Free For All: Using Images from Online Resources Responsibly

I love rainy Sunday afternoons for reading, and for catching up on news and social media. While I was on Facebook yesterday, “liking” Homecoming pictures and “unfollowing” friends (for now) who have suddenly turned into rabid political commentators, something from a friend’s newsfeed caught my eye. My friend had commented on something originally shared by a blogger who mentioned copyright (one of my favorite topics!), and who was expressing her sadness at feeling that she had no choice but to shut down her inspirational blog because of what she had learned from reading BlogHer author Roni Loren’s post entitled “Blogger Beware: You CAN Get Sued For Using Photos You Don’t Own on Your Blog.” Loren, and the blogger who shared the post, were not alone in their misunderstanding of usage rights and copyright for digital images. They, like many bloggers, thought that by putting a disclaimer on their sites that they were not the original creator of the photos they were using, and that they would take the photos down if asked, that they were free to use what they wanted. After all, the reasoning goes, if someone puts something on the internet, isn’t that like saying they want people to use and share it? Many of the commenters on the above-linked blog post thought so, as do many of the students I work with every day. As Loren found out the hard way, that is not the case.

While the conversation sparked by this situation could go a number of different directions in relation to copyright, access to information, responsibilities of creators and consumers, etc., etc., what I want to address in this post is that there are some very easy, totally legal ways to search for pictures you can use for your blog or for other projects.

There is a nonprofit organization called Creative Commons that offers free copyright licenses to enable artists and other content creators to easily license their work to share it on their own terms. What that means to those of us looking for blog pictures is that we can more easily find content from creators who are happy to share their work with others. The beauty of these licenses for the content creators is that they can share their work and retain a degree of control over who uses it, whether they receive credit for it, and whether others can make money off of it. Creative Commons offers a page that serves as a gateway to a handful of popular search engines that is a convenient way to begin the search for content that is licensed for people to legally use and share–often only with the condition a work’s author and the terms of use be appropriately noted. For the picture at the top of this blog post, I used the Creative Commons page pictured below to search Flickr. The picture’s creator chose a license that requires me to attribute the work to the creator, and to link to the Creative Commons license associated with the picture. I chose to do each in the caption of that picture.

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools. Our free, easy-to-use copyright licenses provide a simple, standardized way to give the public permission to share and use your creative work — on conditions of your choice. CC licenses let you easily change your copyright terms from the default of “all rights reserved” to “some rights reserved.” Creative Commons licenses are not an alternative to copyright. They work alongside copyright and enable you to modify your copyright terms to best suit your needs.

This is a screenshot of the Creative Commons access point to search engines that is a great place to start your search. This access point will help automatically narrow your search at your chosen search engine (for photos, I recommend Flickr, Google Images, and Pixabay). Always go one step further once you’ve found an image you like to verify that the usage license does allow you to use the image the way you intend. And, make sure to comply with any conditions of attribution.

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Another search begun at the Creative Commons site yielded some results that were Public Domain (which means they do not require attribution at all), some results that had Creative Commons licenses, and some results that were available for purchase. All results were clearly labeled and it was easy to understand what was available to use freely.

The picture above, from Pixabay, is a picture that is in the Public Domain, and Pixabay clearly designates that it is Free for Commercial Use and that No Attribution is necessary.

My personal go-to image search, whether starting at the Creative Commons access point, or at Google itself, is Google Images. From the Google home screen or search bar, you simply type in your search term, click on “Search Tools” in the menu bar directly below the search box, and then click on “Usage Rights” to specify what license type you are looking for. The choices are plain language, and the results are reliably consistent. While it is my responsibility to verify that the images I use from the search results are in fact licensed for re-use, I find that Google Images reliable search results mean that I am less frustrated because I find images that truly are available for use.

My personal don’t-go-there search engine for this type of search is Bing. After a quick “maybe it got better” search this morning, I would recommend you avoid it altogether. While Bing looks like it has similar options to the other search engines, the results are unreliable. The screen shot below (a composite of thumbnails returned by Bing, and which I am using for the purpose of review) represents search results for which I had set the license filter to “Free to share and use.” When I clicked on each picture to verify its origin and licensing, they were mostly photos under copyright that were not at all free to share and use. Skip this search engine for this purpose.

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Filter set to “Free to share and use.” Search results were actually mostly not free to share and use.

I hope that this information will lead you to swift searching, responsible sharing, and to beautiful content that you can use. I hope that the blogger who was considering shutting down is able to find images to keep her blog going–and that her readers might also consider becoming contributors of content for her page, with CC licenses of their choosing for their work!