Photographer’s guide to Creative Commons

Believe it or not, giving away your images for free can be the pathway to selling more photos and making more money -- when you use a licensing structure called Creative Commons.

Creative Commons allows photographers to share their work by pre-authorizing the types of uses you will allow. Here's how it works.

You make your work available in a pool of images used by individuals, bloggers, and companies. Some may just use the images for screen savers. Most will use the photos for blogs and marketing products. 

For each published use, the user gives you credit and links back to your site. If enough people use your work, you could drive significant traffic and exposure your way. With enough raving fans, you have the seeds of a thriving business.

Trey Ratcliff's Stuck in Customs travel blog is probably the most celebrated example of this approach. Trey says when he decided to go with the Creative Commons strategy, traffic surged to 150,000 photo views per day, making it the most trafficked photography blog. His business has also grown to 10 people, and he reports that they are profitable. Trey credits all this success to his decision to give away his work for noncommercial applications, and use licensing deals for commercial uses to make money.

How can it work for you? Creative Commons uses four elements to construct a license: 

  • Attribution - Every license has this component. If you use the work, you have to give credit. 
  • Commercial use - Can you use the work to make money? Decide if you want images only used on editorial or educational outlets like blogs or schools, or if you don't mind someone selling your images on T-shirts, for instance.
  • Derivatives - Can someone remix the work? Your images might inspire a designer to create something totally different. Are you okay with that?
  • Share alike - If someone creates a derivative, do you want them to use the same sharing licenses you did? You can instruct derivatives to be shared freely, if that's how you prefer your work to be used.

These four elements can be combined to create six licensing alternatives. It might seem like that can easily get confusing, but Creative Commons has a cool Help Me Choose function on their website that walks you through the key questions and produces the right option. It even gives you the HTML to embed into your site.

As a creative, you should know that your work is protected the moment you create it. You don't need to do anything for it to be covered by copyright. If you want to be able to collect damages, you will need to register each creation with the U.S. Copyright office. Registering costs only $35, but you will have the confidence that you can be compensated for any unauthorized use.

How will you know if someone uses your photo? You can include a request that the user send you a link for your records, but nothing will require them to comply. You will be relying on their willingness to take the extra step. 

The best way to make sure you find your images is purchasing a service that tracks the images for you. They will embed a digital signature into your file. These services then scour the internet to find any uses of the photo. When you get a hit, you can check to see that the work is being used as you outlined.

You will have to decide if it is worth the time and expense to go looking for use or misuse of your images. Trey Ratcliff's approach is not to worry about piracy and let karma sort out the good and bad. 

Worked out pretty well for him. Freebies and pirates helped him create a great life as a photographer. Do you think it can work for you? How might you use Creative Commons?

By the way, if you are interested in copyright issues, check out my interview with IP attorney Phil Marcus.