On Camels and Creative Commons

November 29, 2012

Part two of our series on copyright law and images:

We are glad that you have decided to abide by the holy law of copyright, but you still need to keep your boss happy and find that photo of a tourist riding a camel in Egypt in the next ten minutes. What to do, where to go? A common misconception is that Google Images is the best place to find a free photo. It’s not. It is an indexing tool, not, as some feel, “public domain,” so you still need to go through the processes of figuring out where a photo comes from and what rights, if any, you have to use the photo. It can be challenging as well since some of the photos found there do not link back to the original owner of the photo. And, this is kind of like the international art market – you had better have documentation, so you don’t buy a stolen painting.

Creative Commons is an alternative to full copyright and, for people like us, is a lifesaver. Many Flickr users have authorized their work for use in Creative Commons and we looooove Flickr for its authenticity and variety – it is not the land of bland vanilla, contrived pictures to suit the masses of businesses that shop for stock photos. However, everything labeled within the Creative Commons is not available for wholesale taking by us nonprofits. Images with the Creative Commons license specify what you can use and what you cannot use willy-nilly.

Searching for images that are “free to use” can be a little tricky.  Just like a Google image search, there are some great pictures out there and also a bunch of not-so-great (or downright irrelevant) ones.  It helps to have a pretty good idea of what you want that final picture to look like.  Two cupped hands holding water over a river? A lone hiker at a distance on a dusty trail? These mental images will help you find their match on the pages of pages of photos you’ll scan through.  Also remember that the artist who uploaded the photo is the one who creates the tags you’re searching for, so try to think like the photographer. But don’t be too specific. “Cool people doing outdoorsy things” won’t yield as many results as “young hiker”.  Alternatively, “baby smiling at camera” will be more likely to get you what you want than just “baby”. Be patient and eventually you’ll find one that will work.

So, now you’ve found the perfect picture of the tourist riding a camel that’s sure to please your boss but how do you know if you can use it? If you are searching for images in Flickr, go to the right sidebar and click on “License.”  You’ll see the attribution information with a handy link that will tell you (in plain English) what you can and can’t do with it.  When in doubt, you can contact the artist through Flickr and ask them yourself.  You’d be surprised how many people are flattered that you enjoy their work enough to use it in your campaign.

Happy hunting!

Liz and Krista


*Photo courtesy of Flickr user GBannerman