Where Credit is Due: Options for using Intellectual Property

We've all done it: used that cool font on our friend's computer to create our local bake-sale brochure, "borrowed" that beautiful photograph someone posted on their blog for our "save the date" invitation, or perhaps even more shocking, "quoted" an extensive amount of text from someone else's blog without properly linking back to them.

Unfortunately, these actions are, technically, stealing, unless done under the proper circumstances.

This blog post was inspired by our work with the League of Women Voters of California. Their volunteer-based state board and local league leadership need to create content frequently, and the individuals responsible for content creation are often unsure of when they should link to useful content, when they should post it directly to their site, and how to find images to make everything look interesting and fun.

In speaking with them about this topic, I realized the subject is one that a lot of content-creators face on a daily basis; the League was happy to let me share the "cheat-sheet" I promised them I'd create with the world at large.

What is Intellectual Property?

Artists (photographers, writers, bloggers, typeface creators, illustrators, etc.) all need to make a living, and they do so with their art. Their work, even if freely available on the web, is their intellectual property.

It is not okay to take their work and use it without some kind of permission.

The following things fall under the heading of intellectual property (this is not an exhaustive list - please feel free to comment below to add more):

  • Photos
  • Fonts
  • Icons
  • Photoshop brushes, textures, patterns
  • Blog posts
  • Any written content on a website
  • The graphic design of a website
  • Drawings and illustrations
  • Downloadable PDFs
  • Code (i.e. the html or css behind a site, software code, etc.)
  • etc.

I need an image and don't have anything quality enough. How do I find one?

For-profits usually have enough money in the bank to hire a photographer to create that "special" image or to scour the amazing resources on Getty Images and iStockPhoto.

Non-profits don't have that luxury. The burden of licensing fees can often be daunting for a non-profit, and the need to renew licenses is problematic when the people responsible for them are rotating volunteers.

This is where Creative Commons licensing comes in handy!

Many content creators will prefer to release their work under a Creative Commons license, which is an easier licensing guideline to follow, has gained universal acceptance, and gives flexibility for open source, crowdsourcing, and free non-commercial use.

There are many kinds of Creative Commons (CC) licenses, and they are outlined simply here:

If you are a non-profit looking for the right work for your site, you'll want to find something that is tagged with:

Creative Commons Non-Commercial

Or a variation of that such as CC BY-NC (Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial, meaning, don't use this to make money, and be sure to credit the creator!).

A great tool for finding Creative Commons images on Flickr is the Viewfinder Flickr Image Search Tool from Connected Flow: http://connectedflow.com/viewfinder/ (I learned about this app from Mark Frauenfelder's post on BoingBoing.net: http://boingboing.net/2011/02/15/my-essential-mac-app-3.html)

What if I can't find the licensing information on the work?

9 times out of 10 people are just thrilled that an interesting non-profit might want to feature their work. It's an honor (as long as they have the opportunity to say "no" first).

If you don't see licensing information on the work, just ask! Fill out the contact form on the blog, friend the individual on Facebook, whatever you need to do. And send them a message.

We did this for the poppy photos being used in the footer of LWVC's Education Fund site, www.CAVotes.org. The photo creator, Mary MacTavish, was thrilled to help the League. Just be sure to archive the written approval for use of the work, and be sure to credit the creator. Even if they do not request credit, it is the right thing to do!

I've found an amazing PDF and I want to put it on my site rather than trust that the originating site will still have the PDF up in 2 years, what do I do?

This is a tough one, and I'd be interested in what the commenters on this post think.

My own instinct would be to ask (unless the PDF is already tagged with a CC license, which clearly indicates what you can or cannot do).

Where can I find Free Stuff?

Look for open source work (which includes code, images, fonts, and much more)!

The League's site, and most sites SunRain build, are built with Drupal, which is an open source code base for which many people internationally have contributed open source designs and more.

It is important to understand, however, that open source doesn't really mean "free." Such tools grow and improve only because the people who use them contribute their work back to the larger community under the same licenses.

The League, for example, has contributed back the custom modules that we created for the CAVotes.org site. and will continue to do so when feasible.

This topic is far greater than this short blog post can cover.

Font licensing alone could easily take up another post of this length. I promised the league, however, that I would keep this short.

Following the guidelines above will help you stay honest, but here are some additional resources to become more educated. If you know of other resources, please add them to the comments below!


Intellectual property

The products of the human mind are intangible assets.

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