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Using Creative Commons to Find Photos You Can Use

Here's what you need to know about using a Creative Commons license to find usable photos online.

Photos and the Internet go together like peanut butter and jelly. For as long as there have been web browsers, people have generously posted photos online--which other people have then downloaded and used for their own purposes, whether or not they've actually asked for permission. To make it easier to legally and ethically reuse photos posted online, the Creative Commons license was created. I first mentioned Creative Commons in "Your Photos, Your Rights, and the Law." This week let's learn a little more about Creative Commons--both how you can use it to share your own photos and how to use other peoples' works.

Don't Republish Photos You Just Happen to Find Online

Before we go any further, I should point out that every photo on the Internet has been taken and published by someone, and that means all of those images are implicitly under copyright. You don't have to see an explicit copyright notice in order for an image to be protected by law. Indeed, all creative works are implicitly protected by U.S. copyright law.

Consequently, you shouldn't save photos you find online and reuse them in your own work (such as on a website or in a blog post) without first getting permission from the copyright owner. And since getting that permission is often difficult or even impossible, the best rule of thumb is simply not to use photos you encounter online. For example, see this collection of photos from the photo sharing site 500px? The only reason I'm including this screen shot here is because they're all my own personal photos. If I just republished a random collection of photos from the site, I'd be guilty of theft.

I occasionally get letters from readers complaining about people who steal their photos and post them on other websites without permission or attribution. That's unethical, illegal, and a Bad Thing. Please don't do it.

Enter Creative Commons

Clearly, many photos on the web do get reused and republished all the time--and legally, too, I might add. How so? Well, that's where Creative Commons licensing comes in.

Creative Commons is the name of a new way to make your work available to the Internet community. Of course, I say that Creative Commons is new, but that's only true in comparison to our 200-year-old copyright law--Creative Commons was started in 2001by a nonprofit organization of the same name that has developed a number of licenses, all available for free, to help artists share their work.

In general, any Creative Commons license allows you to redistribute an image for noncommercial purposes, as long as you don't modify the image. Dig a little deeper and you'll discover there are a handful of conditions that can be attached to a Creative Commons license. The artist can choose to allow or prohibit commercial use of a work, allow it to be modified, or impose a "share alike" condition. Essentially, that means that anyone who modifies the photograph must publish that new work under the same Creative Common license (you know, just like when your mom told you to "share and share alike").

If you choose to release your work under a Creative Commons license, that does not invalidate your copyright; it simply provides an easy-to-communicate license for distributing your work. Then again, if you publish a photo with a Creative Commons license allowing the commercial redistribution of your photography, it stands to reason that you will not later be able to sue for copyright violation--so adopt Creative Commons with care.

You can learn more about Creative Commons licensing at the Creative Commons website. That's also an easy place to get graphics representing the various licenses for your website.

Where to Find Creative Commons-Licensed Works

The Internet is awash in photos with Creative Commons licenses, but there's no question that the best place to look is Flickr, which makes it easy for people to license their photos as Creative Commons. When I need to finds a photo online for Digital Focus or any of my other blogging duties, I always head directly to Flickr's search page and select both "Only search within Creative Commons-licensed content" and "Find content to use commercially."

Another alternative is to use the excellent CCFinder. This free program is a Creative Commons-licensed photo search engine that you can use to find any sort of photo by keyword, and then visit the web page it lives on or download the image directly.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Great news! For a limited time (from March 1 till August 31, 2012), Hot Pic of the Week winners will receive one free downloadable copy of Corel PaintShop Pro X4.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 800 by 600 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Palindrome" by Mary Creighton, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Mary writes: "I call this photo 'Palindrome' because it is a picture of my friend Ana (whose name is a palindrome) as I snuck up on her, unaware, as she stood on a gopher hill reveling in a brilliant sunset. We live in an old dairy barn that has been converted into an artist compound in Santa Fe, New Mexico. These gophers are so populous that their hills and holes make treacherous terrain in the field surrounding the barn."

Mary shot this photo with a Canon EOS Rebel XSi.

This week's runner-up: "Boats at Anchor in Alaska" by Paul Bild, Vancouver, British Columbia

Paul took this photo with a Canon 10D while on an Alaskan cruise. He made minor edits using IrfanView.

To see last month's winners, visit our March Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

To see last month's winners, visit our March Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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