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On Distinguishing Between Creative Commons, The Public Domain, and All Rights Reserved

Fred Benenson, July 2nd, 2008

Over the last week we’ve noticed at two instances where editors from mainstream newspapers have confused whether a particular image is licensed under Creative Commons, is in the public domain, or is all rights reserved. In one case, Technology Editor Charles Arthur of The Guardian blogged about a dust up between some photographers and eBay:

Last Thursday we ran a piece about a new (to us) wrinkle on copyright infringement, detailing how some people who had put photos on Flickr under a Creative Commons non-commercial licence (oops – they weren’t) found that they were being sold on eBay by someone who was claiming the rights to them.

Fortunately Mr. Arthur was quick to correct his error (the strike through is his, not ours) as we could find no evidence that the original photos were licensed under CC. While some of the CC licenses would explicitly allow someone to resell the work on eBay (Attribution, Attribution-ShareAlike, and Attribution-NoDerivatives), the default rule of copyright, all rights reserved, however, prevents such transactions.

In other news, The New York Times’ Lede Blogger Mike Nizza improperly associates a public domain image by Henry Holiday as being licensed under Creative Commons:

The Holliday illustrations are from the original 1876 version of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony, in Eight Fits which is available from Project Gutenberg for download here. Project Gutenberg is able to host the book as the work is in the public domain and not subject to copyright due to its creation date being prior to 1923.  Since copyright is a precondition for Creative Commons licensing (and any other licensing for that matter), it is meaningless to say that a public domain work is licensed under Creative Commons.

The New York Times’ link points to a version of the file hosted on Wikimedia Commons which functions as the media ‘backend’ for all of the Wikipedia projects. Wikimedia Commons only contains images and media which are freely licensed or are in the public domain and is an excellent resource for those looking for media that they they can use freely.

Taking a step back, we are excited to see mainstream media using and attempting to understand free works while properly attributing them.  But it remains clear that paying attention to not only the provenance, but the copyright (and sometimes lack thereof) of images found online is an increasingly important aspect of being a digital publisher.

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