Not-So-Common-Sense 101: Copyright and Creative Commons

Gillian Chubb

Mind, prepare to be bombarded with new information that you should’ve learned years ago. Thanks to Gillian Chubb, the Coordinator of Sheridan’s Web Design program, I now know a thing or two about copyright and creative commons. I used to think that as a student in Canada I was free to use whatever was in the public domain for school design projects, but boy was I wrong! Only American students have that privilege, and even then there’s still a lot of red tape.

Let’s make one thing clear: Nothing on the web is legally free for you to use!

If you didn’t create it, purchase it or get permission to use it, chances are you shouldn’t use it. There are, however, a few exceptions such as research, private study, criticism, reporting, and blogging with proper credit–thank God–but anything outside of these exceptions is a huge no-no. Gillian gave us crucial information that I’ll carry with me throughout my web design career.

Gillian is my professor in Dreamweaver and Graphic Systems Technology class. She previously worked as an Evaluator for Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund, and did print design work for Loblaws. Most, if not all, of my HTML & CSS knowledge comes from her, so I have a lot to be thankful for. I’m especially glad that she taught us about copyright and creative commons early in the semester or else I would’ve run into legal  issues down the road. Here are just some of the things I learned from her presentation.


Copyright is the exclusive right to produce original content and stop others from reproducing that content. It protects literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, as well as a plethora of other domains. It does NOT protect ideas, so make sure you turn your ideas into a reality before someone else does! For most works, copyright exists for as long as the life of the author and the rest of the calendar year in which the author died, plus fifty years. For joint authors, the term lasts to the end of the fiftieth year of when the last author dies.


If you have a job and your employer asks you to create a graphic for the company, they own the rights to that graphic even though you made it. Unless you make an agreement to settle who has the rights to the image, it belong to them. The same thing applies to photography: the first person who owns the negative of the photo owns the image, so it’s not always the author who owns the work.  Make sure you know who has rights to your work! If necessary, get your work protected, and make sure you have a clear agreement settled–get it in writing–so you won’t run into legal issues.


Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that works alongside copyright to enable you to modify the copyright terms to suit your needs. For example, an image under “Creative Commons Attribution” enables others to use your image as long as they credit you in the way you specify (via link, namedrop, or otherwise).

creative commons

The Creative Commons website lets you choose from the types of licenses that suit your needs. It enables you to grant copyright permission to others, but on your terms.

I use creative commons attribution on my illustration work that I post online. I’m fine with people sharing and reposting my art as long as they give me proper linked credit. Sharing is caring!


Another valuable lesson I learned in Gillian’s talk was the importance of using royalty-free stock photos. Let’s face it, web design is an expensive career. Aside from buying Adobe software and a reliable (expensive) computer to make it all work, you gotta buy your own stock photos. It might seem like a hassle at first, but it’ll save you legal headaches in the future.

In my opinion, image-based websites are only as good as their images. Designers can create structurally beautiful sites, but if they skimp out on image quality, then the beauty of their design structure will go to waste. That’s why I’m going to buy my own stock photos from now on. It’ll be expensive, but it’ll be worth it, especially when it comes to making fluid layouts that often require high resolution images. I can’t wait until we learn to make those–they’re my favourite style of sites.

istockphoto screenshot

iStockPhoto has a rich resource in stock photos, sounds and even animations. They are a Canadian credit-based stock company that sells images from as low as 99 cents. There are even some Sheridan Alumni who work there!


“Royalty Free” means that once purchased, the image can be used at anytime and in any type of work without limits on the number of uses (unless specified in the purchase agreement). On the other hand, “Rights Managed” means the image is purchased for  a specific purpose only (i.e. web or print) and may not be used for other applications; however, the number of uses (i.e. the size of a print run) may be limited.


Gillian gave us valuable resources on where to find royalty-free stock photos online such as iStockPhotodreamstime, and stockxpert. There are some free stock photo sites out there such as and Flickr’s Free Use Group, however you’d have to do a lot of time-consuming searching in order to find the right image. Be aware of any creative commons attributions that might be specified on the flickr stocks. Good luck!


If you’re paranoid and want to see who might’ve used your images/photos without your permission, TinEye is a valuable resource that lets you drop in an image file and it’ll search for ways the image has been used on the web. It’s kinda like a reverse Google. From personal experience I’ve found one of my illustrations on tumblr used without proper credit and super-saturated to ungodly levels–the only word to describe the violated image is “rainbow vomit.” A word to the wise–artists don’t like it when you modify their work without permission. That’s like stealing someone’s child and dressing it up in Lady Gaga’s meat dress. Just don’t do it.

Stay Social! Follow Gillian on Pinterest.

See ya’ll next time!


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