Something I never thought about CC0 images

Creative Commons Zero (CC0) is a very liberal license that is meant to facilitate reuse and foster growth. Authors and artists can release their creations under Creative Commons Zero CC0 and clearly communicate to the world their intention to waive copyright on it.

Such license resonates a lot with content creators, always on the lookout for images and photographs to adorn their latest production. Stock images are expensive, and if photography is not your main profession or hobby, then your choices are limited. Images sell the article better than anything else. A picture is still worth a thousand words.

In the context of photography, Unsplash has lead the industry since 2013, followed by a slew of similar services, like StockSnap, Pixabay, and Pexels. Unsplash counts today over 67,000 photographers that have already uploaded over 400,000 high resolution and quality images.

With such a large portfolio of do-whatever-you-want licensed images, these sites have become the first place bloggers and designers visit looking for graphics; writers and musicians do the same, researching covers for their books and albums; both have in common the desire to use great content without infringing copyrights.


The greatest asset of a CC0 image repository is the peace of mind it gives their users with regards to copyrights infringement. But is that real peace of mind?

Last week, this article was published on Petapixel: a certain Greg Paul Miller uploaded on their Unsplash account an image, which was in fact a composite that used a copyrighted image by Elia Locardi. Then, Canon published a blog post using such image.

Now, there’s lots of wrong things that happened there. The one thing that strikes me the most is how easily someone like Greg created an image and uploaded it onto a distribution network, claiming rights over it. In this particular case, only to give those away, releasing the image to the world.

This is no different than a good old case of Internet fraud. We have been trained for years not to trust everything that’s on the Internet. We have been told, with reason, that not everything that is online is real. Nor free. So what’s new here?

I believe that users of distribution services like Unsplash, let their guard down. There is reassurance in the forefront and exciting premise that it is an all-you-can-eat CC0 buffet. And that is not true. What downloaders believe to be a guarantee offered by the service(s), is actually a responsibility pushed onto the uploaders. You can read that in the Terms and Conditions of any of these sites. And while there are repercussions after any such event, there is no gating mechanism that could safeguard against these situations. This issue of course affects every stock image service, free or paid. Digital images are easy to get, modify, upload, and finding potential infringements is problematic, to say the least.

Unfortunately, there is more. For example this article by Alex Preukschat and more so this article by Kelley Keller, bring up very good points regarding for example model release for people, property release for buildings and landmarks, trademarks, and also international implications where the license applied may not be acknowledged.

Just because the image has been released as CC0, it doesn’t automatically mean that you can use it for whatever you like.

In conclusion

The rise of sites sharing high quality images with a CC0 license is compelling to content creators. In this article though we have highlighted the risk for complications arising from their use. It is very difficult to find a good balance between proper controls and fast content delivery. But at least knowing the risks is better than flying in the dark.