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Common Creativity: Understanding the Rules and Rights Around “Free” Images on the Web

We’re all familiar with the old adage: a picture is worth a thousand words. In some cases, a picture is worth a thousand dollars. Luckily, for those of us not interested in investing a small fortune for the use of an image on a small scale, there are options.

Creative commons

Image by Jayel Aheram, licensed under Creative Commons

Sites offering free copyright images are gaining in popularity throughout the blogging and web design communities alike, but they are by no means created equal.

In fact, “free” does not necessarily mean “without cost” or even relate to price. For example, “royalty free” simply means that once you pay for the photo, you are “free” to use it however you like.

When words don’t even mean what they are supposed to mean, how are we to know the rules and rights surrounding “free” images on the web?  And if payment is a prerequisite to all of that freedom, are any pictures truly free?

Now, you may be asking yourself “who really cares?” After all, what are the chances that some artist is going to go to the trouble of tracking you down to sue you for “illegally” downloading their work? Besides, they put it out there on the Internet so it’s really fair game, right?

Wrong.

No matter how small the risk of your getting caught may seem (depending, of course, on how flagrant you are with what you have “stolen”), the simple fact is that improper use of protected works is a crime and is actually prosecuted more often than you might think.

The bottom line is simple: do you really want the risk of prosecution hanging over your head ready to come down on you at any time? If you’re serious about your future in blogging, the answer is no.

Okay, fine, you get it: you don’t want to break the law. But you’re not a copyright attorney and the nuances of intellectual property laws are so tricky, even those guys seem confused a lot of the time! If only there was a way for you to honor the law and easily understand the right and wrong ways to navigate the choppy waters of copyright protection all at the same time…

Enter: the world of Creative Commons licenses. Thanks to sites like Flickr, morgueFile, Wikimedia, and Pixabay (just to name a few), thousands of free images are at your fingertips. Creative Commons licenses have made legal use of images on the web simple for anyone—even if he or she is not an attorney.

However, there are still various levels of “freedom” within the licenses and a keen comprehension of those is necessary if you wish to use the images without fear of legal repercussion.

The licenses

There are six basic licenses within the Creative Commons library, linked together with one common thread: proper credit, or attribution, must be given to the original creator. Their individual designations, followed by short-hand codes and real-world examples, are explained below.

Attribution: CC BY

This is the least restrictive and most accommodating grant of permission to the public. Basically, it lets others do as they please with the creator’s work (distribute, remix, tweak, alter, and profit commercially), provided the originator receives proper attribution.

Attribution-ShareAlike: CC BY-SA

This license offers the same rights as an Attribution license (others may distribute, remix, tweak, alter, and profit commercially) with the added stipulation that all subsequent forms of the work carry identical terms.

In other words, if the work starts out under this license, it must have this license forever and cannot change to a basic Attribution license somewhere down the line.

Example:Wikimedia uses this license and it is recommended for all similar sites that share and incorporate various bits of information.

Attribution-NoDerivs: CC BY-ND

Under this license, the work itself may be reused, but it must remain identical to the way you found it—no tweaking, altering or remixing allowed. However, you may still redistribute and profit commercially from it, provided, as always, that you properly attribute the originator.

Example: This is a good one for web designers and bloggers who have found something great that they want to incorporate “as is” for use in creations that earn them money, i.e. a website or blog.

Attribution-NonCommercial: CC BY-NC.

This license provides that others may do as they wish to a creation (alter, tweak, remix, etc.) as long as it is done in a non-commercial context.

You might look at this one as “permission to do what you will to the creation, but not what you will with the creation.”  Additionally, as long as this non-commercial new work gives proper credit, it need not be licensed under the same terms.

Example: You might look for this license if you were preparing a school project or creating something for your own personal use.

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike: CC BY-NC-SA

This is the same as Attribution-NonCommercial (may be altered and used in a non-commercial setting); however, the new version must be licensed in exactly the same manner as the source work.

Example: This license might apply to an image or a song that someone has altered and passed along to friends, provided it carries the same license and does not profit the “tweaker.”

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs: CC BY-NC-ND

Of the six main licenses, this one carries the most restrictions with it. Under this, you are only allowed to download and share the work, with absolutely no modification or profit along the way.

If you are a web designer or a blogger and you see this license designation, back away … unless, of course, you are interested in facing an accusation of copyright violation.

How to give proper attribution.

Now that we have discussed the various types of licenses and we know that all of them require the proper attribution of the creator, how exactly do we do that?

The folks at Creative Commons have created a nifty little pack that explains the different ways you can attribute, along with examples, but the basics are simple and flexible:

  • you should credit the creator
  • provide the title and host URL of the work
  • indicate the type of CC license it takes (along with a link for others to follow)
  • keep any copyright notices intact.

For an example, see the image I included at the top of this post.

Some final “legal” notes…

This post is not a law review article, nor is it intended to be a treatise on the ins and outs of copyright law. But I do want to shed some light on a few basic aspects of copyright protection for bloggers.

First, this licensure actually protects the user, not the creator.

This statement doesn’t seem so crazy when you consider that a basic truth of intellectual property law is that all works are automatically copyright-protected (thus, enforceable against the user) upon their creation—it’s literally a legal “given.”

Since this is true, if you are ever sued for copyright infringement, the burden is automatically upon you, the defendant, to prove that you did not violate the copyright and, in fact, the creator granted you permission (of some sort). This is how Creative Commons licenses have succeeded in making grants of permission easy to understand and flexible.

Although the Creative Commons licenses are considered flexible in the world of copyright laws, it is important to keep in mind that they still retain legal force. Indeed, they are not US-specific and are supported, promoted and honored in over 70 jurisdictions throughout the world. For specific affiliates and jurisdictions, visit http://wiki.creativecommons.org/CC_Affiliate_Network.

If these licenses are abused, they are forfeited: if someone violates the terms of the license, that person is no longer protected and may be sued by the work’s originator and held liable in a court of law.

Along the same lines, once the originator has granted permission through one of the licenses, her work is out of her hands. As long as the person using the work does so according to the license terms, the creator has no legal remedy if she does not like the way the new person uses her work (there are some exceptions, but that is another article entirely).

Finally, even though the Creative Commons licenses carry legal weight, they were designed with flexibility in mind. If you have a particular use in mind for a work, but the originator has not licensed it for the purpose you intend, contact them.

And whatever you do, make sure you get any special permission in writing. That email or piece of paper, like the license itself, is your ticket to verify you covered all of your bases. As long as you have done your part to respect the rights of others, there is no end to the creativity waiting right around the corner.

So, let’s hear it. What are some of the ways you have seen CC licenses in action? Do you think they “work” or do you have suggestions on how they could be better? Offer more protection? Tell me in the comments.

Contributing author Thomas Ford is the Marketing Director of www.123Print.com, a leading supplier of business cards and a wide variety of business and office supplies. Tom writes on a range of topics of interest to bloggers and business people.

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Comments

  1. Monja says:

    You hit the nail on the head – it is really difficult to figure out what is right and what’s wrong when it comes to using images. Thanks for the guide – it really explains some of my big questionmarks ;-)

  2. Dan Erickson says:

    I refuse to use common stock pictures or take pictures from anywhere else on the Internet. Part of my blog’s unique flavor is that I use all original photos and art. Some of the pics are my own, but I also find and feature photographers and artists work. It creates more community, too.

  3. Speaking of CC licensed images, I usually use compfight.com to find commercial licensed CC images. They also provide the credit HTML for you to copy paste if you decide to use an image.

  4. Aaron Jones says:

    I am releasing all of my blog posts under creative commons with a request that a link to my blog be included with anything released under the license. It gives me the warm fuzzies and I think more people would be well served by incorporating CC licensing.

  5. Thanks for the informative guide! It’s crazy, but it’s not easy to find this kind of information all in one place, so thanks!

  6. marty says:

    holy cow I didnt there was so much going on with one simple picture.I guess I will have to be more careful and choosy

  7. I used to buy royalty-free images for my blogging, but they’re really expensive when you think about it. I was reading a post on incomediary which sent me to compfight. I’ve been using a lot more CC photos now as it doesn’t cost; I don’t have a big problem with sticking a caption under the image.

  8. Zack says:

    I love it this! Too many people are in the dark about using other’s images (myself included) on their sites. Thanks for the clear breakdown of the different licences.

  9. daniel says:

    Thanks for this informative guide bro!

    It’s so nice to find a perfect image blog post all in one place

    Thanks

    Danny

  10. A great topic. I think a lot of people overlook it.

    I hired an illustrator for my blog just to make sure (bad experience is the past).

    If you create your own images make sure you add a watermark.

    Excellent post.

    Andrew

  11. Great info! I gonna have to understand more before I add a blog page to my site. But with the wealth of information here I should be a pro in no time.Keep up the great work!

  12. Kade says:

    I had actually recently been wondering about the rules of using images. I have a blog that is about movies. Sometimes I might use an image of a movie poster (I blog about movie news, movie reviews, and etc.) Unfortunately I am still confused about doing so. If I use an image of a movie poster, it is one much like the ones used on IMDb.

  13. John says:

    Excellent post. You really dialed that in. It’s the simple principles that worked for people that have already been where we are heading and desire to be that we should pay close attention to.Thanks for keeping it real and I always look forward to your next post!

  14. Ansh says:

    Why not create your own images than getting stuck into the copyright violations.

  15. sanju says:

    hey..its a really nice post..it becomes very difficult to choose which image to use..thanks for this great post

  16. Alberto says:

    Piracy exists because of overcomplicated copyright laws. They are old and stale and do nothing to actually protect the artists. They were conceived to protect middle men which are refusing to admit that they are losing the technology battle and sue people randomly and unfairly just to desperately try to hold on their fading power and revenues. I would definitely pay the original artists for their efforts, but refuse to pay those that screw the artists by paying them peanuts and resell to the public for ridiculous prices to make a fortune.

  17. Really nice guide about using images, but unfortunately a lot of people don’t care about getting whatever picture they encounter and put into their websites. However, I like to respect things like authorship and I tend to apply this concept in every project I am involved.
    Thanks for your insights!

  18. lokesh says:

    Nice information provided on image license, Its always better to check for the terms and conditions before using any image on internet. There are many user friendly tools are available for designing graphics and there are many of them who design graphics themselves or use their own images.

  19. Siegfried says:

    well, thats why I only use free images under creative commons license. If you are small blogger, then you may go away with using unlicensed images. but once you grow bigger and start earning money believe me: thay are gonna hunt you down my friend!
    Best Regards

  20. Simon says:

    Great post!! Happy to see Pixabay mentioned in this comprehensive post about Creative Commons images :-)

    Just as an additional note: What we use on Pixabay is Creative Commons’ CC0 public domain dedication, which is not mentioned in the above given list, yet. CC0 doesn’t require attribution at all – and strictly speaking, it’s not even a “license”. It’s an international deed for waiving all copyrights bonded to any kind of creative works.

    Cheers :-)

  21. Hank Klinger says:

    Great post, it’s so true. The risk are far greater then people realize. All it takes is the one wrong person to see an image. Especially when there are so many free sites out there. Thanks for the post.

  22. Future says:

    What do you suggest about running a fansite and posting images of the actual artist on the site?

  23. Seguro says:

    A problem I found using creative commons, specially Flickr (cc) is that after having used a picture for some time the author changes license, and since you gave credit to him, he easily tracks you down with google and then complains / demands you remove the picture. Feels unsafe, at least flickr (cc) images. I’ve had authors complain about using their pictures without them even knowing they were licensing them (after explaining they change it to copyright).

  24. Craig Martin says:

    Nice summary of the Creative Commons licenses. What I like to do is put “used with CC license – http://www.whateversite...” in the image’s filename whenever I need to use an image that hasn’t been purchased or is in the public domain.

    Just be on the lookout for stock images on Flickr (similar to Seguro’s comment) that almost look TOO good or professional to be under a CC license. Some of them I actually saw on one stock image website and they definitely wanted payment for its use!

    Good luck out there..
    –Craig

  25. Steve Online says:

    I’ve used mostly royalty-free images and sometimes CC available images. The only advantage I have is my wife works in graphic design and has the accounts already at the image sites so when it’s the end of the month and there’s extra points about to get wasted.. BOOM.. Steve gets to pick up some royalty-free images to use.

    If I had the graphic design skills I’d make all the images myself because originality really does add that extra flavor. If I see the letters SEO on another rocket hitting a bullseye I’m going to throw up.

  26. Mike says:

    This really is such a difficult topic and there seems to be no way around the issues should a person suddenly demand that you take the image down. Fortunately this is not a massive issue, but it does add to the already mammoth task of administration

  27. Henry says:

    I have a question about the “non-commercial” license.

    Say I have a blog, with commercial elements (widgets with advertising a book I’m selling, for example.)

    If a wrote a blog post, and that particular blog post had no commercial elements, would I be allowed to use NC images?

    It seems to me that I wouldn’t be using the image for commercial purposes in that case, but I see how some people might disagree.

  28. cherron rain says:

    very inspiring at all, I happen to have a hobby of photography I hope your post can inspire a lot of people, one sata .. thanks

  29. SBookmanWriting says:

    Using someone’s picture without the proper release or purchase is quite simply plagiarism. Just as you would not copy writing found on the web, you should not copy a photograph. I use stock.xchng almost exclusively. It is not unacceptable to link back to a photographer, it helps them and I am able to use the photo at no cost. Make sense?

  30. Clarabela says:

    This is such an important issue for bloggers. I have a client who put a photo from a local restaurant on her website, which was provided by the restaurant’s marketing manager. 1 year later my client was contacted by Getty Images, suing her for $6000 (usd) for copyright infringement. Apparently, the martini glass in the ad was one of their images. The restaurant only had a copyright to use the image on their site, but not on a 3rd party site. You would have to be a lawyer to understand all of that.

    After that experience, I am now using a WordPress plugin called PhotoDropper. It search Creative Commons and finds images for your website and places the proper attribution on your web page.

  31. JP Hicks says:

    This is a super important topic for bloggers, especially with online copyright laws being debated all over the world. Pictures are the only thing that I’ve ever had requested to be removed because of Copyright issues. However, I think any photographer who offers their work under Creative Commons license is not trolling to see how people use their work. Yet, it’s still wise to follow the guidelines laid out in this article. Good stuff!

  32. Matt Brennan says:

    Thanks for the info. Yea, the pictures are always a tricky thing, because no one wants to get nabbed. I’m going to check out the other sites you mention on here, too. Good to have free photo options!

  33. Nik says:

    Great post, Thomas. Thanks for sharing the helpful information.

  34. Hi, and thank you for this article. We all know how important images are and I’ve always though that “royalty free” meant “free”.
    It would be nice to have a list of sites where images are really free to use on your website and images that will not change their copyright later.

  35. Casey Nezin says:

    Forget risking prosecution–that kind of logic implies you’re only worried about the legal connotations. As the son of a graphic designer, it offends me how many images are blatantly stolen and misused, especially when artists put a lot of time and effort into that design.

  36. There is one site I always use to get my photos from, and the site is Fotolia, is one of the cheapest out there.