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Fun, weird and sometimes frustrating

One of the key ways to use copyright-protected material is to get a license.

Now The Legal Genealogist wants you to stop panicking.

That’s just a fancy legal word for permission.

“Hey Mom,” you may ask, “can I use that photo you took of Grandpa for my blog post?”

“Sure, honey,” she answers.

That’s a license. And it’s all we need to be able to use that copyrighted photo that Mom took of Grandpa.

But what about all that material that’s spread out all over the internet that we’d like to use? Do we have to ask each and every time we want to use anything?

The answer, of course, is: it depends.

And what it depends on is whether permission has been granted to use the specific material we want to use without asking for permission as long as we agree to abide by a set of conditions.

In other words, whether it’s covered by a license from an outfit called Creative Commons.

Creative Commons is “a global nonprofit organization that enables sharing and reuse of creativity and knowledge through the provision of free legal tools. Our legal tools help those who want to encourage reuse of their works by offering them for use under generous, standardized terms; those who want to make creative uses of works; and those who want to benefit from this symbiosis. Our vision is to help others realize the full potential of the internet. CC has affiliates all over the world who help ensure our licenses work internationally and who raise awareness of our work.”1

Creative Commons licenses, then, are “legal tools that creators and other rights holders can use to offer certain usage rights to the public, while reserving other rights. Those who want to make their work available to the public for limited kinds of uses while preserving their copyright may want to consider using CC licenses.”2

Pretty cool, huh? And even cooler is the fact that Creative Commons has just launched a new search tool to help us find CC-licensed images we might be able to use in blog posts or presentations or journal articles or genealogy books we write for our families.

Located at, the search feature is “a tool that allows openly licensed and public domain works to be discovered and used by everyone.”3

And it’s a whole lot of fun and a whole lot weird — and sometimes a whole lot frustrating.

It’s fun because it can turn up a lot of materials we might otherwise not be aware of, at a wide variety of institutions that now hold enormous numbers of CC-licensed items. Institutions like the Brooklyn Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Geograph Britain and Ireland, Museums Victoria, and Rijksmuseum, just to name a few.

It’s a whole lot weird because doing a search for, say, leopard will turn up not just images of leopards but anything that’s CC-licensed and on the same page as a reference to leopard. (Try it: one of the first sets that comes up is a gorgeous set of ball-point pen drawings for a school project by an exceptionally talented artist named Sarah Lee.]

And it’s sometimes frustrating because sometimes we’ll find an image that’s just perfect for what we have in time — and we still can’t use it.

Remember… just because an image is CC-licensed, it doesn’t mean we can use it any way we want to.

There’s that whole thing about “as long as we agree to abide by a set of conditions,” y’see. Every CC license except for the CC0 license comes with a set of conditions that we must follow in order to use that item. CC0 is basically a license to use material as if it were in the public domain, meaning without any restrictions or conditions at all.4

Except for that CC0 license, every Creative Commons license requires attribution — credit — to the creator of the item. That shouldn’t be any problem for us as genealogists — after all, citing our sources is an essential element of the genealogical proof standard. All licenses shown with the letters BY require attribution.

Some CC licenses are designated as ShareAlike licenses. That means you can tweak or change the work to fit your needs, but you then give anybody else the same right to tweak or change your work to fit their needs. Any license shown with the letters SA is a ShareAlike license.

Some CC licenses are designated as no-derivatives licenses. That means you can use it but you can’t change it or tweak it in any way. Any license shown with the letters ND is a no-derivatives license.

Some CC licenses are designated as noncommercial licenses. That means you can only use the work if it’s not “primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or monetary compensation.”5 Any license shown with the letters NC is a noncommercial license.

And these conditions can be combined, such as CC BY-SA or CC BY-NC-SA.

So there are essentially seven specific licenses, presented here with links to their conditions:

CC0: Public Domain

CC BY: Attribution

CC BY-SA: Attribution ShareAlike

CC BY-ND: Attribution-NoDerivs

CC BY-NC: Attribution-NonCommercial

CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

CC BY-NC-ND: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs

And when we find just the right image through the new search page, it’s still our responsibility to check and see which license it carries, make sure that the use we intend is within the terms of that license — and then scrupulously stay within the terms of that license if we do use it.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “The new Creative Commons search,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 24 May 2019).


  1. FAQ: What is Creative Commons and what do you do?,” Creative Commons ( : accessed 24 May 2019).
  2. Ibid., “FAQ: Is Creative Commons against copyright?
  3. Ibid., “About CC Search”.
  4. See “CC0: No Rights Reserved,” Creative Commons ( : accessed 24 May 2019.
  5. Ibid., “FAQ: Does my use violate the NonCommercial clause of the licenses?” See also CC Wiki (, “NonCommercial interpretation,” rev. 15 Oct 2017.
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