Differences between “Royalty-Free”, “Public Domain”, “Creative Commons” etc

Is there a simple summary somewhere (or can someone provide one) of all the different kinds of legal terms for how and where we can re-use someone else’s images?

For example these terms are bandied about and they all sound reasonably similar:
Creative Commons (which seems to have a bunch of subcategories)
Public Domain
… and others

These terms are easily to google but it’s hard to work out where terms are simply synonyms for each other and where there are subtle differences.

For example, on Flickr the status of images are clearly labelled and you can click through for a definition (somewhat legalese) on CreativeCommons.org. But Google Images search (Advanced) has a filter which is deliberately “plain English”:
enter image description here

So an overview, not too legal, would be great.

This is asked from the point-of-view of a web designer looking to browse and use other people’s images in (commercial) websites, but correctly and fairly. Not an author looking at protecting my own copyright.


I think there are no situations where the terms are simply synonyms for each other. It is a complicated matter indeed.

Here are simplified definitions:

  • Public Domain: no restrictions, no copyright claim (not possible in some countries).
  • Creative Commons: work may be used but in compliance with the stated restrictions.
  • Royalty Free: you buy a license once and can use the work according to the license.

For me, the options of Google image search are misleading. What is “free to use” supposed to mean? Probably free of charge. But you’d have to investigate each time anyway what the license is and what usage restrictions there are.

Here is my favorite license.

Source : Link , Question Author : hawbsl , Answer Author : 0x6C38

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