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.

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.