Creative Commons Images With WordPress Themes & Plugins

I thought for completeness I would throw out some quick notes on the creative commons and how it relates to both GPL and proprietary WordPress theme licenses.

I am not a lawyer, this isn’t legal advice, and I am trying to make this “non-specific” to any particular theme because it affects users of themes, not just the theme authors.

The Difference Between GPL & Creative Commons

The primary difference between the GPL & the least restrictive Creative Commons licenses (such as SA – share alike) is that the GPL is aimed at programmers, and the Creative Commons is intended for various forms of art.

The GPL comes into play based upon distribution

Creative Commons covers distribution, but also covers performance, as art can normally be seen or heard.

In the recent WordPress GPL discussions, it was clearly stated by people involved with developing WordPress core that they have no issues with end users, as they are not distributing code.

This wouldn’t be the case of copyright infringement involving the Creative Commons and art which ends up being displayed.

Creative Commons make it pretty clear that their license isn’t intended for software pointing out that they have no distinction between source code and object code.

WordPress Theme Directory

If you use Creative Commons artwork within a theme, it doesn’t qualify for the WordPress Theme directory. It is impossible for such a theme to be 100% GPL because Creative Commons placs restrictions on users in how they can display the artwork.

The only person who can change the license for a particular item licensed Creative Commons is the copyright holder.

Specific Example: FamFamFam Icons

FamFamFam icons are highly popular for good reason, as many of them are 100% free to use.

The Mini set is licensed as public domain

FamFamFam mini icons

These can be used in WordPress themes and plugins with no licensing issues as you can use 100% GPL. You might still add a credit in your license, but there isn’t a GPL compatibility problem.

The flags are licensed as public domain

FamFamFam Flag icons

These can be used in WordPress themes and plugins with no licensing issues as you can use 100% GPL. You might still add a credit in your license, but there isn’t a GPL compatibility problem.
All the translation plugins use these with no issues.

The “Silk” icons are licensed as Creative Commons 2.5 or 3.0

famfamfam icons
If you click the image you can see the full set of 1000 icons which are free to use, even comercially.

These icons can’t be used for themes submitted to the WordPress repository, because only the copyright holder could make that assignment.

The fun scenario is the RSS feed icon – whilst it is generally free to use, Mozilla do have some specific guideance for use, thus it isn’t strictly public domain. The icon provided by the Feed Icon site that is similar is 14×14 – they also have 12×12 in various colours.

Within the dev pack from the Feed Icons site there is a 16x16x32 RSS icon that is 734 bytes
feed.png from the FamFamFam “Silk” set is 691 bytes

However there is also a very clear visible difference which you can see when you load the icons into an image editor.

These are reasons why the RSS icon isn’t part of the free mini pack, but can be included in the Silk pack under the creative commons license and if you use the FamFamFam version of the feed icon, you are bound by that license.

You could use them with a GPL theme with a split license

If you have a split license theme, the FamFamFam icons have to remain Creative Commons 2.5 or 3.0 – you can’t place them under your own proprietary license.

Remember Creative Commons covers display, so people using your themes are also bound by the license restrictions, thus in the case of FamFamFam I believe the requirements are that you provide a credit notification and link, though it is even stated that doesn’t have to be a sitewide link.

This means you may use it for any purpose, and make any changes you like. All I ask is that you include a link back to this page in your credits (although a giant link on every page of your website really isn’t needed, contact me to discuss specifics).

It is possible for commercial projects that Mark James, the author of the icon set would be willing to waive the license requirements for customers, but that would require specific licensing, and even then he would still own the copyright of verbatim copies.

If you are using a theme which has icons from the “Silk” icon set, you need to have a credit link somewhere unless you have specific notification that the icons have in some way been licensed such that you are excluded from this requirement.

I am not playing license police today as this affects not only theme authors but also their users, plus I am not sure how far Mark would want to press the license of his version of the feed icon which is the most common issue, but certainly not the only one.

If you are a theme author and discover this is an issue, make sure you own up about it in public, on your primary website, and give Mark some links.

Fuge Icons

There are some huge similarities between the FamFamFam Silk icon set, and the Fuge Icon set – however from what I can see they are different.
There are details of license options provided as an alternative to the creative commons license, but that doesn’t allow for sub-licensing.

Note: I realise there is a way to (ab)use this with both free & commercial themes to force attribution links, but you wouldn’t be able to tie that to specific PHP that is GPL licensed. An interesting paradigm.


Joi Ito on the board of Creative Commons and yesterday wrote about the worrying trend of non-standard licenses. One thing I would like with CC licenses is a very clear definition of what a copyright owner looks on as commercial use. In many case no commercial use might prevent reasonable use by the primary intended audience.

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  1. says

    GPL icons are a pain to find, and CC licensing for art/icons/fonts is part of the reason that split licensing (PHP as GPL, CSS/JS as other) is useful. I’d always wanted to see “child themes” make a bigger impact in the community, since they’re devoid of the PHP/GPL problems.

    Anyway, the Oxygen icons are LGPL: although you’ll need to figure out where the SVN directory moved to inside of KDE.

    Also, there’s the Lullabot icons from Drupal.

    • says

      I have never done anything with child themes that didn’t require at least some minimal coding.

      When there was the original Sandbox competition I couldn’t imagine anyone using it without some modifications of the php, but the results were impressive.

      What I find most frustrating with icon sets are those for desktop use only, which would then prevent them being used on the web.

      Then there are the sets that restrict commercial use, thus you couldn’t use them on a site with advertising (depending on your interpretation of commercial use)

  2. Jeet says

    Wow, never really paid attention to the complexities arising because of GPL and CC interaction. Was your post inspired by Thesis going GPL?

    I often edit the code for themes but almost never touch the design. Since CC doesn’t cover code, how do people protect their CSS code? Or they are just licensing the layout?

    • says

      I tried to keep the post neutral, as I did write about the Thesis situation.

      In this case I am throwing a much wider net, though just because I am not mentioning any themes doesn’t mean any are excluded.

      I would advise owners of all themes to check the origin of images – an image is a complete copyright work and I recently had to remove a post due to image use after receiving a C&D. They could have just pressed for $150K in damages if the image had the copyright registered (with the intent do get $1500 settlement out of court).

    • says

      Nathan sometimes it is the only option, though tracking the origin of things you might use, such as those “yes” bullets in your sidebar is a major pain, as I have seen them listed as public domain, also included with PLR icon sets which is actually not the same, and included in resale rights packs.

  3. Bryan Agoncillo says

    I use wordpress on most of my websites, it is just easier to handle so you can focus on the material that you wish to share to the world. I never really gave it much thought to edit the graphics though… Where are most of these images located on the server.

    Sometimes a theme actually prevents you to edit anything depending on the theme you use for your website. I can’t seem to remember if it is this site that I have now or another just blocks me for doing minor edits like adding adsense on the foot or header of the site.

    I think it’s just safer that I don’t touch any of the graphics to avoid any issues all together online or offline!

    • says

      Don’t you think if you can’t work out where images used by a WordPress blog are located on a server that you don’t offer web hosting?

  4. says

    This is such a sensitive area, i had a problem a few years a go where i used some icons that where labelled as public domain. But in reality they were copy write and some nice person had decided to make them public domain. I think the only what you can be sure it either to commision original work or to buy the icons and then keep the paper work so if something goes wrong then you have some come back.

  5. says

    Determining licensing for graphics has been a recurring issue in my experiences as a designer and coder. I have a client that sends me layouts to slice and dice into CSS/HTML/WP – These are usually fine because my client hires the layout designer directly and takes most of the photography.

    This doesn’t prevent all images from being cleared, however. My client (technically I’m doing sub-contracted work) has been fined for unlicensed use of content in the past. He is more cautious now, but the layout designer is still occasionally using images that just don’t work. And while I am not responsible for the content of the websites I code as a sub-contractor (I try to avoid content creation as well) it can drag down the project. Obscure licenses, unclear licenses… They can hold up the project and that is when it affects me. From the perspective of a one-person sub-contractor, it’s not very fun.