Open-licensing your images. What it means and how to do it.

I do a lot of editing on Wikipedia. Sometimes I approach someone connected with a subject I’m writing about (or the subject themself), and ask them to provide an “open licensed” image. In other words, an image whose copyright they own, but given a licence which allows anyone to reuse it, even for commercial purposes.

With a few exceptions, only images made available under such licences can be used on Wikipedia.

Creative Commons

The commonest form of open licence is Creative Commons — a set of legalistic prose documents which cover various ways of licensing images.

Some Creative Commons include “non-commercial” (“NC”) clauses; these are incompatible with Wikipedia, because people are allowed to reuse content from Wikipedia in commercial situation, such as in newspapers or in apps which are sold for use on mobile devices (provided they comply with other licence terms). The same applies to “no derivatives” (“ND”) clauses, which mean that people cannot edit, crop, recolour or otherwise change your picture when reusing it.

The Creative Commons licences compatible with Wikipedia are:

  • Attribution Creative Commons (CC-BY)
  • Attribution-ShareAlike Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA)

In which:

  • “Attribution” means that the copyright holder must be given a credit
  • “ShareAlike” means that if someone uses your picture, anything made with it must have the same licence

It’s important that anyone open licencing an image understands what that means. For example, Wikimedia (the organisation behind Wikipedia) suggests that people donating images are asked to agree to the following:

  • I acknowledge that I grant anyone the right to use the work in a commercial product, and to modify it according to their needs, as long as they abide by the terms of the license and any other applicable laws.
  • I am aware that I always retain copyright of my work, and retain the right to be attributed in accordance with the license chosen. Modifications others make to the work will not be claimed to have been made by me.
  • I am aware that the free license only concerns copyright, and I reserve the option to take action against anyone who uses this work in a libelous way, or in violation of personality rights, trademark restrictions, etc.
  • I acknowledge that I cannot withdraw this agreement…

(and yes, that wording has a CC-BY-SA licence!)

Which is the best licence to use?

That depends on the circumstances, but CC-BY-SA fits most cases, giving the re-user the greatest flexibility, while protecting the copyright holder’s right to be recognised.

So, how do I open-licence an image?

There are a variety of ways to open-licence an image. Here are some of the commonest:

  • Upload your images to Wikimedia Commons, the media repository for Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects
  • Upload your images to Flickr, specifying one of the above open licences
  • Upload your images to your own website, with a clear and unambiguous statement that they are under a specified open licence

My images are on Flickr, how do I change the licence?

To open-licence a single image in Flickr:

Selecting an open licence in Flickr's pop-up dialogue

  • View the specific image
  • Under “Owner settings”, alongside current licence setting (perhaps “All Rights Reserved”), click “edit”
  • In the pop-up window, check one of the compatible licences
  • Save

[Postscript: My friend John Cummings wrote an equivalent guide for YouTube]

Won’t I lose money doing this?

the ingliston gorilla

Not necessarily. Some commercial photographers release low- or medium- resolution copies of their images, and sell high-resolution copies, but most people take images for personal purposes, which have no commercial value, and for which they will never be paid. Open-licensing them enables the community to benefit, at no cost to the photographer. Think of open-licensing your images as a way of giving back to the community which has given you so many open-source tools, without which the web would not work.

If this post has inspired you to openly-licence your images please let me know, in the comments.

And yes you can use other people’s open-licenced images, including many of mine, free. Help yourself!


Yes, I know there are other open licences, and more complex use-cases. This is intended as a beginners’ guide. A competent lawyer will be able to provide you with legal advice. I offer more general advice to institutions wanting to open-licence their images or other content, or to work with the Wikipedia community, as part of my professional services.


This post is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (3.0 Unported) licence. Attribution should include a link to the post, or, in print, the short URL

22 thoughts on “Open-licensing your images. What it means and how to do it.

  1. Nick O'Doherty

    Nice clear article. Good explanation. You have also reminded me to change the default licence on my Flickr uploads. I’d not done this because some pictures of friends and family I don’t share. I think I was confusing sharing and licencing. I can default licence as you suggest, but choose separately whether to share personal pictures or not.

    I’ve seen a lot more people using Getty Images to licence their photos, and Flickr seems to be pushing this approach. What are your thoughts on this?

    1. Inder RS

      Hi Andy, nice information. Photography is my hobby, I am not a pro-photographer , although I copyright my Images. I would like to know, if there is any suitable license which can be applied to Images , so that others can use it by attribution.
      However, I intend to apply such license only to lesser pixels of my Images. for ex, if original is 24,000 px, than can I offer the reduced size 1000 px for free use by attribution. Is there any license which can help me in doing so?

  2. Paul Clarke

    Nice clear piece. I’m finally nudged into commenting as a result of being contacted tonight by a Wikipedian with just such a request to use one of my pictures.

    I confess I hadn’t previously realised that the required licensing had to extend to include commercial purposes. And that was the decisive point for me that made the response to this request a clear “no”.

    Let me give a bit of context: I am a professional photographer. I have a large online library of images of notable people (and others!) which is both useful promotionally, and also results in a fair few licence sales (in addition to my commissioned photography).

    I have a very clear view on the commercial reuse of my work: if it’s going to be used by someone in a commercial venture, they want it because they perceive it as adding value to their product. And if it has a value to them (as I state countless times in response to requests for free images) then that value is a real cash value – some of which I expect to flow back to me as content creator. If it had no value, they wouldn’t want it. A position where an image has value to its user, but not to its creator, strikes me as profoundly illogical, if not immoral. And that’s that.

    Your point about “giving something back” in return for all the wonders of open source tools and content is well made though. I do make a point of licensing some of my content under a CC variant – either because I am shooting an event pro bono to help an organisation, and it will be really helpful for them to have the work spread wide – or perhaps if I’m covering an event within the open source community where not licensing openly would seem (and would be) profoundly counter-cultural. But these are my informed choices, and always exclude commercial reuse. I really do feel that I give a lot “back” in this way.

    And I close with a tip. If you’re approaching a pro photographer with a request like this, best not to open up with a line about “loved your pic, can we use it for free?”. Far better to recognise explicitly that the work is valued, that it isn’t in any way “free” to produce – especially if you can see from its metadata that thousands of pounds of equipment were involved in its capture! Request it as a donation, maybe even using this point about “giving back” for open source. You may well get a more positive response.

    But above all, I think the exclusion of non-commercial licensing is a weakness. I appreciate the theoretical point about sharing stuff as widely as possible, but the implication that photography has no actual value for the creator (when that’s clearly not the case for the reuser) devalues good content in the long term. And wouldn’t it be better to have something that can be shared non-commercially, than nothing at all? If I’d been asked to share non-commercially, I’d have said yes in this case. But instead, the outcome is a blank bit of screen where a good picture could be sitting.

  3. Andy Mabbett Post author


    Thanks for your considered response. Of course, you’re at liberty to refuse requests to open-licence content, especially if you feel that doing so may impact on your ability to earn a livelihood, but many commercial photographers find that so doing is beneficial to their commercial interests; for example by raising awareness of their offering.

    I’m well aware of your generous pro-bono work, but I will take issue with one thing you say though, referring to your use of a NC licence as “open”, which it isn’t, if we use the generally-accepted “Open Definition“:

    A piece of content or data is open if anyone is free to use, reuse, and redistribute it — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share-alike.

    1. Paul Clarke

      Well, I did say “openly” 😉 – but at risk of hiding behind semantics, there is a broader issue here over the role of profit opportunity in the world of reuse.

      I may be alone in this, but I maintain a perfectly coherent mental model of information use where the issues of knowledge flow and money flow can be separately considered, and if necessary, separately regulated.

      This is important, because the dynamics of knowledge sharing and spread can arguably have quite different characteristics to those of the pursuit of money in return for that content and transmission.

      The class of use cases where “you can reuse this, but if anyone is going to make any money out of it, then it should include me, and if that’s not assured, then no one will” seems very broad. And very sensible. And quite just. (I think, for example, of Mr Ashton’s recent post on what happened when the subsequent use of one of his images far outstripped his expectation or the spirit in which he made it available.)

      I do consider this class to be “open” behaviour in its nature, and its associated licences offer a neat way through much of the mechanical pain of attribution and cash retrieval.

      But I appreciate that the open/free debate is a rich one, and this post is merely a reminder of one of its facets.

  4. Martin Poulter

    Paul, you’ve made a big logical jump from “people think it would be a good idea to share a photograph” to “they think it is of no value to its creator”. I have put a lot of time and effort into contributing to Wikipedia: does that mean that I think my time is “of no actual value”? To me, to Andy, and to the other thousands of contributors, our time and labour are definitely not value-less. There are other things, including profitable things, that we could be doing in that time. But it makes sense to us to put a percentage of our time into this effort which pays in satisfaction rather than cash.

    In the case of photographs, you get a clear attribution – hence exposure. I would be unaware of Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator if it weren’t for the examples of his work shared through Commons. As a professional it’s up to you to make a free decision whether or not to share a particular photo, and no-one should try to take your livelihood away from you, but nobody’s implying that your work is worthless to anyone. (On preview; what Andy said).

    Thanks for releasing work under CC licences: though it’s not Wikipedia-compatible, a photo shared under a non-commercial licence is potentially useful to all sorts of educators and charities.

  5. Tom Phillips

    I am basically with Paul Clarke on this. Much of my own work is enabled by organisations who have free use of the work I carry out in their name, but with specific limitations about the conditions under which any of it can be passed on to third parties, including the subjects of the photographs themselves. Such use is required to be a matter between myself and the subjects, under whatever terms I choose to apply.

    Partly this is the result of lessons learned. I have had work ripped off, of course, just like most photographers, but I have also twice given photographs freely to third party organisations, only to find they were selling it on. I think there will always be a limit on the extent to which one can police that, even with digital watermarking or overprinting.

    I also do some work “pro bono” in return for the guarantee that I will be credited as the photographer. I usually ask for a copy of the relevant piece of work (web link, copy of magazine, etc) in case it would be a useful future marketing tool. I am frequently quite surprised what passes in some editor’s minds as a “credit”. Or rather, what little some of them seem to feel amounts to a credit for something given to them free of charge.

    Reluctantly, I am increasingly supplying work overprinted with my web address. If the material is for publication, this has to be done in a way that does not disfigure the image. Even then, I recently had work supplied with the web address in small print along the bottom edge of the shot cropped when published, so as to omit the address.

    Nothing unusual about any of these experiences, I think, and the majority of end users are, of course completely fair and genuine.

  6. Paul Clarke

    Martin – grateful for that. I should be clear that my beef isn’t really with stuff not being valued: and of course I have freely traded-off time, exposure and money in many different combinations to build the business I have.

    No, the value issue for me is solely one of how it flows: to know that there is equity throughout that flow (or what my ghastly old world of BigCorp used to call the “value chain”. Ugh.) It may be that the exposure benefit offsets the financial non-gain for the creator, but I feel that this equation works just as well in the vast space that exists for sharing non-commercially. And if one miscalculates as a creator, it can be a painful ratchet as the commercial benefit rolls in downstream, but nothing ever makes it back to the origin. Perhaps its that asymmetry, and potential for “duh, if only I’d realised…” that puts me off so much? I’m not sure. But I’m glad of the debate to make me question what lies behind my stance.

    The other consideration, of course, is that other nebulous concept of “value-adding”. Does reprocessing, or mashing-up, or just good old curation justify the conversion of a product-free-at-source to one which can be charged for? And this in my mind is highly case-specific. To take raw data and make a usable consumer product? Yes, certainly. In the case of my photos? Well, it really depends on the curator and the end product. But in the case of singleton arrangements for the sole purpose of illustrating an article, I’d argue there’s hardly a lot of value-adding going on.

  7. Paul Clarke

    And, at risk of hogging the thread, I’d still like to hear a succinct answer to the question: “why doesn’t Wikipedia permit NC as an option, if that would be better than having nothing to show at all?”

    1. Andy Mabbett Post author


      Ask as many questions, or say as much, as you like.

      As Wikipedia’s own guidelines say:

      because some derivative works may be commercial, we cannot accept materials that are licensed only for educational use or even for general non-commercial use.

      Those “derivative works” may be a 79p app which displays Wikipedia content relevant to the user’s location, or a CD-ROM provided at cost to schools in areas with no connectivity – or, yes, commercial books or magazines. Is, for example, use by a charity or city council “non-commercial”? It’s not practical to have a licence which discriminates between such cases.

      In short, Wikipedia strives to meet the definition of “open” to which I have already referred.

      Have you considered open-licensing [senso stricto] a few images (perhaps those associated with a cause you support, and want to publicise), and measuring the return?

    2. Martin Poulter

      I should point out that I’ve been involved in projects that have released educational material under non-commercial licences: not ideally free and open, but without that clause we couldn’t have had commercial partners involved and the content would not have been created. So I’m not allergic to NC licencing in principle. However, I accept that Wikipedia can’t allow NC.

      Wikipedia tries to play the role in society that a library, museum or reading room would play. People borrow library books for different reasons. Some people will borrow a book of portraits to look at the nice pictures, some people will borrow that same book to study closely and enrich a skill or craft that they make money from. Libraries never ask whether you’re using the book for a commercial or non-commercial purpose: it’s none of their business.

      Similarly, Wikipedia is totally non-paternalistic about how people use the information: the user’s freedom to do what they want, subject to the free licence, is paramount. That’s why it’s called “the free encyclopedia” and Wiktionary is “the free dictionary” etc. By sharing information, libraries foster economic activity that wouldn’t happen otherwise, offering this opportunity equally to everyone, without discrimination. Wikipedia and its sister projects play that same role.

      For one perspective on the undesirability of NC licences, see this blog post. Although that blog focuses on writing rather than photography, so Your Milage May Vary.

      For an amateur photographer, who just wants their work to be seen by as many people as possible, Wikimedia provides an opportunity to reach a truly huge audience. Clearly it’s different for professionals who have to pay bills and put food on the table. I can see it must be painful to see others profiting from your work. It seems, though, that making a piece of work as freely and widely available as possible would make it harder for others to profit from it.

  8. Dave

    I have no objection to an image of mine being used in Wikipedia / Wikimedia as I endorese information being free..

    However I am not happy at the idea that this image can then be used in a whole host of commercial ways, not due to any income I may lose, (I’m not a pro photographer) but because it may be used by a company I disagree with for ethical reasons and, because of the give all rights away licence required, it means I am powerless to stop this – whereas with NC this is not an issue.

    .. Yes with NC my images may be used by something/ someone I do not approve of (indeed one of my plant photos is used by a creationist wiki – not a thing I’m a fan of being a scientist but its not a profit making site so it’s not directly raising money for something I disagree with – which is an important distinction (for me)).

  9. Documentally

    I switched my default license on flickr from NC back to copyright after finding images from my account ‘stolen’ by newspapers and then kept on file. I now allow CC use if people ask me directly and if someone wants one for Wikipedia I revisit my hard drives and supply one almost as good as my favorite that serves their purpose.

    I also feel it’s a shame that Wikipedia can’t use NC but i also understand their reasoning. That’s why i will always try to supply something that does the job. Often I think.. whatever, and donate the image they want if it is not one that earns me any money or if i think the image has paid for itself in the past.

    I have seen the value of having your name next to your image for advertising purposes but if photography is the way you make a living it’s also not in the photographers interest to devalue the final product of their hard work..

    The proliferation of camera tech is already doing that to great effect. 🙂

  10. Paul Clarke

    I’m all in favour of experimentation and measurement, of course. But in the cases where I’ve been approached, the conditions are always consistent:

    There is no openly available image of a notable person, or event, and I have one. That scarcity maintains a price for images of that subject. That price funds my time and my equipment; to some extent it stimulates the creative energy and fine attention to detail that I put in to making it a “professional” image and not just any old snap; and it spurs me to get off my backside and into places where quality images can be taken.

    There’s a fair bit more to getting a good library together than just clicking a button. 🙂

    In particular, there is a more-or-less consistent and certain market for stock images of notable people. I am acutely conscious that at the point at which a high quality “open” image is declared, that particular stock market collapses to some extent, not just for me, but for other photographers. And that is a step I don’t take lightly, though I have done it on a couple of occasions. (So I supposed I have experimented to some extent).

    I even mitigate against this in my standard commercial terms. I am clear that the images produced are licensed for use by the commissioning client, but (almost always) non-transferably. So, for example, if a major newspaper were to knock on the client’s door asking for a particular shot to use as a stock shot, my terms would ensure (hopefully) that that conversation would be swiftly converted into one directly with me about proper licensing for that purpose.

    “Leakage” into stock use like that could be remediated, but it would involve messy conversations with my clients: and I always prefer to make the position clear before someone says “oh sure, I think you can use that, we paid for the shoot”, than afterwards.

    So, nature and scarcity of an image are also factors I consider in this area. But really, reviewing this useful discussion, it is the commercial consequence (with unknown but potentially large negative opportunity cost) including the effect on a wider market and profession, that have shaped my view as it stands.

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  12. Jim Heaphy

    This is an interesting topic, and I come to this discussion as a published professional freelance writer for well over 20 years, and also as an amateur photographer who has never made a nickel from photography. I’ve donated my writing and my photography to Wikipedia for the past three years, and have gained enormous satisfaction from doing so. One point that I would like to make is that a commercial photographer can license an image for use on Wikipedia at a moderate resolution that is useful educationally but less so commercially. You can pick the resolution that you are comfortable with. That allows greater visibility of the image, and potentially creates opportunities for paid commercial re-use of a higher resolution version of that image. Another point is that Wikipedia offers a fantastic opportunity to attract new readers or viewers to the work of its writers and photographers. Please be aware that Wikipedia is the 5th most popular website in the world, and Google, the #1 website, lists relevant Wikipedia articles at the very top of its search results. For example, I wrote a Wikipedia article about Harry Yount, a flamboyant figure of Western history. My article was featured on Wikipedia’s home page, and it attracted 12,000 readers in a two hour period because I illustrated it with an outstanding historical image that was in the public domain. Perhaps I could use a low-resolution version of one of your outstanding images to illustrate a future article that would draw a similar level of readership. I may not have been paid for that particular article, but it was a labor of love, and increased my visibility and credibility as a writer. I am proud that I wrote it and that it will be available for educational purposes forever. No one is saying that you should make every one of your photos available for use on Wikipedia. However, I would bet that most commercial photographers have many images sitting unused in their archives that are of high quality, educational value but relatively little commercial value. Wikimedia Commons is a great place to make such photos available for productive use, with the side benefit of increased visibility of the professional to a whole new audience. Look me up on Wikipedia – my user name there is Cullen328. I’ll be happy to answer any of your questions.

  13. David Gerard

    I find the public-domain-equivalent licences (explicit PD, CC-0 or “for any purpose, with or without attribution” – I think we have a few in the list) suitable for generic photos I don’t really care about – pictures of things or places. I’m doing it for the readers, not for me.

    I have to say, a lot of the photographers who complain to me that Wikipedia will take away their livelihood if we don’t allow NC (usually the moment they hear that I have anything to do with Wikipedia) … are amateurs whose photography income is, literally, two quid a year from iStockPhoto. So there appears to be serious concern from people out there, but I’m almost entirely unconvinced it’s meaningfully an economic issue.

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  15. Oli

    Just an observation (several years late to this party), but CC-BY-SA is *not* the the license that gives the re-user the most flexibility, as it requires that any re-use also be CC-BY-SA-licenced.

    In practice (if not in theory), that will rule out commercial use in a lot of cases, by forcing any derivative work to also be made free. That may well be your objective of course, which is perfectly legitimate, but it’s not flexible at all. The situation is not helped by Creative Commons’ lack of clarity on what constitutes a ‘derivative work’ – if someone uses a ShareAlike photo on the cover of a book, does that mean the whole book has to be CCd? Just the dust jacket? Just the front cover? Just the bit of the front cover that uses the photo? Good luck getting an answer to that.

    CC-BY is the most flexible, as it requires only an attribution, and can be used to make derivative works which are proprietary.

    If maximum flexibility is what you want, this is what you should use.

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