Need to know about copyright licences for creative works

Need to know about copyright licences for creative works

Authors have the right to determine how their works are used by others. Copyright licences applied to a creative work, can give permission to legally use that work.


Copyright laws in most countries allow creators lawful ownership of their original, creative works (e.g. images, texts, videos, audio, etc).

By applying a copyright licence to a creative work, copyright holders can give permission for others to use that work in ways that would otherwise infringe copyright law.

Creative works fall under the definition of intellectual property. Depending on the type of work, how it is (potentially) used, and how it is supposed to be used, copyright restrictions and licence types can be different.

For this post, creative works will mainly include images, texts, videos and audio. Popular distribution mediums considered include articles, blogs, social media, radio, television, books and newspapers.


Most countries have their own set of copyright laws. These laws are mainly aimed at protecting authors of original work in that specific country.

Although each country has different definitions and prerequisites under which protection is supplied, in a broader sense, the copyright laws give the author ownership of the original work and exclusive rights to determine and decide whether, and under which conditions, this original work may be used by others.

Copyright symbolIn the earlier days (prior to March 1989), the copyright symbol (©, the letter C inside a circle) had to be used to indicate that a work is copyrighted. It was usually followed by the year and the author to whom it is copyrighted, e.g. ©1983 John Doe. To the same effect, some copyright holders still use “All rights reserved”, which indicates that the copyright holder reserves all the rights provided by copyright law and wishes that none of their work is used by other people.

Today, both these copyright formalities are optional, since they were made legally obsolete by the Berne Convention.

Copyright definition and regulation

There are different levels at which copyright is defined and regulated. The highest form is on an international level but is also country dependent. There are three agreements determining and regulating copyrights in the world today. They are the Berne Convention, the Universal Copyright Convention and the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.

The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, or better known as the Berne Convention, is an international agreement that governs international copyright protection for creative works.

Being the most accepted and signed by many countries (currently 167), the Berne Convention’s mandate is that a copyright exists the moment a creative work exists, rather than requiring it to be registered. Signatories are also required to provide the same protection to authors from other member countries as they provide to their own authors and to subject them to minimum levels of copyright protection.

The Universal Copyright Convention (or UCC) is also an international convention protecting copyright. It was developed as an alternative to the Berne Convention. A significant difference between these two agreements was the definition of copyright existence, i.e. the UCC stated that copyright must be applied for. Because its member countries were increasingly becoming signatories of the Berne Convention and the WTO, the UCC lost its significance.

The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights ( or TRIPS) is an international legal agreement between all members of the World Trade Organization (WTO). It sets down minimum standards for the regulation by national governments of many forms of intellectual property (IP), including creative works. Much of its copyright definitions are ‘as set out by the Berne Convention‘.

Public domain

Public domain refers to works for which the copyright has expired, has been forfeited or is not applicable anymore. The copyright period is country-dependent but usually ends around 50 to 100 years after the author’s death.

Public domain symbolWorks under the public domain are free to use, copy and modify at will and will often be marked with the public domain symbol (the letter C inside a circle with a line through it), also known as the unlicenced logo.

Fair use / Fair dealing

Fair use“, or known as “fair dealing” in some countries, is a general exception to copyright. These are legal permissions set out in some countries, e.g. the USA, UK, South Africa and Australia, among others. The guidelines for fair use are also integrated into the Berne Convention’s provisions. Fair use is generally intended for a work to be used without permission, as long as its use is not detrimental to the work itself and the copyright holder. Detrimental effects can be in the form of financial loss or perception.

Fair use symbolFair use is, and can be, defined in different ways. Its judgement is dependent on the balance between the laws of a country, the type of content, the reason/purpose for its use, the way/extent to which it is used, where it is used and the impact it might have on the copyright holder and/or the work itself. Some jurisdictions simply state that a person has the ‘legal right’ to use (or deal with) a copyrighted work as long as that use is fair to the rights holder, while others focus on usage limitations and exceptions.

Article 10 of the Berne Convention provides certain conditions for free use of works. This mainly refers to fair use and the right to quote (freedom to redistribute copies of fragments). Quotation right is permissible as long as it falls within the scope of fair use. From their point of view, the fair use of “illustration in publications, broadcasts or sound or visual recordings for teaching” is for local legislation of their signatories to decide.

Fair use has often been used as a defence against copyright lawsuits. It has also been opposed by some larger enterprises. Laws that incorporate its principles or standards are generally more flexible and adaptive than prescriptive rules.

In the USA, fair use is limited to be used, for example, in commentary, search engines, criticism, parody, news reporting, research and scholarship. It comes across that it is more heavily judged upon its effect on the work, its purpose, the extent to which, and where it is used and less on the effect it has on the copyright holder.

Popular copyright licences

Because all creative works are automatically copyrighted to their author, applying a licence (also called a copyright licence) can give permission/freedom for licensees to use that work in ways that would otherwise infringe copyright law. Licences allow the licensor (copyright holder/author) to set terms and conditions at which licensees can use their work, but do not release the ownership of the work itself.

Copyright licences can be issued individually or in the form of a public licence. Individual licences are usually those that are given for an agreed payment (fee or royalty).

Public copyright licences are generally free licences and allow the copyright holder to grant permission to any and all persons in the general public, i.e. they do not limit their licensees, and any person can take advantage of the licence.

Licences are mostly communicated in a way to fit the type of works and their distribution medium. Public licence information for works that are displayed on internet pages is usually visible on the web page itself or within a few clicks thereof (i.e. a general licence notice).

Downloadable or mass software licenses are usually distributed as a text file within the installation package or communicated while the software is being installed (also known as an end-user licence agreement or EULA). Licence information of music CDs, books, DVDs, etc. is often indicated visually on the distribution medium itself.

Licence to use

Being more popular for commercial works and/or works distributed on media such as books, CDs and DVDs, a license to use applies for that copy, and only that copy, of the work.

Usage-only licences are generally very strict when compared with some of the other licence types in that they only allow the licensee to do with it what it is intended for – e.g. reading for texts, listening for music, watching for videos and running/playing for games. They are so strict that some usage licences don’t even allow making a backup copy for your own use, nevertheless modifying, and redistributing that copy. In other words, no sharing is permitted, technically not even to a friend.

Creative commons licences

Creative commons symbolSome of the more common public licences used by copyright holders are the creative commons (CC) licences. CC is a non-profit organisation that has 6 some rights reserved licences and 1 public domain equivalent licence available.They are all easy to use and simple to understand. The creative commons licences are specifically aimed at free, online creative works and determine facts like whether the work can be modified, whether it can be used commercially, how it should be re-licensed and whether attribution needs to be given (and how). With the exception of the CC0, all the CC licences require attribution, i.e. the author is to be credited.

CC 0CC0 – This is a public domain equivalent licence and technically not a licence. It gives all rights without attribution. The original author of content marked CC0 has, strictly speaking, also waivered their ownage rights. It was created for compatibility with jurisdictions where works cannot be dedicated to the public domain.

CC BYCC Attribution – This is the basic CC licence. It allows for all copying, modification and redistribution, even commercial.

CCS BY SACC Attribution-ShareAlike – Equal to CC Attribution, but forces the derivative work to be licensed in the same way.

CC BY NDCC Attribution-NoDerivs – Allows copying, redistribution and display, but does not allow modification in any way.

CC BY NCCC Attribution-NonCommercial – Allows copying, displaying and redistribution, but not for commercial purposes.

CC BY NC SACC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike – Same as the previous licence, though forcing the derivative work to be under the same licence.

CC BY NC NDCC Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs – The work can be freely copied, as long it is not modified and used for commercial purposes.

YouTube also allows its creators to mark videos with a CC BY licence.

Free stock content

Many stock content supplying websites offer free stock. These include images, audio files, texts and videos. Albeit often of inferior quality, watermarked, non-inspiring and/or small in size, free stock content is popularly used. Although free, take note that free content does not mean that you can resell or claim that you own the content.

As with royalty-free licences (see below), the use of free stock content has a lot of freedom, but also limitations. They might also have additional requirements, e.g. crediting the author and/or the website they are obtained from and limitations for commercial or own work and the medium they are to be used on (e.g. television).

Royalty-free licences

Royalty-free (RF) refers to the right to use copyright material without the need to pay royalties or licence fees for each use. Although some content supplying websites might refer to their free content as RF, this licence is generally obtained by paying a fee. This type of licence is commonly applied to stock content like images, audio, videos, texts, etc. and grants the purchaser the right to use the material for personal, educational or commercial purposes. Modifications can also be made and attribution is not required.

Although their licences are usually perpetual, meaning you can use the work for as long as you like, and that it can be used anywhere in the world, the copyright remains with the creating author. Standard royalty-free licences (as suppose to extended royalty-free licences) do not allow mass production (usually more than 5000 copies) and excludes usage on derivative products (e.g. mugs, t-shirts, website templates, etc.).

The word ‘exclusive’ is often used by stock content websites. This does not refer to the licence of the stock, but merely that that stock is exclusive to their website. The usage of the RF content may be used by as many people who acquire a licence to use it. It is not licensed exclusively to you or to any other buyer.

Royalty-free works may not be resold, redistributed or repackaged (without explicit permission from the original author). In other words, nobody else can use these works legally, only the person who purchased the licence. Some royalty-free licences have some other exclusions too.

Rights Managed licences

Rights-managed (RM) licences are popularly used for images, often specialist images, which ensures control and exclusive usage of copyright material. With this type of licence, the buyer needs to define exactly how the material will be used. Variables such as the time period, the number of times, the extent (e.g. the size in the case of an image) and the industry it will be used in are also incorporated as part of the terms of these licences.

RM licences are often much more expensive compared with other paid-for licences and re-licensing is needed to be able to use these works again or on a different medium.

SIL Open Font Licence

The SIL Open Font Licence (or OFL) is a free and open-source licence used for fonts and it falls under the category of software licences. This licence permits the fonts to be used, modified and distributed freely (as long as the resulting fonts remain under the Open Font License). The copyright holder may declare the font’s name as being a “Reserved Font Name”. The licence permits covered fonts to be freely embedded in documents under any terms, but it requires that fonts be packaged with software if they are sold.


This post mainly focuses on licensing of online content such as images, texts, videos and audio to be used on popular distribution media such as articles, blogs, social media, radio, television, books and newspapers.

For creative works, there are other (less popular) licences, other types of content and other distribution media to consider too. When content is not licensed in any of the above-mentioned ways, make sure to refer to the legal documentation to fully understand the terms for using such content.

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