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The Risks of using Free Creative Commons Photos in WordPress

Copyright and photos

The Risks of using Free Creative Commons Photos in WordPress

Although Public Domain, Creative Commons (CC) or GNU Public Licenses allow free usage of images and photos, and the license status makes them seem safe to use, reality is using these kind of images in your website or online publication can be very risky, legal-wise.

Any online publisher that wants to follow the law, and avoid potentially costly copyright infringements, should use stock photography to have the best possible legal guarantees.

In our previous article we covered the two main license types and use cases common in the stock photo industry that are relevant for WordPress online publishers. We’ll now cover the risks any publisher needs to know about when using license types that allow for free usage of media.

Images under these licenses are frequently used by publishers and bloggers thinking they are using them correctly. But they are often unaware of the possible infringements they might be committing. While many of the images or photos look legally safe, it is difficult for any publisher to differentiate what is really safe and what, despite appearing to be, is not. If you wonder where you can download free stock images, check out this stock photo list of free agencies here.

What does Public Domain mean?

Public Domain is, by definition, content that is not subject to copyright. There are photos and images labeled as Public Domain, and that means there’s no copyright applied to them, that the original creator released them for everyone to use freely.

But there are different reasons why an image falls under the Public Domain. The main reason, depending on the jurisdiction, is that the image or photo is so old that copyright no longer applies. Often this can mean that the image is older than 100 years.

In the US and some other jurisdictions, any photo or image created by a government agency belongs to the public –images of the space taken by NASA, for example, belong to the Public Domain.

Finally, an artist or content creator can give up his/her copyright over their images. It can be for self promotional reasons, ideological reasons, or because he/she just believes that their creation should be available to the public for free.

But there’s a risk with Public Domain images. Even when they are labeled as such, copyright law is different from one country to the other. Therefore you cannot just trust the label: even if the image is Public Domain in its own jurisdiction, you might still be infringing copyright in yours.

If you are going to use Public Domain photos, you should always read up your country’s copyright laws or contact an attorney before using them, to be sure you are on the safe side.

The two most popular licenses used for Public Domain images and photos are the Creative Commons (CC) or GNU Public License.

The Creative Commons (CC) License

Creative Commons is the most common free license in use today, and it has several variants with different conditions for each. As a publisher, when using a Creative Commons license you can choose the version that better fits your needs.

But! Finding a photo or image licensed under Creative Commons does not necessarily mean you have the right to use the photo in your creations, on your website or publication.

We are big fans of the Creative Commons’ work and its contributions to mankind, and we recognize they have done an amazing job at making their terms as simple as possible.

Yet, to fully understand the conditions of the different Creative Commons licenses can be more time-consuming than many online publishers would hope for. And that’s not the only problem.

Even if you read, understand and fulfill all the license’s conditions, this does not mean the person who uploaded the image or photo under a Creative Commons license has done the same, nor assures they had the right to submit the photo in the first place. Unfortunately, the same applies to any other free photo resource.

Creative Commons Zero (CC0) License

One of the most popular Creative Commons Licenses by online publishers is Creative Commons Zero (CC0). Its popularity is in great part due to being the most permissive of all versions.

Using CC0 license a content creator (photographer) can waive all copyrights and related or neighbouring rights that he has over his/her work. Publishers wanting to use the content are able to do so without being required to credit the author or supplier, and are allowed to alter and edit the image as much as they want. Creative Commons does recommend using the Public Domain Mark for works that are already in the public domain worldwide, instead of using CC0, though.

However, the challenge for any online publisher is that he or she never knows if the person that uploaded and image or photo with the CC0 o Public Domain license is aware of its limitations. The photo itself is one thing, but photos often depict people and private properties. What happens with them?

Well, all authors need to take into account in his/her creative process that the subjects (people, properties or brands) included in his/her photos or illustrations are also protected by copyright and privacy laws, and they need to give their own consent for the image to be released to the public –whether it’s for free or under a paid license type–. The author of the image can release it as CC0, but they are not entitled to do the same regarding the subjects in his/her work.

Risks of using Creative Common Photos in your Blog

Model release for people used in photos and images
While the creative process and the final work belongs to the authors and might be released by them, each person is the owner of their own personal image. Any recognisable person depicted in an image needs to give express consent to have their likeness shown and released for public use. They do this by signing a model release: a document specifying the use cases allowed for the image, and legally stating their permission given.

  • Every time an image depicting recognisable people is used without having the corresponding model release signed by all the subjects, said image cannot be safely and legally shared or licensed under CC0. Moreover, the use of said image can lead to copyright infringement.

Property release for buildings and landmarks used in photos and images
The same principle applies for buildings, but specifically for famous landmarks. Again: the author is entitled to release the creative process and resulting image or photo, but when it depicts private property that is protected by copyright, the copyright owner of those subjects must give permission for their property to be used. They do this by signing a document: the property release.

  • For example, the Eiffel Tower is part of the public domain and can be photographed as much as you want without having to worry about property rights, but the creative process of the lightning used for the Eiffel Tower in Paris at night has a property right.
  • Any photographer releasing a photography of the Eiffel Tower at night with the lightning on, without having a property release, is infringe this property right. Even worse: any publisher using this image on a publication will be responsible for the infringement.

Property release for brands and designs used in photos and images
Finally, any recognisable brand or design also has property rights, and including any of these elements in a photo or image that will be released to public requires a signed property release by the owner.

Apple, for example, is quite vigilant about notifying content creators that the Apple brand is privately owned, and kindly asks them to take down these images. Again, as a content creator you might be releasing a photography as a public domain or CC0, but you also need to take into account property rights of the brands and designs included in your pictures.

Benefits of Paid Stock Photography

Stock Photography agencies selling paid licenses take care of all the work of revising and verifying the legality of the images they offer. They have specialised staff to deal with all the legal details that must accounted for when evaluating a photo or image to decide if it can be sold to their customers. And while they can make mistakes, they are usually insured.

In the case of PixelRockstar we offer an insurance for our customers that covers for the eventuality of these mistakes with 10.000 USD per case.

GNU Public License for photos & images

The GNU Public License (GPL) was originally created for software licenses. But it is also used to license photographs on the web, for example for Wikipedia.

The GNU Public License (GPL) is long – read it here – but similar in purpose as Creative Commons’ CC0.

With GPL you can use and even alter pictures as much as you want, if you release your work under the same terms and include mention of its license. This often makes GPL not interesting for larger corporate blogs.

The same limitations about model releases, property rights and brands apply of course to the GPL license, in the same way they do for the CC0.

The PixelRockstar Digital License difference

The PixelRockstar WordPress plugin has been created from the start to allow WordPress online publishers to easily search within WordPress for photos and images, download photos and images to their Media Library and add them to WordPress as a featured image or article image.

Our custom made Digital License allows for online publishing, Social Media and Newsletter use. This means that when you publish your article, the use of the photo in your newsletter and other social media channels is covered too. PixelRockstar’s Digital License adapts the standards of any stock photography agency to your particular needs as a WP online publisher.

If you’re publishing your own WordPress corporate or personal blog, and you need images to illustrate your articles, get on the safe side and use PixelRockstar! Eliminate the risk and time-consuming task of working with Public Domain or free licensed images. Just focus on your content as we take care of the legal details to make using images and photos in your online publication to be a joyful, easy ride.

Why we’re doing this

The article is part of the education series at PixelRockstar, where we share our knowledge in media licensing. Our goal is for publishers to understand all the legal aspects in the usage of photos and images in online publications.

While we are writing this for the WordPress community the content is relevant to any online publisher.

In our next articles we will explain in more detail what a Model Release and Property Release is. Don’t miss our last article about image licensing for WordPress and how not to get lost in the jungle.

Disclaimer: This blog does not provide legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice, please contact an attorney directly.

Alex Preukschat

A WordPress publisher since 2008, Alex loves the open source Internet. During his many years of publishing experience, he had been missing a tool to help online publishers to quickly add affordable images to WordPress, without having to worry about legal issues. This is why he decided to create PixelRockstar with Amos. Alex is interested in superheroes, monetary policy and Bitcoin.

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