“It’s on the Internet so it must be in the public domain.” This is a common misunderstanding that we find among authors who show us photographs and artwork they have found online when they want to use images to illustrate their work. Although the details of copyright can be complicated, as creators themselves, these authors really should be more aware of the rights of the artists who produced the original works.
Simply put, copyright exists from the moment of creation: when you write a text or create an image, you own the rights to it, whether or not you have registered your work with an agency or otherwise recorded the creation. And when you publish that text or image on the web for other people to enjoy, you don’t automatically give up your rights to ownership.
Now, of course, just about anyone can have a blog and write and publish their own work, and most people have access to a digital camera, so almost everyone is a creator of some sort. Many of these creators want to see their work made available to a wider public, so they waive some of their rights by publishing under a Creative Commons licence. This allows the work to be republished and used in different contexts, although it still imposes certain restrictions on the user – some of the rights of the creator are reserved.
There are four aspects of use covered by the different Creative Commons (CC) licences: attribution, sharing, commercial use and derivative works. The following is a simple explanation of each concept; for full details please check the Creative Commons site.
- Attribution (BY) is about giving credit where credit is due: when you share someone else’s work you must name the original creator in the way they want to be credited. This is the basis of all CC licences.
- Share-alike (SA) licences allow the user to make changes to the material and redistribute it in any medium or format as long as they give credit to the original creator and license the new material under the same terms.
- Non-commercial (NC) licences are chosen to prohibit uses that are “primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or monetary compensation.” This would mean that you couldn’t use such an image to illustrate a book you were intending to sell, for example.
- No derivative works (ND) . A derivative work is one which alters the original in some way; a CC BY-ND licence forbids the user from making changes of any kind. You can still use the work, but must use it whole, as well as giving appropriate attribution.
These four elements are combined into six different licences. A non-commercial share-alike licence (CC BY-NC-SA), for example, would allow you to modify the work and distribute it, but not for commercial purposes; it would also need to have appropriate attribution and be distributed under the same terms. The most restrictive combination is CC BY-NC-ND: you can reuse the work with appropriate attribution, but may not make changes or use it for commercial purposes.
It is possible to waive all rights in your own work, and if you want to do so, you should look at using the CC0 Public Domain Dedication. In addition, the Public Domain Mark can be used to signal old works that are in the public domain or works that have clearly been placed in the public domain by the rights holder.
Creative Commons licences help you to choose how your work is used and distributed. Even so, many works are still published with all rights reserved, and the wishes of the creator should be respected. And, since copyright is automatic, unless there is a clear CC notice or other copyright information, any work you find on the internet is probably subject to full copyright protection.
The basics of copyright are simple, but it is a legal concept and each case is potentially different and should be handled appropriately. There are other factors involved if you are paid by an employer to create the work, for example, as well as rules governing educational use, fair use, parody etc. For more information you may find the following links useful:
- Creative Commons
- ALCS (Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, UK)
- US Copyright Agency
- WATCH database of copyright contacts for writers, artists, etc.
We can help you produce professional collateral and publications that don’t fall foul of copyright law: we produce our own original copy and use original illustrations or royalty-free stock photography. Have a look at our portfolio of recent work and talk to us if you want to know more.