there are some that have a different set of licenses, as they pertain to use on websites and in companies. These licenses are generally referred to as the End User License Agreement, or EULA. Just as with the Creative Commons licensing, there are several levels—standard, corporate, and site license agreements.

Standard licenses often refer to personal use projects. You can download the font and use it however you want in your personal work. Most of the time, it does not apply to using the font in a commercial manner. That being said, read the EULA carefully because some people do allow commercial use of a font, as long as you’re not selling the font itself. So, yes, you could use the font in a book, if the EULA allows it.

Considering paying for a license for a creative piece?

Corporate EULAs are generally for businesses. The most frequent application I’ve seen for this style of font license is when a font is being used on multiple computers within one business. Don’t share it outside the business or you’ll get in trouble. Again, read the EULA for whether it allows commercial use of the font, as this one can allow it, but can also limit it to using the font in ways that do not involve selling materials using the font. For example, it may be permissible for use on a business card, but not on the book you’re selling. That’s not always the case so read the EULA.

Finally, there’s the site EULA. This one allows for you to use the font on a specific network on a single site regardless of the number of users. It’s the compromise for being able to have multiple associated people use a font without having to pay for a separate license for each person. Again, whether commercial use of said font is allowed is up in the air and will be contained in the EULA.

The moral of the story here is that even fonts have licenses we need to abide by. Violate those licenses at your own risk. Don’t believe me? The font that became part of this issue that landed in court.

The Practical Parts

Congratulations! You’ve made it this far. I know all this legalese talk about licensing and such is no fun, complicated, and challenging. It is critical to understand though. Let me put it this way. You don’t want anyone to plagiarize your work, right? You’d at least like some say in how your work gets used, even if you’re fine with that CC0 open source style license. Graphic designers want the same respect. There’s a lot of work that goes into some of these designs. For example, the promo graphic below took me about two hours to create.

I developed this graphic for advertising the Primal Elements Poetry Anthology for 2018.

And that’s nothing compared to the work put into creating a font. Don’t believe me? Here’s one set of instructions on how to create your own font, and that’s on top of paying for and learning how to use the appropriate software and hardware to do so.

I’m adding one more caveat to this whole discussion and I’ll be done, I promise. There are other forms of licenses out there. I did not cover all of them. But, if you can follow all of this, you’ll be fine reading those that weren’t discussed here. In the end, though it may be a tedious and boring part of graphic design, read the licenses before using graphic design elements. You doing so respects the designers, protects you from potential legal issues, and helps build your reputation as a respectful and upstanding author.

Oh. One last thing. You need some good resources for cheap or free and have CC0 or similar commercial licensing? Here are a few of my favorites:

As always, any questions let me know!

Stacy Overby Stacy Overby is a columnist and graphic designer at Her short stories and poems have been featured in multiple anthologies, online, and in lit journals. Scath Oran is her first solo poetry collection, and her debut full length novel, Tattoos: A Black Ops Novel is coming out soon. She is the program director for an adolescent dual diagnosis treatment program by day and an author by night. Her day job provides inspiration for many of her stories. When not at work or writing, she and her husband are playing with their son, hiking, camping, or involved in other outdoor activities – if it is not too cold. She, along with her social media contacts, can be found at

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