Watch out for the Creative Commons catch

by McAfee & Taft

trademarksPhoto by Kristina Alexanderson, via Flickr, licensed CC BY 2.0

You own a small business and want to sharpen your marketing profile by adding some new images to your company website. You hope to save on costs but not skimp on quality, so you go on the Web and find some nifty photographs that are perfect for your new look. And they’re free.

The webpage states that the photographs “may be downloaded under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license for free use, including commercial use; attribution required, see license terms below.” You’re busy, so you don’t read through the links containing detailed license terms. But you’re really excited about the “free use” part, and you download five of the images and have your IT department add them to your revamped business website.

Three weeks later you receive a letter from the photographer’s attorney informing you that you’ve infringed the photographer’s copyrights in all five photographs by placing them on your company website without crediting the photographer by name. What? You thought the use was free. Isn’t Creative Commons that nonprofit organization that encourages the use of licenses that allow free distribution of copyrighted works for the purpose of sharing and building on them?

The answer is yes. But there’s more. A Creative Commons license permits free uses as long as the licensee observes certain requirements specified in the license terms. One of those requirements, typically, is that the licensee credit the copyrighted work to its creator or owner. That’s what the photographer’s webpage meant by “attribution required.” By attributing the photographs, you give credit to the photographer.

Can you really be a copyright infringer by failing to attribute the photographs? It’s possible. Some courts have held that failure to attribute a copyrighted work under a free-use license requiring attribution violates a condition of the license and makes the user an infringer. Other courts, however, have suggested that failure to observe license terms that are not connected to the exclusive rights of copyright owners might be, at most, a breach of contract with uncertain damages. Attribution—not required by U.S. copyright law in most cases and arguably not directly connected to copyright’s exclusive rights—might raise only a contract issue.

If you’re a licensee or a licensor, keep the following in mind.

For licensees:

  • Click through those license terms and study them carefully. Don’t stop reading at “free.”  
  • Always attribute the work if attribution is required. Make sure you follow the licensor’s specific requirements for attribution (including the author’s or owner’s name, the work’s title, the particular Creative Commons or other license used, and any copyright notices).  
  • Don’t alter the work unless the license expressly permits you to do so.  

For licensors:

  • Make your license terms clear and accessible. Avoid unnecessarily numerous links and difficult or inscrutable jargon. If you sue someone for not observing license terms, you don’t want them to be able to claim that you engaged in deceptive trade practices.  
  • Explain what “attribution” means. Not everyone is familiar with the word or concept.  
  • If obtaining attribution is really your goal, consider asking the licensee to add proper attribution or cease using the work. Copyright disputes can be expensive.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© McAfee & Taft | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

McAfee & Taft

McAfee & Taft on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at:

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.