The Basics of Copyright, Fair Use, and Creative Commons

Anything you find on the internet is free, right?

As the saying goes, “Information wants to be free,” which might lead you to believe that anything you find on Google – the de facto global resource for seeking information – is actually free. Google will serve all the information you need at no cost, but when it comes to locating images to use for a visual media project, do not presume that “free information” also means “free images”.

Copyright rules, fair use, and the terms of Creative Commons are complex, but if you know the basic rules, you will be able to ask the right questions:

  • Can I use a copyrighted image in my project?
  • Is the use of certain copyrighted images permissible under fair use?
  • How can something be both copyrighted and available under Creative Commons licensing?

Even experienced authors of visual media wrestle with the precise details about copyright. This chapter will introduce you to the basics.

What is copyright?

Copyright laws were initiated in American constitutional history as far back as the 1780s for the purpose of protecting an author’s right to manage how their creative works were copied and distributed. Since then, numerous laws have been passed to refine the meaning of copyright and the terms upon which an author’s rights can be extended.

For a full explanation of copyright, fair use, and Creative Commons in text format (with illustrations), review GCFGlobal.org’s webpage resource below and then watch their video below.

 

What is fair use?

As mentioned in the video above, fair use is an exception to the rules of copyright, though what qualifies as fair use can be tricky to understand. Review the resource below from Purdue Online Writing Lab.

fair use

What is creative commons?

Let’s say that you are on vacation in Yosemite National Park and you woke up from your campsite and saw the most beautiful sunrise coming through El Capitan. You took a picture of it just as a bald eagle swooped down into the framing. You captured a once-in-a-lifetime shot that couldn’t be staged even if you tried.

Since you were the one who captured this image, you automatically hold copyright to it even if you don’t apply to register it through the federal U.S. Office of Copyright. But, in a moment of magnanimity, you feel like the image ought to be seen and used by others simply because you want your work to be shared. As the owner of the photo, you can upload it to a Creative Commons image repository and place a Creative Commons license on the work so that it can be discovered and used according to your wishes without placing a burden on the users to apply for permission from you or arrange a licensing agreement.

Creative Commons licensing does not remove, revoke, or replace your copyright. It simply enables your work to be used as you allow it to be. The video below explains Creative Commons and the various terms that can be placed on media that determine how others can use it.

 

Resources to bookmark:

Throughout the course, you will use online resources to locate visual media as part of your assignments. Please go through each of these items and bookmark them for future use.

Image repositories:

  • Unsplash – If you use an image from Unsplash, it is in the Public Domain. It does not indicate this explicitly in their license page because they do not want anyone to use their images to create a competing service. Their license description, however, is literally the same as Public Domain usage. If you cite an image used from Unsplash, always include the Public Domain attribution.
  • Flickr
  • Iconfinder
  • Google Images
  • Behance – Always check the license at the bottom right corner of the image information. Some images are portfolio pieces from actual commercial work the artist was hired to perform. If the image appears to be part of a commercial project (such as an obvious branding element, logo, or product placement), it is not in the Creative Commons – the copyright is owned by the company that hired the designer even if the designer has (errantly) placed a CC license on the work. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
  • Creative Commons

Reverse image lookup – These are useful if you want to check where an image originated from:

Creative Commons Licensing – These links describe how to use an image that is licensed for reuse without violating copyright restrictions.

Demonstration videos (no audio) on how to locate images in the Creative Commons.

How to locate, download and attribute Creative Commons images