What the Heck is a Creative Commons License?
When you create something, like a photograph, you automatically get rights over that piece of content. Rights like the ability to control who can print it, or use it in a blog post. Depending on what you create, you might want to sell it, or you might just like it to be used because you thought it was cool.
A Creative Commons license gives you the ability to define what you, by default, are willing to let other people do with your creative content. That way, you don’t have to negotiate with each individual person who might want to use your work. It’s a straightforward and easy-to-read copyright license which gives a content creator the ability to define what rights they reserve (such as requiring attribution or restricting commercial use) while allowing others to freely use their work.
The Legal Lingo
When you want to find free photos, images that are licensed under the Creative Commons are your best friend, primarily because the CC licenses are very clear and straightforward. Familiarize yourself with their licenses: it will take you five minutes and future you will thank current you for keeping you out of a sticky legal spot. The most common error when using a CC licensed images is to incorrectly attribute the work, so read the attribution pieces of this article carefully.
If a photo source doesn’t specifically note whether it’s using a CC license, make sure you know the answer to these questions:
- Is it okay for me to use this for free?
- Is it okay for me to use this for a business?
- Is it okay for me to manipulate the photos? (If you’re going to use it as a jumping off point for a new piece of art.)
If you’re clear to use the photo, the next thing to determine is what you need to do in order to share the photo.
- Do I need to share the photographer’s name, image title, or link?
- Do I need to make my modified image available under the same terms?
- Do I need to tell the photographer I’m using the photo?
Be Classy: Use Attribution
Even if a photographer is generous enough to not require you to share their byline, you should, and you should follow the recommended best practices for attribution. It’s the classy thing to do. If you don’t have a good way to display the attribution, consider putting it in the title tag for the photo so it will show up as a mouseover. You should absolutely, one hundred percent, ALWAYS include the attribution information and license details in the description of the photo so you know in the future how you are allowed to use it.
Special Case: Human Faces
I know, I know. Showing a human face is incredibly appealing. But if you don’t have a model release (ESPECIALLY for kids) to use a person’s face to represent your organization specifically? Be classy and keep yourself clear of legal stickiness: stick to shots of people facing away.
If you absolutely must have a human face, consider shelling out a few dollars for paid stock photography from a service like iStock, where a model release is provided for under the license.
Where to Source
There are plenty of places to pick up free images, but we like to bookmark the ones with substantial databases and good search tools. Here are a few we use from time to time. Licenses for images from the following sources vary quite a bit even within the specific database, so DO NOT assume you’re clear to use a photo from Flickr, for example, because you’ve found CC pics there in the past. Check the license for each individual photo before you use it. Be sure to document where you sourced the photo and what the license is in the media file on your website: this will prevent you from accidentally using it as your own in the future.
- Flickr (via filter under Advanced search)
- Google Image Search (via filter under Advanced search)
- Stock.xchng (often requires you to notify author)
- IM Free (always requires attribution)
- Every Stock Photo
- Getty Images (when using embed service)
Creative Commons (CC) License: A license which allows individuals to share their creative works for free with the public on their own terms.
Royalty-free License: Any license for use of an original work that allows you to use the work without paying royalties to the creator.
March 5, 2014 – Getty Images has made all of their content free to use when you use their embed code, which builds in the link and attribution automatically. Read about why Getty is making the shift to free content. »