I am a new graduate student in computer science and starting to submit papers to IEEE and ACM. I would like the diagrams to look as professional as possible. For example, if I am showing a digital attack on a computer network, I would like computer and server node icons etc. I was able to find these common ones easily in many WYSIWYG graphics editors.

However, an icon of a "hacker" or "attacker" is harder to find by default since these are more 'niche' if you will. For these I notice that I can use IconFinder, however many icons have a Creative Commons license -- which generally means that I should attribute the original creator. Since I use many icons in my diagrams, it would be easier if I can find some that do not require attribution.

I noticed that the Creative Commons BY 3.0 license has a clause that says:

You do not have to comply with the license for elements of the material in the public domain or where your use is permitted by an applicable exception or limitation

Now I have two main questions:

  • Does that clause I quoted mean that I can use it in a paper going to IEEE or ACM or such publications? Is that considered public domain?¹

  • How do you find icons that you can use freely in your paper without the need for attribution?

¹ I realize this borders on "legal question" and someone might be reluctant in answering it. Just making it clear that I would not hold anyone or Stack Exchange liable for any advice given.

  • Addressing your immediate concern, you may be able to find a skull & crossbones icon, if you and your audience are OK with the implication that hacker = pirate. If you ever need nefarious hacker images (CC but requiring attribution), an excellent collection is here: flickr.com/groups/hacker-images/pool Apr 7, 2018 at 22:44
  • Another option is to create your own using a program like Inkscape. Most icons you'll find online are raster images, that don't hold up well on high resolution monitors or high-DPI printers unless they're very big (inflating your document size too). So creating your diagrams in a program like Inkscape will be a win-win, if you're up for learning how to use such software. You can still base your icons off of existing material you find online, as long as you don't copy it exactly, you shouldn't have copyright issues. Aug 14, 2019 at 19:13

1 Answer 1


The quoted part means that you don’t have to follow the license if you are allowed to use the icon anyway (without the license).

This could be the case if the icon is in the public domain, if its use would be allowed by something like fair use, the right to quote, or similar.

In other words: the license can’t restrict you from doing something which you are allowed to do according to copyright (and other relevant) laws. Copyright licenses (like CC BY) give additional permissions (under certain conditions), not additional restrictions.

If you don’t know for sure that the icon is in the public domain, or that your use would be legally allowed, better assume that you have to follow the license.

Most licenses require attribution. All of Creative Commons’s licenses do (as they all have the "BY" component).

If you really don’t want to attribute your icons (the attribution doesn’t have to appear next to the diagram, if that’s what you are concerned about), you have three options:

  • Use icons that are published under a license that doesn’t require attribution. It doesn’t have to be a known copyright license, it could also be stated in the terms of a service of the icon site.

  • Use icons that are in the public domain. The author would have to state this somehow (e.g., by saying "public domain", or by using the public domain dedication CC0 1.0, or one of the other public domain equivalent licenses), or you would have to know that the intellectual property rights have expired.

  • Use icons that don’t meet the threshold of originality. Of course it’s not easily possible to know if that’s the case. Better be safe than sorry and assume that all except the most simple icons are eligible for copyright protection.

  • Thank you, but what about icons that simply say 'Free for commercial use' and 'MIT license'. Can those be used without attribution?
    – learnerX
    Feb 6, 2018 at 2:19
  • @learnerX: The MIT license requires that the copyright notice (which may contain the author name) and the permission notice have to be included in copies. However, the MIT license is not intended to be used for icons (the license explicitly says that it’s for "Software"), so it’s not necessarily clear how it works in that case.
    – unor
    Feb 6, 2018 at 3:06
  • 2
    You forgot option 4: Make your own icons
    – JeffE
    Apr 7, 2018 at 7:19
  • I think using such material has academic implications as well. You may not have license obligations when using public domain images, but in the academic context you are required to attribute them correctly even with public domain and fair use material. And when you need to add "Image by John Miller" for a public domain image, it is not so different to write "Image by John Miller (CC-BY-3.0)" for a CC licensed image.
    – allo
    Apr 2, 2020 at 14:54

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .