Are free images as free as you think?

Stock images can be expensive, and hiring a professional photographer might be totally out of the question. But we, as web designers, often find ourselves needing to provide quality images on a limited budget and/or timescale. When faced with such a predicament, using free images might seem like the best solution, but are they really as free as we might think?

In order to avoid infringing copyright (and receiving an unwanted letter from the copyright owner’s solicitors- eep), you might wish to use images from sources such as Wikimedia Commons or Flickr. However, you must do so with care because some of these ‘free’ images come with costs, limitations and certain restrictions.

In order to use a ‘free’ image in your project, it is incredibly important to understand the terms of the particular license that the image is available under.

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons is a database of over 9 million freely usable media files to which anyone can contribute. As it says on the website, “The Wikimedia Foundation owns almost none of the content on Wikimedia sites — it is owned by the individual creators.” However, almost all may be freely reused without individual permission according to the terms of the particular license under which it was contributed to the project. Some licenses may require that the original creator be attributed.

Wikimedia Commons also states that “[i]f you decide to reuse files from Commons, you should make your own determination of the copyright status of each image just as you would when obtaining images from other sources.” (Wikimedia Commons, 2011).

Restrictions and limitations

I thought it might be helpful to discuss how to comply with some of the most commonly used licenses that govern the use of free images on Wikimedia Commons.

If a work is published under a single license, all of the terms in that license must be followed. If a work is multi-licensed (that is, released under more than one license), re-users may choose which license’s terms they wish to follow.” (Wikimedia Commons, 2011).

Public Domain: Images marked as public domain are deemed to be out of copyright and free to use for any purpose. This may be because the previous copyright has expired, or the image has been released into the public domain by its creators.

Creative Commons: Creative commons licenses have certain restrictions; most are not free use licenses. Certain variants of the creative commons license are used on Wikimedia Commons.

CC-BY: Creative Commons Attribution license: “re-users are free to make derivative works and copy, distribute, display, and perform the work, even commercially.” However, there are still restrictions because you must attribute the work to the owner(s) and when re-using or distributing the work, you must mention the terms of the license or provide a link to them.

CC-SA: Creative Commons Share Alike license: “re-users are free to make derivative works and copy, distribute, display, and perform the work, even commercially. When re-using the work or distributing it, you must mention the license terms or a link to them. You must make your version available under CC-SA.”

CC-BY-SA: Creative Commons Attribution and Share Alike license: “re-users are free to make derivative works and copy, distribute, display, and perform the work, even commercially. When re-using the work or distributing it, you must attribute the work to the author(s) and you must mention the license terms or a link to them. You must make your version available under CC-BY-SA.”

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:Licensing – The above information is available on the website. Wikimedia Commons provides a full and comprehensive breakdown of commons licensing.

It may be worth noting that other restrictions may apply. These may include trademars, patents, moral rights, privacy rights, “or any of the many other legal causes which are independent from copyright and vary greatly by jurisdiction.”

An Example

If I wanted to use this image for a project, I would look at the type of license that it has been made available under. In this case, the file is licensed under the CC BY-NC, which means you can use or modify the work as long as correct attribution has been provided in a prominent location.

For instance: Photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, available under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

Flickr

Some Flickr users choose to offer their work under a Creative Commons license. Creative Commons offers an alternative to full copyright. There are 6 licenses under the Creative Commons umbrella and there are images available under each variant.

Flickr provides a handy little breakdown:

Attribution:
You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work – and derivative works based upon it – but only if they give you credit.

Noncommercial:
You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your work – and derivative works based upon it – but for noncommercial purposes only.

No Derivative Works:
You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of your work, not derivative works based upon it.

Share Alike:
You allow others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs your work.

Costs: None, unless you agree a price for a license with the owner of a fully copyrighted photo.

Another example

After shamelessly searching for whippet puppy pictures under Creative Commons, I found the adorable image featured left. Only some rights are reserved under a Creative Commons Attribution license, meaning that the owner must be credited:

Photo by me’nthedogs, available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

It is worth noting that if you find a fully copyrighted image that you desperately want to use, Flickr gives you the opportunity to contact the owner of the photograph to request a license through Getty Images.

To conclude…

When considering using free images, it is incredibly important to look at (and adhere to) the license terms that they are offered under. My advice would be to take the time to learn about the most commonly used licenses – once you have a basic understanding of the terms, it will be easier to work out how you can re-use ‘free’ images and other forms of media.

Under the terms of most creative commons licenses, it is essential to acknowledge the source of the image and the name of the owner/creator. Not only is this a respectful practice, it helps to prevent copyright infringement and plagiarism throughout the web!

Legalities


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