The web has made sharing photos easier than ever before, but it has also raised some questions about copyright – chief among them, What is Creative Commons and is this the same as public domain? Photographer and media law consultant Linda Macpherson explains all.
In the technical sense, an image is in the public domain when nobody owns any copyright in it – the right to copy or use it is said to belong to everyone.
This means images in the public domain can be used, wholly or in part, by anyone, for any purpose, for free. Images in which the copyright has expired fall automatically into the public domain, as do images excluded from copyright protection.
USA copyright law, for example, excludes from copyright protection any work made by an employee of the US Government as part of his duties, so images from NASA and other US government agencies are in the public domain.
This is not the case in all countries. Images made by UK government agencies are subject to copyright. If you are certain an image is public domain, you can use it freely as the basis for, or as part of, a new work.
An image licensed under a Creative Commons licence is somewhat different from a public domain image. The concept underlying Creative Commons is to allow others to share work so they can redistribute it or use it as an element in a new work.
Unlike public domain images, those licensed under Creative Commons are protected by copyright and a Creative Commons Licence is essentially a copyright licence like any other except that, unlike most copyright licences, you don’t have to pay to use the image.
But the fact that an image is available under a Creative Commons licence doesn’t necessarily mean that you can use it in any way you wish in your photomontages.
Creative Commons has six different levels of licence and it’s vital to check which one applies to the image you want to use.
Two of the CC licences do not allow the work to be altered or manipulated in any way; images available under these licences would be of little use for compositing.
Two licences do allow an image to be altered or incorporated in a new work, but only if the new work is made available to the public on the same terms.
Some licences allow an image to be used for commercial purposes and some don’t.
And finally, all of the licences require the owner of the original work is credited for their work. Full details of available Creative Commons licences can be found at: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/.
Both Google Images and Flickr searches can be limited to images licensed under Creative Commons.
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