Creative Commons Licenses and Images in the Public Domain

Creative Commons Licenses and Images in the Public Domain

Fair dealing, an exception in the Copyright Act, allows for the use of copyright protected material for the purpose of education and research. However if the scope of your work goes beyond educational, you should select images that are appropriate for a broad variety of uses. Whenever possible choose images under less restrictive Creative Commons licenses or images that have entered the public domain. See Finding Creative Commons and Public Domain Images for search tips and resources.

Image of Carleton University from a distance
Chris Barbara, Carleton University from the South, 2007, Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from
Image released into the public domain by author.

Creative Commons Licenses

Creative Commons Licenses provide creators with a set of conditions they can choose to apply to their work. These licenses are meant to be legal tools that help manage the copyright terms that attach automatically to all creative material. See Creative Commons: Frequently asked Questions for more details. Be aware that a Creative Commons license is a contract, so always be sure to read the terms and conditions of each license type.

  • Attribution CC BY: This license allows you to distribute, alter, and build upon an image, even commercially, as long you credit the original. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.
  • Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA: This license allows you to use and alter an image even for commercial purposes, as long as you give credit and license your new work under the identical terms. 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: This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit given to the original creator.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial CC BY-NC: This license lets you remix, tweak, and build upon an image non-commercially, and although your new work must also acknowledge the original creator and be non-commercial, you don’t have to license your derivative work on the same terms.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike CC BY NC-SA: This license lets you remix, tweak, and build upon an image for non-commercial purposes, as long as you credit and license your new creation under identical terms.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY NC-ND: This license allows you to download images and share them as long as you credit the creator, but you can not alter them in any way or use them commercially. This is the most restrictive license offer by Creative Commons.1

Creators can also make their work freely available to the public without restriction by dedicating it to the public domain:

  • Public Domain Dedication CC0:  This symbol indicates that a creator has chosen to opt out of copyright and has dedicated their work to the public domain. You can freely use images accompanied by this symbol and, though attribution is not necessary, it is recommended that you properly cite a CC0 image if using it in your academic work.

Images in the Public Domain

Images in the public domain are not protected by copyright or by other legal means and are therefore free to use for any purpose. If an image is public domain it means that either its term of protection under copyright has expired, it was never eligible for protection in the first place, or that the creator has chosen to waive their copyright and has made their work freely and unconditionally available for use by the public. See Public Domain Sherpa: "Let's start at the beginning, with a definition of public domain" for a definition of the public domain and how to find out if a work is in the public domain.

  • Public domain images do not require you to seek the permission of a creator, though you should always properly attribute these images so that others can find and reference them.
  • Do not assume that an image without a copyright symbol or the term “all rights reserved” is in the public domain. Copyright is automatic so these indicators are not necessary for a work to be protected.  Anyone can put a public domain notice on another person’s image so always investigate to ensure that this is indeed the case.


  • Just because you find an image online does not mean that it’s free to use. Copyright is automatic in Canada so always assume any images you find are protected by copyright.
  • Before using an image you find online, you should always determine its original source.
  • The usage rights attached to an online image always determine the extent to which you can use it. Always check licensing and usage terms.
  • If in doubt about the status of an image and if no clear terms of use are indicated, either ask permission to use the image or choose another image.

Additional resources:

Creative Commons CC Licenses and Examples

Creative Commons: Understanding Free Cultural Works

Creative Commons Wiki “Best Practices for Attribution”

Creative Commons Wiki “Public Domain”

Ethics in Graphic Design: Image Usage Rights

Public Domain Sherpa: “Public domain or copyrighted? Here’s how to tell”

1. Descriptions of licenses adapted from the Creative Commons website “About the licenses” page, accessed November 4, 2016, Content on the Creative Commons website is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Content last reviewed: February 3, 2021