“Can I Use This?” – Understanding Public Copyright Licenses

opensource.com [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)], via FlickrAs freelancers, we often find material on the internet that we think would be useful in our work, whether it is a picture that would go great with a blog post, a design we might like to use on a website, or code that we could use in something involving software. (Note: I do not do code. I do not know much of anything about code, although I am trying to learn. If I try to venture beyond the general legal aspects of code at the time of this writing, I will embarrass myself. Please keep that in mind whenever I mention code.)

The general rule that freelancers should follow is this: Assume that anything you find online is protected by copyright, and that it is up to you to determine if it is available for use. Fortunately, several types of licenses, often known as “public copyright licenses,” are available to enable the free use of some online content.

Public domain

Material that has been released into the public domain is the best choice if you are looking for free images, text, code, and other copyrighted information. Many government documents, at the federal, state, and local levels, are automatically in the public domain, although this is not always the case. A copyright owner can also release a work into the public domain, such as by posting the work to a site like Wikimedia Commons with a public domain designation.

By Boyoung Chae (Own work) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A public domain work is generally available for any sort of use without copyright restriction, including commercial use, although other laws or rights may restrict its use. If an image released into the public domain by a photographer, for example, contains one or more identifiable people, you might not be able to use that image without those people’s consent.

You also may not use a public-domain image in a way that places the subject of the image in a false light, or that implies endorsement of a product or service. This might include using a public-domain image of a politician or government agency in a way that suggests they endorse your product without their consent.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons (CC) is an organization founded in 2001 by Lawrence Lessig to “enable[] the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools.” It provides numerous licenses that copyright owners may use to allow the free use of their material, subject to certain restrictions. Each license is available in three “layers”: a license written with legal terminology (or “legalese,” if you prefer), a “human readable” version of the license, and a version written in computer code.

CC licenses allow a copyright owner users to place various restrictions a work:
– “Attribution” (BY): A user must attribute the work to the copyright owner. CC provides guidance on how to do so.
– “Share alike” (SA): A user may republish or modify the work, provided that the resulting work is subject to the same license terms. This is sometimes known as “copyleft.”
– “No derivative works” (ND): A user may republish the work, but may not alter or modify it in any way.
– “Non-commercial” (NC): A user may republish or modify the work, but not for commercial purposes.

The six basic CC licenses incorporate one or more of these restrictions. A “CC BY-NC-SA” license, for example, allows use and modification of the work for non-commercial purposes, and requires attribution and identical relicensing by the user.

GNU Free Documentation License

The GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) is designed:

to make a manual, textbook, or other functional and useful document “free” in the sense of freedom: to assure everyone the effective freedom to copy and redistribute it, with or without modifying it, either commercially or noncommercially.

It requires “copyleft” publication of the work, and specifically references the CC-BY-SA license.

Free and Open-Source Software Licenses

The key difference between “free” and “open-source” software licenses involves whether a user may makes changes to the software, or may simply use and redistribute it. The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but you should not assume that a “free” license implies the right to modify the work.

The GNU General Public License (GGPL) allows “free, copyleft use [of] software and other kinds of works,” and allows modifications. Other licenses place restrictions on modifications, but still allow greater freedom for the user than commercial software licenses. The Open Source Initiative offers a useful overview of open-source software licenses.

Coming soon: Fair Use, how to find images you can use for free on Google image search, and more on public software licenses.

Photo credits: opensource.com [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr; Boyoung Chae (Own work) [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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