by Joseph DeSisto
We all know that violating copyright is illegal and morally wrong. Still, with all the copyright allegations against well-known science websites (e.g., I F***ing Love Science among others) it can be tempting to think that copyright is a complex, step-on-a-crack system where violations are unavoidable. That simply isn’t true — behaving ethically when using images is, in fact, very easy. If you maintain a science blog or website, there is only one rule you have to follow, and it’s this:
You don’t have permission to use photographs unless the artist has given you explicit permission and/or a copyright license.
But how, you ask, is one supposed to find images to use? Not everyone has time to contact artists individually for each image. Not to worry! It turns out that finding images that are available for you to use isn’t all that difficult or complex. In this article, I’m going to offer some tips on where you can find such images, and how to use them on your website without ruining someone else’s day.
Wikipedia is your friend.
Right now I’m working on an article about recluse spiders, with the goal of discussing the most interesting species from across the world. To find a picture of, for example, the Chilean recluse spider, the first thing I do is check to see if Wikipedia has a page devoted to this species.
As it happens, there is such a page (here), with several images. I click on the one I think would be best, then click on “More Details,” which brings me to a page with all the data Wikipedia has on the image. Just because a picture is on Wikipedia, however, doesn’t mean you have permission to use it. On the “Image Details” page, I am looking for two things: 1) the name of the photographer, and 2) a license that says I can use the image.
Success! A gentleman named Ken Walker is the photographer, and I find a sentence stating that “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia license.” I can now click on the link to the license (here), and look at a summary of what the license allows me to do, and what conditions I have to follow.
Every license is a bit different, but for CC BY 3.0 AU all I need to do is credit the author, and I can even use the image to make money if I like. Many licenses are more restrictive. Just to be on the safe side, I’ll include a link to the page where I got the image, as well as a link to the license itself. That way readers know exactly how I got access to the image, and whether they are free to use it themselves.
All my captions look like this: I include the name of the author, and a link to the license or some other statement on how I got permission to use the image. I’m not always required to do this, but I like to play it safe, and besides, it’s nice to reward photographers who, by applying Creative Commons licenses to their photos, are essentially doing volunteer work. Giving credit is the least you can do, and professional artists depend on it.
You have options!
Sadly, Wikipedia doesn’t have all the images I could ever want. I like to write about obscure, poorly-known animals, and finding usable images sometimes requires a bit more digging. The challenge is finding a website that includes links to the licenses on their photos … in other words, that does what I’m telling you to do.
Encyclopedia of Life is an attempt by biologists to create a website documenting the diversity of life, from bacteria to beluga whales. With the incredible number of species on our planet, it should be obvious that not every species is represented here, but with more than a million taxon pages, it’s a damn good start.
Many of these pages include images, and each of these images is properly credited with a link to the relevant license. All you have to do is read the license summary to figure out if and how you are allowed to use the image on your website.
The sand spider photograph above is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 which, according to the license summary here, means I can use the image on my site or even make money from it, as long as I give credit to the photographer. One additional catch, which wasn’t explicitly stated in the license for the first image, is that if I adapt or alter this image, the result still falls under the copyright license of the original.
With some sleuthing, you can often find more specialized websites. For example, the image below comes from a site devoted exclusively to sciarioid flies, which could be critical if I wish to write an article on the subject! If you think I’m joking, click here.
This license is a bit different from the others because it prevents me from using the photograph to make money. Chances are, if you write a science blog, that isn’t much of a concern anyway, but it is important to remember that not all licenses are created equal.
What is the Public Domain?
The public domain is the last stop for a work of art — once something is in the public domain, it is freely available for anyone to use for any purpose. Public domain often applies to works that have passed a certain age. You are free, for example, to sell a recording of yourself singing Mozart’s Don Giovanni, without Mozart’s descendants sending lawyers to your door.
Artists who are still alive can also “donate” their work to the public domain. For professionals, this can be a significant sacrifice — the best photographs can take serious time and money to create.
One of my favorite places to look for public domain photographs is on the Insects Unlocked Flickr page (here). Insects Unlocked is an effort led by world-renowned nature photographer Alex Wild. The goal is to generate public domain images of insects, which are available for anyone to download and distribute. As the site is still in its infancy, the “bank” of photographs is still small, but ever-growing. Each image is as spectacular as Wild’s copyrighted photographs, which remain for sale at his website here.
Back to the Stacks
If you really love writing about science, you probably get at least some of your information from peer-reviewed journal articles. Unfortunately, most journal articles fall under strict copyright control, which means you probably don’t have permission to use their photographs or figures. You can try to get in touch with the authors, but often the copyright to a published work rests with the journal’s publishing house, rather than the author of the paper or even the photographer.
There are exceptions. Open-access articles are freely available to readers, and sometimes (but not always) the images therein come with Creative Commons licenses. PLoS ONE is probably the most widely-known open-access journal, and the site states that “All site content, except where otherwise noted, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license.” That means you can use their figures in your blog post, as long as you give credit.
I often make use of ZooKeys, a smaller open-access journal that focuses on animal taxonomy and evolution. Articles published in ZooKeys, including figures and photography, fall under the same CC BY 4.0 license, and are free to use as long as credit is given. The great thing about ZooKeys, from my perspective, is that articles here often feature obscure and poorly-known animal groups. Below, for example, is a ribbon worm that feeds exclusively on king crab eggs. Good luck finding that on Wikipedia.
Make a Friend
If you find an image that you’d like to use, but can’t find a license, contact the photographer! Unless the photograph is already for sale, many naturalists are happy to share their work. Many of the photos on this site were taken by photographers whose work, otherwise, is not available for members of the public to distribute.
The website BugGuide.net is an excellent resource for identifying and looking at pictures of North American insects and arachnids. Users upload their own photos, and each decides whether to apply a license to his/her photos or to claim “All Rights Reserved.” If rights are reserved, you may not use the images unless you contact the photographer and they give you explicit permission. I’ve reached out to BugGuide users many times and never been turned down. In the process, I’ve met some terrific people.
The spider below is Loxosceles arizona, a desert-dwelling recluse spider found in the southwestern United States. I had little hope of getting high-quality images for this species elsewhere, but the nature photographer Sean McCann has graciously given me permission to use this photo on my site. That does not mean that anyone who views the site can use the image — copyright still belongs to McCann (you can see more of his amazing photography here).
If you decide to contact someone to request permission to use their images, remember to be polite. Do not claim that you offering the artist “free exposure” by using their photograph for free — if you found their website, they already have enough exposure. Simply be grateful and understanding. Remember that they, too, probably love science and want to educate the public, but also remember that they might not be able to afford to donate their work to someone who can’t or won’t pay. Basically, be nice. Make friends.
Good science writing depends on good photography. Photographers are artists like any other, and by making their work freely available for you to use, are effectively donating their money and time. The least we can do to repay them is to respect the boundaries they set, and always, always give credit.
Kajihara H. and A.M. Kuris. 2013. Ovicides paralithodis (Nemertea, Carcinonemertidae), a new species of symbiotic egg predator of the red king crab Paralithodes camtschaticus (Tilesius, 1815) (Decapoda, Anomura). ZooKeys 258: 1-15.
Saupe E.E., M. Papes, P.A. Selden, and R.S. Vetter. 2011. Tracking a medically important spider: climate change, ecological niche modeling, and the brown recluse (Loxosceles reclusa). PLoS ONE 6(3): e17731. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017731