Understanding Copyright Laws: Creative Commons, Royalty Free, and Public Domain – What Do They All Mean?

Understanding Copyright Laws: Creative Commons, Royalty Free, and Public Domain - What Do They All Mean?

If you have ever been confused regarding copyright laws, royalty free, public domain, creative commons licenses, or fair use, you’re not alone. These terms are not well understood or applied. It can take a long time searching online to decipher what each term means and understand how the law apply to your situation. Most online businesses use graphics, videos, clip art, and music on their websites and other marketing or internal material. Understanding what material you can and cannot legally use is more important than you may realize as I’ll explain. This post walks through basic and clear definitions of various copyright licenses and gives examples. We’ve also compiled a list of awesome sources of free music, graphic, photo, and video files you can legally use for your business. You can get a copy here.


I sometimes hear the question, “Do I have to copyright my art/music/video?” Under US law (and most other jurisdictions), any creative asset is automatically protected by copyright laws. You can register a copyright with the government, which gives official recognition that you own the asset and puts a date on its creation. However, registering a copyright isn’t required to be protected by the law.

What are the legal rights of owners of creative assets?

The creator has exclusive right to use the asset however they like. They can publish, distribute, commercialize, and license out their work to others for free or for a fee. These are the rights being claimed when you see “All rights reserved”. These protections typically last for a fixed period of time. The time period varies, but is at least 25 years and often much longer. The word “exclusive” means that no one else has any right to use the asset in any manner unless permission is granted by the owner. What this means for most of us is that all those photos and clip arts on our blogs and websites are either appropriately licensed out for use, or in violation of copyright laws.

What are the different ways to license copyrighted works?

Rights Managed

Rights Managed, or RM,  refers to a copyright license which, if purchased by a user, allows the one-time use of the asset as specified by the license. If the user wants to use the photo for other uses, an additional license would need to be purchased. RM licenses can be given on a non-exclusive or exclusive basis and typically define the following parameters:

  • type of use
  • location of use
  • frequency of use

As a result, RM licenses have an audit trail showing who the asset has been licensed to, for what purpose, in which country, and for how often and how long.

Public Domain

Once a copyright expires or if the owner forfeits the copyright protections, the asset enters the public domain. This means anyone can use, change, re-purpose, or commercialize the work however they like without any kind of permission needed. This includes using the asset commercially or for profit (this isn’t true in all countries). When licencors waive rights to their work and put material in the public domain, they can be hard to identify, but sometimes they get marked with tags that let users know how they can be used. If you see this mark Public Domain Logo, it means the asset is in the public domain and is sometimes called “no rights reserved”. These assets are out there, but you have to know where to look to find them. We’ve put together a great list to help you find all types of media. Get it here!

Royalty Free 

Royalty free assets are still protected by copyright because they are not in the public domain. Being royalty free does not mean that an asset is free of cost. Typically, you pay a one-time fee or subscription fee to gain access to the asset and then you’re able to use it however you like or according to the terms of the license. For royalty free assets, you can generally use them commercially however you’d like without paying royalties to the creator, but the owner still retains the copyright. The creator typically sells access to their works to agencies that offer subscriptions to use the assets. Royalty free licenses usually have specific terms of use spelled out that prohibit the user of the assets from claiming them as their own works, prevent transformation of the work, and specify where the asset can be use. Royalty free licenses do not maintain a history as to use.

Royalty Free

Creative Commons 

Creative Commons is a relatively new type of copyright license. The idea behind Creative Commons is to allow artists to share their works with the online community without a price but with certain conditions so that the original creator gets credit. Creative Commons assets are still protected under copyright laws unless they’ve been placed in the public domain, but the terms of the license are clearly and uniformly defined. Here’s a nifty little infographic that explains Creative Commons licenses.

creative commons infographic

So basically, Creative Commons licenses let users see at a glance what can and cannot be done with an asset. Do you see in the inforgraphic above that the original author licensed it with CC-BY-SA, but we revised it and re-licensed it? Since it was first licensed under CC BY-SA, it has to stay under CC BY-SA That means it can be modified however anyone chooses, but the original creator still has to get credit  and any derived asset has to have the same CC-BY-SA license type. Let’s go through more details of each license type.

Attribution – CC BY Creative Commons License

This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.

Attribution-ShareAlike – CC BY-SA Creative Commons License 

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to “copyleft” free and open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. This is the license used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects.

Attribution-NoDerivs  CC BY-ND Creative Commons License 

This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.

Attribution-NonCommercial  CC BY-NC Creative Commons License 

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike  CC BY-NC-SA Creative Commons License

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs  CC BY-NC-ND Creative Commons License

This license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

Clear as mud?

To simplify, here’s a quick-reference table for the different options under each CC license type.

Creative Commons Licenses explained

adapted from https://currikiblog.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/creative-commons-licenses-explained_fotor-com.jpg

The Creative Commons system makes use of digital assets much easier, but it can still be challenging and time consuming to find assets that are licensed according to your needs. That’s why we put together this handy list of sites that offer music, sound clips, clip art, fonts, icons, photos, graphics, and videos that licensed for use on your website or in your next creative project. Get a free copy of our list here.

Fair Use – Copyright Exemptions

This last category provides a legal exception to copyright law if an asset can pass the four factor test. Most creative assets used for commercial purposes will not meet these criteria and to fully determine if an asset can be exempted from copyright laws under fair use can be challenging and often requires specialized lawyers. The four factors are listed here:

  1. Purpose and character of the use

The first test includes asking whether “the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes.” To justify the use as fair, one must demonstrate how it either advances knowledge or the progress of the arts through the addition of something new. Having a commercial purpose does not preclude a use from being found fair, even though it makes it less likely. Likewise, the noncommercial purpose of a use makes it more likely to be found a fair use, but it does not make it a fair use automatically

  1. Nature of the copyrighted work.

The second test is prevents the private ownership of work that rightfully belongs in the public domain, facts and ideas are not protected by copyright—only their particular expression or fixation merits such protection.

  1. Amount and substantiality

The third factor assesses the amount and substantiality of the copyrighted work that has been used. In general, the less that is used in relation to the whole, the more likely the use will be considered fair. If a key part of a work is used, it is less likely to be considered fair use.

  1. Effect upon work’s value

The fourth factor measures the effect that the allegedly infringing use has had on the copyright owner’s ability to exploit his or her original work. The burden of proof here rests on the copyright owner, who must demonstrate the impact of the infringement on commercial use of the work.

Okay, that was a lot of details. Let’s recap.

So here’s the bottom line: always ensure you know what legal rights apply to the assets you use. Not only will it save you potential legal repercussions, but it will provide the creators of those assets fair compensation or recognition for their work. Now that you know the difference between public domain, royalty free, creative commons, and copyrighted work, you’ll be better able to choose what you need for your next awesome project.

Different countries grant copyrights in different manners, so for the details in the country you reside in, please do your homework. However, the Creative Commons licensing system is a global initiative and is the Creative Commons non-profit is working to standardize licensure around the globe.

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