I can talk for a very long time about finding Creative Commons and Public Domain images, and the tricks and troubles associated with doing so. This is going to be an image-heavy words-light post about some of what I’ve learned over the past several years. For the short short version, go right to the bottom for my favorite places to find images to use.
What is Creative Commons?
Many people say “Creative Commons” as a one-size-fits-all term for I-can-use-this-picture-without-paying-money-and-not-get-in-legal-trouble. That isn’t what it means. Some people still believe that they can take and use any image on any website. This is not remotely true! I myself use a lot of screenshots, and had some earnest worried talks with University Counsel before starting to do so. Strictly speaking, the screenshots may be a questionable practice from a legal point of view, but it has become common practice and rarely causes a problem as long as the site is open to the public. The caveat? If someone complains, be prepared to take the image down, and apologize.
Most of the images people are thinking of that fall into the safe-to-use category are actually public domain. Creative Commons usually applies when someone made a new image that could be copyrighted and has chosen to give advance permissions for some types of use, but not all. This means you can re-use the images in some ways, but can still get into trouble if you don’t do something they asked (like keep their name with the image) or do something they asked people NOT to do (like rework the image).
The Creative Commons organization has a tool to help people decide what license to choose for their own images. I find that tool very helpful in understanding how the creator of the image was thinking about their own work, and thus allowing me to be more respectful of their stated requirements.
Creative Commons: http://creativecommons.org/
Choose a License: http://creativecommons.org/choose/
University of Michigan Libraries Research Guides: Creative Commons: http://guides.lib.umich.edu/content.php?pid=483716
What is Public Domain?
Public domain basically means when an image or text is not copyrightable. This can be because of who created it, what type of information it includes, or that it used to be copyrighted and is now too old. The best simple overview of this is from Lolly Gasaway.
Lolly Gasaway: When US Works Pass Into the Public Domain: http://www.unc.edu/~unclng/public-d.htm
If you want a lot more information about public domain, check out the manifesto, which discusses many of the issues of public domain in the contemporary online environment.
The Public Domain Manifesto: http://www.publicdomainmanifesto.org/node/8
I Can Use This Because It’s Old … Maybe
Historic images are often considered to be public domain, but … not always. If the photograph of the original image is copyrighted, then it doesn’t matter how old the original was. If I went to a museum, they probably won’t allow me to take pictures. If they do, and I take a picture of a painting there (like this picture of St. Apollonia from the University of Michigan Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry), there are issues with (a) did I have permission to take the image, (b) did I have permission to share the image, (c) did I give permission to use or share the image, and so forth.
OR (and this is important), I could follow the assumptions of the Wikimedia Commons team:
The official position taken by the Wikimedia Foundation is that “faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain, and that claims to the contrary represent an assault on the very concept of a public domain”. For details, see Commons:When to use the PD-Art tag. This photographic reproduction is therefore also considered to be in the public domain.
In that case, a straight-on shot of the complete work is usually considered safe to use. That is also the case for this next image.
This next image is of a Japanese calligraphy created in 1923. In USA law, that would be in the public domain. I found it in Wikimedia Commons, my favorite place to find public domain and creative commons images. Why I like them best is because they give the full provenance (or history) of the image, why they think it is legally ok to use, where they got it, and what license or credit should be given with the image when used.
From Wikimedia Commons
File:Zen painting and calligraphy on silk signed Hachijûgo (85 year old) Nantembô Tôjû, 1923.jpg: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zen_painting_and_calligraphy_on_silk_signed_Hachij%C3%BBgo_(85_year_old)_Nantemb%C3%B4_T%C3%B4j%C3%BB,_1923.jpg
Because this is considered public domain, there is no license statement provided with it, but if I dig into the information in the image summary, I can find more about where it come from to provide a proper source and attribution. Notice that the image is actually from a book or journal, still in print, and available for purchase. I am sure glad that Wikimedia made the judgment call on this one, because I would not feel safe using it if they had not already established precedent.
English: Zen painting and calligraphy on silk by Nakahara Nantenbo signed “Hachijūgo (85 year old) Nantembō Tōjū”, 1923
Source: Andon, No. 85, p. 59
Author: Nakahara Nantenbo
Because it is considered public domain, I can do pretty much ANYTHING with it. I can use it in writings or slides, change its format, reprint it as a poster or tshirt and sell it, recolor it, make it 3D, make a parody of it, convert it into music, move it into a virtual world, and so forth. In the image below, I moved it into Second Life, where I made a poster of it for the wall of a memorial for the victims of the 2011 Japanese tsunami.
I Can Use This Because I Made It Different … Sometimes
Here’s a similar example, with important differences.
Low-resolution image of Escher’s Relativity print
Escher’s Relativity: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Escher%27s_Relativity.jpg
Now this one is from 1953, and is not out of copyright anywhere in the world. Even more confusing, the image is taken directly from Escher’s own official website. How can they get away with this?
“This image is of a drawing, painting, print, or other two-dimensional work of art, and the copyright for it is most likely owned by either the artist who produced the image, the person who commissioned the work, or the heirs thereof. It is believed that the use of low-resolution images of works of art for critical commentary on
* the work in question,
* the artistic genre or technique of the work of art or
* the school to which the artist belongs
on the English-language Wikipedia, hosted on servers in the United States by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.”
People love this print, and it has been re-used in many different ways. Here is an example of a couple of avatars wandering around in a 3d replica of the space.
Here is a link to a copyrighted image of a reconstruction of the print as a real world 3d object, made with … LEGOs.
Escher’s “Relativity” in LEGO®: http://www.andrewlipson.com/escher/relativity.html
What makes these ok? They aren’t exactly low-rez images, but what they are is substantially innovative reworkings of the original concept. That can be a tricky point in intellectual property law, so don’t trust on it as a get-out-of-jail-free-card.
I Can Use This Because the Government Made It … Maybe
There is a perception that it is OK to take and use any image on any website that has a government web address (“.gov”). Often that’s pretty close, but again, it is not always true, only sometimes. Sometimes the government uses images made by other people who are not government employees. Rights for those images belong to the person who made them, or to the company they work for. You need to know which, and you usually need to ask first just to be sure. Read the fine print.
“Some of these photos are in the public domain or U.S. government works and may be used without permission or fee. However, some images may be protected by license or copyright. You should read the disclaimers on each site before using these images.” U.S. Government Photos and Images: http://www.usa.gov/Topics/Graphics.shtml
So, I’m a bit of an astro fan, and just love astronomy images. Here is one from the Hubble telescope, credited to NASA, the European Space Agency, and Hubble themselves.
Cat’s Eye Nebula: http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/pr2004027a/
Credit: NASA, ESA, HEIC, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Acknowledgment: R. Corradi (Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes, Spain) and Z. Tsvetanov (NASA)
If you look at the image on the Hubble site, they give information for how to credit the image, and it isn’t entirely clear on the image page if it is legal to use or not. They do have another page for all their images stating they use Creative Commons licensing requiring attribution.
Hubble: Usage of images, videos and web texts: http://www.spacetelescope.org/copyright/
They actually had a big contest for folk who used or spotted uses of their images in Popular Culture. I won 3rd place for “Weird” with this dress and avatar design, in which the image above (the Cat’s Eye Nebula) became the eyes of the avatar. And this is all perfectly fine and hunky-dory, and I even won copies of some images and videos from them.
There are a TON of places that say they offer a search for images that are creative commons, public domain, or royalty free. Most of them are not actually very safe to use. I’m going to show you several here, with brief comments along the lines of yes, no, maybe so.
They use the Flickr API to provide an alternate Flickr search experience, powered by ads. Why not just go to Flickr? PS – There are so many other search engines that say they are Creative Commons search engines that are really just using the Flickr API. I am not going to list them all.
Creative Commons: Search: http://search.creativecommons.org/
“Do not assume that the results displayed in this search portal are under a CC license. You should always verify that the work is actually under a CC license by following the link.”
Flickr: The Commons: http://www.flickr.com/commons
Flickr: Creative Commons: http://www.flickr.com/creativecommons/
CAREFUL! YES &/OR MAYBE
When people search creative commons images in Flickr, they often aren’t aware that there are TWO completely different “Commons” in Flickr. When you search or browse “The Commons” you are getting images from schools, libraries, museums, and other famous and authoritative sources. When you search Flickr’s “Creative Commons” search you are trusting whoever put the image there. Not everyone is equally savvy and responsible.
I once had posted a slidedeck that used images from Flickr’s Creative Commons search. I listed the sources of all the images, with link, and then went back to each Flickr page and posted a thank you for making their image CC-licensed, giving the link to where I used it. One of the posters then commented on my comment, saying, “Don’t thank me! I took the image from [insert here name of most famous newspaper you can think of].” Oh. Uh oh. Oh, no.
Google: Image Search
Google: Advanced Image Search: https://www.google.com/advanced_image_search?hl=en&biw=953&bih=787&q=commons&tbm=isch
SOMETIMES, (BUT MOSTLY NO).
Google Image Search is a case of Good News, Bad News. The Good News is, “Wow, look! They have a way to let you search by license or image rights!” The Bad News is that, of necessity, they trust the information provided on the source page about licensing, and sometimes people steal images, often without realizing they are doing so, and repost them with more freedom than was provided under the original license. That means many, if not most, of the images listed as Creative Commons in Google’s Image Search, well, AREN’T!!
MAYBE. MAYBE NOT.
Not an image search site, but a license management site. Imagestamper offers to manage licensing for you, and keep a record of the license you negotiated at a particularly point in time. The logic is that some images appear to be Creative Commons at one point in time, and then later the owner changes their mind. This really does happen. Ouch. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’s still alive.
In their words: “The service is in early beta. Currently the service works with images hosted on Flickr, but we will soon add support for images hosted on deviantART and a number of other image-sharing websites. © 2008-2011 ImageStamper.com”
Morgue File: http://www.morguefile.com/archive/
They use a their own home-grown variant of Creative Commons licensing that hasn’t been tested in the courts, and is thus not reliable. Basically, who really knows if these images are safe to use, and how to properly provide attribution?
Noun Project: http://thenounproject.com/
Absolutely fabulous site, but only for images of icons created for and submitted to the site. More info.
Mostly mines Wikimedia Commons for content, under a different interface. Personally, I prefer the original. More info.
This is basically a different interface to searching from the Creative Commons portal, with many of the same caveats, and some new ones, too. More Info
Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/
1) click on the image to go to the page for the image information, and
2) scroll to the bottom of the page for each image to check licensing information and use their recommended credit or attribution statement.
MAYBE. MAYBE NOT.
They used to say they’d manage licensing for you, now that’s not clear. They used to just let you search, and now they require you to log in with a Google account. They want you to pay them for the full service, but these are images that are supposed to be free. And on the bottom of the results pages, they feed you to sites that sell images for money. I dunno. Hmmm.
ASSUMPTIONS THAT WORK SOMETIMES, BUT NOT ALWAYS
I can use this because:
– it’s old
– it’s different from the original
– the government made it
Read the fine print.
Ask for permission if you aren’t sure.
MY FAVORITE PLACES FOR FREE IMAGES
1. Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org
2. Flickr Commons (NOT Flickr Creative Commons): http://www.flickr.com/commons
3. For University of Michigan people, here is more information, LOTS more information!
Research Guides: Images: http://guides.lib.umich.edu/content.php?pid=32604