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  • Creative Commons Public Domain Photo credit in documentary

    Posted by Jim Watt on June 12, 2022 at 8:51 pm

    I need to use a half dozen or so Public Domain photos that are on Wikimedia and Wikipedia sites. The photo description clearly say these are public domain, but also are Licensed through Creative Commons. I must be overthinking this since public domain is public domain….Right? Could someone clarify so I don’t injure my brain by continuing to overthink this?

    Jim Watt replied 1 year, 9 months ago 6 Members · 10 Replies
  • 10 Replies
  • Michael Gissing

    June 12, 2022 at 10:57 pm

    There are conditions placed on creative commons licensing. There is more than one type of CC license so it is important to find out which one applies. Some CC licensing prohibits being used commercially. Others not so but all require some form of attribution. By being on a Wiki the license type should be displayed as the Wiki page might have sourced them from elsewhere. The license however should be clear in the attribution. Using them in a commercial doco is not a simple assumption that they are public domain. You do need to check and attribute. Are you altering the image by cropping, flopping or coloring?

    Sorry it’s not simple but the good thing is that if the Wiki pages has done its job the different type of CC license should be documented.

  • Tom Watson

    June 13, 2022 at 12:37 am

    You just may be in for some brain injury! Wikipedia copyright issues are not easy to deal with because they computer search the internet for violations – no humans involved.

    A few years ago, I built a website for a museum that housed an antique Southern Pacific Railroad Rotary Snow Blower. At the same time, I built an accompanying Wikipedia page. I took an image of the Snow Blower with my own camera, and used the same image on both the webpage and the Wikipedia page. In the metadata of the webpage, I listed myself as the copyright holder.

    It seems that the Wikipedia computer had no way to tell who owned the copyright, just that it was copyrighted somewhere else. The fact that the footnotes of the Wikipedia page documented all of the copyright facts, their search computer created chaos. This took months to straighten out, and was finally resolved when a human finally became involved.

    As Michael said above, check the copyright status of the specific material you want to use. This is normally found in the footnotes of the Wikipedia page. My experience has been that most decent material will require attribution.

  • Tod Hopkins

    June 13, 2022 at 12:58 am

    In theory you don’t need a license for something in the “public domain.” Public domain means that there is NO existing copyright claim (for whatever reason) and therefore no license is required. Public domain status generally must be inferred from the facts. The most common examples are works that are simply too old to be protected by existing law. The only entity that can actively place something in the public domain is the copyright holder.

    And this is where Creative Commons comes in. They have created a mechanism for explicitly placing a work in the public domain, known as the CC0 “designation.” This is not a “license” but rather a declaration by the copyright holder. CC is merely acting as the witness and record holder, making the declaration public and formal.

    CC0 (aka CC
    Zero) is a public dedication tool, which allows creators to give up
    their copyright and put their works into the worldwide public domain.”

    This may or may not be what you are seeing. Copyright is not simple.

  • Jim Watt

    June 13, 2022 at 4:43 pm

    Thank you guys for the words of wisdom. I looked for a CC license designation and found none other than the circle C with a line through it and no mention of not being able to use it commercially. Here is the URL for one of the shots:

    Here is another:

    Sorry to take up your time, but this is a little vexing to say the least.


  • Tod Hopkins

    June 13, 2022 at 7:32 pm

    The symbol you refer to, the C with a circle slash simply means no copyright (aka public domain). That is, Wikimedia has determined based on the age of the original object, that it is no longer covered by copyright under the law. If you look at the license area, you’ll see something like this “This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.” Which is their reasoning behind the public domain assertion.

    The easiest way to determine that something is in the public domain is age, though the laws are complicated for anything not at least 100 years old. You can look up the details if you like. If a digital image is a faithful representation of the original, that is it has no added artistic value, then the age of the original is the only issue. You can’t copyright a photo or scan that is merely a faithful reproduction of the original. However, if there is added artistic value, say it’s colorized, or re-painted (forgery even) or collaged with other elements, that is a new work and the copyright of the new work is dated to when the new work was created.

    It’s reasonable to assume these are both faithful reproductions of originals that are too old to retain copyright under US law, therefor they can be assumed to be in the public domain.

  • Jim Watt

    June 13, 2022 at 8:13 pm

    Thanks for taking a look. That was my assumption however I’m still not clear on what credit is required by CC other than, out of courtesy, adding a photo or artist credit or a credit for the author. In the case of the photo there seems to be no one to credit.


  • Tod Hopkins

    June 13, 2022 at 9:57 pm

    Providing any credit is a courtesy unless contractually obligated. I believe in credits when possible, but most of my films have no credits at all. In the case of public domain materials, the creator is probably dead, so a credit is meaningless to them. You could provide a general credit to WikiMedia or Creative Commons as a courtesy but that’s for providing the service, not the image.

  • Per Scaffidi

    June 15, 2022 at 2:52 pm

    I would read through the Documentary Filmmakers Statement of Best Practices for Fair Use:

  • steve bergson

    June 15, 2022 at 11:29 pm

    As some of the other replies have indicated, there is often a tendency for people to use content considered PD and then wrongly attach CC attribution to it. If the content is PD, no credit or sttribution is needed, but because PD is essentially proving a negative and mistakes possibly costly, it’s worth checking the copyright status yourself if you can. Don’t trust Wikipedia which does not take responsibility for the accuracy of its metadata.

    There are different methods of doing this background check. The US Library of Congress is one place to start but it’s always worth reverse image googling the images to see where else it crops up on the internet. Sometimes an agency has picked it up and although they are charging for the reproduction as if it owned the rights, it’s not necessarily theirs to license exclusively. However, if you find the image occurring in multiple places and there are conflicting attributions or equally if you don’t find it in many places, it can be worth licensing it from an agency. The fee is covering the risk of your using it: the copyright usually becomes the legal esponsibility of the agency which claims it (but check the T & C of the license agreement).

    Whatever you choose to do, it’s important to keep records of the attempt to trace a rights owner in order to show due diligence in the event of a question arising in the future from its use in your project. It looks as if this content is PD, so you could use it without concern but to be sure (and comply with your terms of supply to your distributor/client/outlet), you should investigate it as thoroughly as you can. There are specialist researchers you could engage to do this if needed and the budget permits; they are normally a lot cheaper than media lawyers’ time.

  • Jim Watt

    June 16, 2022 at 10:29 pm

    Thanks Steve. Valuable advice and that is the way we normally handle any photo is to attempt to clarify it’s bonafides. I just for some reason or other got hung up on Wikipedia claiming in was covered under CC licensing .


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