Why You Need to Be Careful with Free Pictures

Creative Commons LogoResearch shows that blogs, articles, Tweets, etc., with images get more attention than if they don’t have images.

One option is to buy images from a service such as Shutterstock, which claims to have 60 million images available for download. Expect to pay at least $10 an image, or sign up for a monthly subscription that probably includes a lot more images than you’re likely to need if you’re an individual or small business.

Many people prefer to use free images from sources such as Flickr or Google Images. You can use the Creative Commons search portal to find images that are available to use for free under a “Creative Commons” license. There are also a number of websites that offer public domain images, including publicdomainpictures.net.

Public Domain Images

If you can find public domain images, those are the safest and easiest to use. An image can get into the public domain one of two ways:

  • It’s so old the copyright has expired;
  • The photographer or artist has decided to give the image away and has waived the copyright.

For things created prior to 1976, copyright lasts for 75 years. So barring unusual circumstances, any photograph more than 75 years old is in the public domain and you can do what you want with it.

Creative Commons Images

Unless a photo is in the public domain, you must have permission (a “license”) from the creator or copyright owner to do anything with it. Creative Commons licenses are a compromise between traditional copyright and public domain. As described on the Creative Commons website,

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.

There are six different kinds of Creative Commons licenses. Some allow commercial usage, some don’t; some allow you to modify the image, others don’t.

Before using a Creative Commons image it’s important to make sure you understand which license the image is licensed under, and that your intended usage is compatible with the terms of the license.

Commercial Usage of Creative Commons Images

The importance of following the terms of a Creative Commons license carefully is illustrated by one of the few court cases so far that involve a Creative Commons license, Art Drauglis v. Kappa May Group, LLC.

In the Drauglis case, Kappa used a picture that Drauglis licensed under a Creative Commons license as the cover photo for its 2012 “Montgomery Co., Maryland Street Atlas.” It seems that Drauglis did not “intend” that his photo be used for this kind of commercial purpose. However, the DC District Court found that Kappa’s use was clearly within the terms of the license.

Kappa won the case because his use included all the required attributions and notice of which license applied to the image. Drauglis tried, unsuccessfully, to argue the attributions weren’t sufficient. Drauglis also tried to argue the atlas was a “derivative work,” which would have required that it be distributed for free under the “share alike” license. The court disagreed on this issue as well.

Even though Kappa won, the cost of fighting it out in court was no doubt greater than what it would have cost him to pay for a license to a different image.

For most people, however, using an image licensed under Creative Commons terms will probably be worth the risk. Even though hundreds of millions of works have been shared using Creative Commons licenses, there have apparently been two court cases involving the licenses in the United States.

If you’re not comfortable with even that level of risk, however, buying a commercial image or using a public domain image is the safer way to go.

(Photo Credit: "Creative Commons Logo" by Ivan Walsh is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

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