Image: “Swain’s Lock” by Art Drauglis CC2.0

Using Creative Commons Images

Creative Commons —
Many images for free;
Comply with all terms

Website pages and social media with images get a lot more traction than pages and posts that are text only.

But where can you find the images you need?

There are three basic choices:

  1. Paid sources, such as Shutterstock
  2. Public domain images that are free for anyone to use
  3. Images with a Creative Commons license that are free, but have restrictions

Paid sources are expensive. Shutterstock charges almost $10 per image unless you sign up for a monthly subscription.

Public domain images are great – it’s hard to beat free – but the supply is very limited. Public domain images are mostly old, and therefore out of copyright, or from the government. Generally speaking, images taken by employees of the federal government are not protectable by copyright and are in the public domain. You’re free to use those cool pictures on the NASA website however you want.

Many amateur photographers are avid hobbyists who enjoy having other people see their work. All they want is to get credit for it. “Creative Commons” licenses allow people to share their work while still retaining control. The basic concept is as follows:

All Creative Commons licenses have many important features in common. Every license helps creators — we call them licensors if they use our tools — retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make some uses of their work — at least non-commercially. Every Creative Commons license also ensures licensors get the credit for their work they deserve.

Not all six of the different kinds of Creative Commons licenses allow commercial usage; some do. When using a Creative Commons licensed work (you can find them on Google Images and Flickr among other places) you have to be very careful to follow the license terms precisely.

One of the very few court cases involving a Creative Commons license shows the importance of honoring the conditions of the license. Photographer Art Drauglis sued Kappa Map Group for using one of his pictures as the cover photo for a street atlas in Maryland. Drauglis claimed that he didn’t intend for such a commercial use, that the attributions weren’t sufficient, and that Kappa Map Group’s usage was a derivative work that wasn’t permitted by the license.

Drauglis lost on all counts. The court found that the defendants had in fact complied with all of the terms of the license.

One caution: even though Kappa Map Group won the court case, it was clearly an expensive fight. It would have been cheaper for them to buy a license to an image than it was to defend their use of this particular image. But since court cases involving Creative Commons licensed images are extremely rare (we’re only aware of two) it’s not a big risk.

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