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Understanding Flickr Photo Licenses

For many bloggers, finding strong images for posts is a tiresome task. You want images that looks good, pertain to your subject matter, and… well, aren’t illegal for you to use.

Wait, what?! Okay, so it turns out a lot of bloggers don’t actually know that you can’t take any image you want from Google Images. Most photographs were created by someone and, thus, belong to them — unless they say you can use them, you really can’t. But there’s an awesome resource for photos you might not have thought about: Flickr.

That’s right — Flickr is chock-full of images you might be able to use for your blog. The trick is in understanding their licenses. Flickr users can choose their own licensing arrangements, so all you have to do is find images you can use and voila — you’re all set.

To search according to license types, go to the Flickr homepage and type in your search term — when you get to the results page, you will see a drop-down menu at the upper left, which should default to read “Any license.”

Flickr Homepage Screenshot

That’s probably not what you want — you only want images you’re allowed to use. So use the drop-down and pick the category of images you want to search through. We’ll go through the different categories so you have some idea what they actually mean.

Flickr Marketplace

This is a service started by Flickr and Getty Images to provide easy access to images licensed through Getty. This is probably not what you want — Getty Images rarely (if ever) gives away images for free.

All Creative Commons

Quite a few Flickr users offer their work under a Creative Commons license, and you can browse or search through content under each type of CC license. Most of the menus you see address these categorizations. But understand that just because an image is licensed via Creative Commons, that doesn’t actually mean you can use it — image owners still put some restrictions on usage. This can be a little bit complicated — and you will often find that images have more than one type of Creative Commons restriction.

Creative Commons Attribution License Icon


From Flickr: “You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work — and derivative works based upon it — but only if they give you credit.”

In other words: You can use these images — even commercially. You can also tweak or remix them as desired. But you must give the owner credit, typically with a photo credit that links to the photo directly. (You can check out how we do it on our own blog posts here.) I’ve seen suggestions you link to the photographer’s profile, or that you link to the image’s license, but I feel like linking to the photo is extremely clear and direct.

Creative Commons Noncommercial License Icon


From Flickr: “You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your work — and derivative works based upon it — but for noncommercial purposes only.”

In other words: You can use these images if you’re not engaged in some sort of commerce. What if you’re a blogger and you also sell t-shirts on one section of your site? You’re probably fine using the image as long as it’s not being used to sell t-shirts. What if you’re American Apparel or a smaller e-commerce merchant? Yeah, no. You can’t use this image.

Creative Commons No Derivative Works License Icon

No Derivative Works

From Flickr: “You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of your work, not derivative works based upon it.”

In other words: Use the image, but don’t even think about cropping it, color-correcting it or Photoshopping it in some fashion.

Creative Commons Share Alike License Icon

Share Alike

From Flickr: “You allow others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs your work.”

In other words: You can use this image, and you can make changes to this image, but you can only do so if you also distribute the image under the original license type. So say you grab a photo that is licensed as Noncommercial. You crop it, and you change the color palette to fit your design. You’re fine — provided you also use it under a Noncommercial license. Now suppose it also has an Attribution license — you’ll need to somehow credit the original creator, as well.

Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication License Icon

Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

From Flickr: “You, the copyright holder, waive your interest in your work and place the work as completely as possible in the public domain so others may freely exploit and use the work without restriction under copyright or database law.”

In other words: Use this image however you dang well please. It’s all good.

Creative Commons Public Domain Work License Icon

Public Domain Work

From Flickr: “Works, or aspects of copyrighted works, which copyright law does not protect. Typically, works become part of the public domain because their term of protection under copyright law expired, the owner failed to follow certain required formalities, or the works are not eligible for copyright protection.”

In other words: Go ahead and use this image however you like. It is probably old enough that it has aged out of copyright protection, it was never actually licensed, or it was part of some project that intended for the images to be public in the first place.

Most of the drop-downs allow you to sort according to these license types. Easy peasy, right?

But what about that last category?

U.S. Government works

Flickr has a huge library of Public Domain images offered by various agencies of the U.S. government. If you want to skip directly to that photo pool, there’s a group for official government photostreams. These photos fall under the same licensing restrictions as the rest of the Creative Commons images.

And what about The Commons?

There’s one last thing to check out while you’re touring Flickr – The Commons. Yes, the name is confusing, considering that Creative Commons licenses basically run the gamut. The Commons is a pool entirely comprised of public domain photos — meaning you can use anything from The Commons without restrictions. A number of institutions contribute images to The Commons. Rather than try to list them all, I’ll just let you take a gander yourself.

So that’s Flickr for bloggers, in a nutshell. There’s really quite a lot you can use there, provided you have a place to add a photo credit in your webpage or blog post. It can take quite a lot more time and energy to find usable images than in, say, an expensive, curated collection — but the benefit is that most images in Flickr are free.

So the next time you’re looking for that perfect blog post photo, give it a shot!

Tami Heaton

Tami Heaton is an award-winning web content and branding strategist who lives in St. Louis, MO. A longtime corporate media consultant, Tami has worked with Disney Online, The SCI FI Channel, The Village Voice, MTV, VH1, Nicktoons Network and Rosie O’Donnell, among others. She has been working with small businesses to maximize their impact online since 2013.

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