Science Communication and the Art of Not Stealing

Taking someone's property without permission isn't cute. It's wrong. (Photo: Lunch Photography)
Taking someone’s property without permission isn’t cute. It’s wrong. (Photo credit: Lunch Photography)

I love art. In my free time, I enjoy visiting galleries and museums; in my professional life, I occasionally work with artists and designers on various communication projects. For these and other reasons, I know that art has value.

And I’m not talking about some ethereal sense of moral, spiritual, or aesthetic value. I’m talking about dollars and cents. Art is, after all, a product. It is produced by the labor of artists. It is bought and sold – which means it can also be stolen.

The Problem

Stealing is wrong. We all know that, right?

Image: Jack Pickford Productions/First National
Image: Jack Pickford Productions/First National

If I got caught stealing a car I’d go to jail.

If I stole a scientist’s data and published it myself, for my own personal gain, that scientist would be angry – and if I got caught, I would face very real consequences.

But for some reason, this doesn’t happen when people steal images. Especially science images. Instead of raising hell that someone’s work has been stolen, people say things like: “It’s great that they’re trying to get people excited about science!”

You know what? I love the idea of getting people excited about science. But it’s not a zero-sum game. You can do both of these things: get people excited about science AND not steal from anyone.

Let’s frame it this way: How would you respond if I stole your credit card number and used it to purchase a magazine advertisement about science? I’m guessing you wouldn’t say: “I can’t really afford to have you steal from me, but it’s okay because it will get people excited about science.”

(Note: If you think that swiping an image and stealing someone’s credit card number aren’t the same thing, you are incorrect. Both are acts in which one person’s property is taken without permission. “But it’s not stealing,” some of you will say. “It’s copyright infringement.” You’re arguing semantics, and infringement is still both morally and legally wrong. The fact is that infringement hurts professional artists. Like the guy who lost a $250,000 contract because someone had used his art to make t-shirts – without the artist’s permission.)

I see stolen, unattributed images all the time. And, frankly, it’s really making me angry. I know many of these artists. They have bills to pay and kids to feed. If someone impaired my ability to feed my family, I’d be furious. Seeing this happen to them makes me furious on their behalf. So I decided to write about some ways that you can help make a difference – and how you can find and use images without hurting anyone.

Why Not Sue?

I know what you’re thinking. Why don’t artists copyright their work and sue the pants off these folks? There are at least two reasons I can think of. First, it can sometimes be hard to tell who the thieves are.

For example, there seem to be a gazillion Twitter feeds with names like “Gorgeous Planet” or “Amazing Photos” (I’m making those up because I refuse to drive traffic to the real feeds.) They apparently exist solely to share unattributed photos. They make money by building up followers and then selling tweets to companies – which also breaks Twitter’s rules if the arrangement doesn’t go through them. (Follow @PicPedant to get an idea of how the system works.)

Regardless of how these Twitter feeds are gaming the system, the artists whose work is being shared sure aren’t getting anything. But how can you tell who actually runs those feeds? It’s often difficult to tell. And it’s tough to sue someone if you don’t know their name.

The second problem is an even bigger deal: money.

Photographer Alex Wild wrote about this late last year, and the numbers were daunting. In order to take legal action on copyright infringement, assuming there’s less than $1 million at stake, you’d better be prepared to pay more than a third of a million dollars. Most artists can’t afford that. (Heck, very few people can afford that.)

Being a Good Consumer

If you can get images like this legally, why bother stealing them? (Photo credit: Kelly Jacques, National Science Foundation. Click to enlarge.)
If you can get images like this legally, why bother stealing them? (Photo credit: Kelly Jacques, National Science Foundation. Click to enlarge.)

You can do a couple things to address the issue of image theft (or infringement): be a good consumer of information and a good producer of information. We’ll start with the consumer part.

If you see a website, Twitter feed, Facebook page, etc., that is sharing unattributed art, don’t support it. For example, don’t retweet that gorgeous photo of a bioluminescent octopus, unless the artist is noted.

I’ll often go one step further, and ask a website or social media user to provide image attribution. Sometimes it actually works. The user wasn’t trying to steal, they just hadn’t thought about it, or didn’t know the rules. (Full disclosure: I was clueless about all this when I started online).

And sometimes the user will say that he doesn’t know where the image came from. In those cases, I’ll often use Google’s search-by-image function to “reverse search” an image. (Google offers a concise primer, and it’s extremely easy to use.) Most of the time you can find the artist pretty quickly. (I just tested it again this morning, and found the relevant artist’s name in about six seconds.) I then give the artist’s name to the user and ask them to share it. They usually don’t. I then call the user a jerk and move on. (Update: since I put this post up, someone told me about another reverse search site for images called I experimented with it, and it seems to work very well.)

The point is, being a good consumer means not encouraging or rewarding bad behavior – and being willing to call people out on it.

How to Not Steal

I make precisely zero dollars for writing this blog. I am a public employee and I have three kids. I have absolutely no personal budget for buying art to use on this blog, yet I use art on this blog. I also don’t steal from people. How do I do that? Let’s talk about how to find and use images without hurting anyone.

One obvious way is to ask an artist. To quote Alex Wild: “Artists own their copyrights, but that doesn’t mean many aren’t happy to share. Often, permission for non-commercial or personal blog use costs a mere link back to the artist’s website.”

There are also a rather staggering number of websites that allow you to use images as long as you follow their rules (which aren’t particularly onerous – they usually just want you to include the name of the artist and/or link to a page or site about the artist). Many of these images are made available using Creative Commons. If you don’t know what Creative Commons means, or what the different types of Creative Commons licenses are, read the descriptions on the Creative Commons site. They’re pretty clear – and very useful.

Here is an alphabetical list of some sites that may be worth exploring (be sure to pay attention to the requirements associated with each site and each artist’s images):

Department of Energy Photography

Flickr (Creative Commons images only)

Images from the History of Medicine

NASA Multimedia

National Science Foundation Multimedia Gallery

NOAA Photo Library

Public Health Image Library

Wellcome Images (Check which kind of Creative Commons license they’re registered under – it varies!)

Wikimedia Commons

Closing Request

Ultimately, I’m hoping that those of us who use images (for social media, blogging, etc.) will simply try to do the right thing – even if it takes a little more effort.


17 thoughts on “Science Communication and the Art of Not Stealing

  1. I REALLY appreciate this, as both a creator and a user of images. I think the search for free-to-use images is often the most time-consuming aspect of my blog creation. People really don’t understand copyright! Thanks for the post.


  2. Johnna

    Agree with all of it! The digital age makes it too easy to copy/paste. Many people probably use Google Images to search for related images to enhance on-line media. I’ve recently found that you can refine your search based on license with a few different license types (labeled for reuse, reuse with modification, noncommercial reuse etc). Default is not filtered and includes everything, but if you click on search tools when your results appear, change the filter for licenses that allow reuse. And of course, GIVE PROPER CREDIT when you use them.


  3. Thanks for this! I was also guilty of this when I started online and hope I’m not still making mistakes. A couple of questions:
    – citing clipart? (I know and I don’t use anymore but for those that do?)
    – using my own photos but should I do something to show that they are mine?
    I’m going to use this post as part of the introduction to blogging with students. We’ll also go through practical examples of finding and properly citing images.


  4. Good questions! I’ve used my own photos (or photos taken by my wife) occasionally in the past — and I’ve been pretty haphazard about listing photo credit (largely because I was clueless too). That said, I’m planning to consistently provide photo credit (even for my own photos) in the future. At this point, the only times I *don’t* provide image credit are when I’m using a CC or public domain image (e.g., something from Wikimedia Commons) that doesn’t list an author. And even then I link directly to the page where I found the image.

    I’m not sure about clipart, because I’ve never used it. I’ll see if anyone in the Twitterverse has answers. 🙂


  5. April

    What a great message. Keep up the work. I think more people need to think this way.

    Here is another website that one can use if it follows specific citing requirements mentioned when viewing the photos, I believe:

    This website seems to be registered under Creative Commons.
    Thanks again, great post.


  6. Johnna

    Please post if you find an answer to the clip art question from genegeek. I sometimes use them or modifications of them on my site and thought it was OK, but maybe not? I am also very lax about citing my own photos, but they are so crappy I don’t think any one else will ever use them for anything (not sure I’d want to claim them anyway!)


  7. Excellent article. Sadly there are a lot of people out there who honestly think that if an image is online, it’s free to use. Some think it’s only ok if it’s not used to make money off of, some just don’t care either way. Which is all a shame because in many instances it’s very easy to just list the author/creator’s name and source as attribution. Not doing so is just LAZY.

    I tell people, if YOU didn’t take the photo, SOMEONE ELSE did. They deserve attribution, at the very least. (And “I couldn’t find the source” isn’t attribution.)


  8. Very true. I think it’s worth noting that if you look at a lot of the earlier posts I wrote on this blog, you’ll find images I got from stock.xchng. As I said above (in this post), I was pretty clueless. I thought that agreeing to the terms and conditions meant simply notifying the artists on the site that I was using the image (which I did) — as long as I wasn’t using the art for commercial purposes. I was wrong, and it was brought to my attention by folks like Alex Wild and Glendon Mellow. That’s when I really started paying attention to my images (and no one preaches like the converted). I’m actually *still* in the process of going back through my images to add attribution — and there are some that I’m having a heck of a hard time finding again (even w/ Google Image, etc.). [Update: was able to find last remaining images using TinEye — all done now!]

    That’s a big reason for this post. I think a lot of people are like I was — they just don’t know that they’re doing something incorrectly. Explaining how to find and use images appropriately is important. It’s much easier to avoid making mistakes than it is to try to fix them after the fact.


  9. Clip art is just like anything creative – it depends on what the creator wants. Much of it such as the ones you can buy on a CD etc. appears to be free to use, often without attribution (i.e. public domain), though that’s sometimes unclear. But sometimes not; just depends on what the owner says. “Royalty free” isn’t the same as public domain. I too have started linking credits to the appropriate page for anything other than public domain, such as GNU free documentation license etc – there’s lots of great stuff that is available and the copyright owner requires nothing but an attribution. Wikimedia commons is very good at providing that info, IMO. For your own stuff, it’s copyrighted as soon as you create it, and no notice is necessary (since 1989) BUT, of course, providing notice makes your intent clear.


  10. Sandeep

    Matt: thanks for the great post. Is the best way to attribute an image using a linkback to the author’s site? How do you attribute your own images?


  11. Hi Sandeep, I try to honor the artist’s wishes. In other words, I abide by the terms of the Creative Commons license or by the agreement I’ve made with an artist to use their work. I also often make the images active links that take users to wherever I got the image. As a general rule, provide attribution. (You should provide attribution for public domain images too, if you know them. It doesn’t hurt you, it’s a nice thing to do, it provides context, and it can be interesting information for the reader.)


  12. When using photographs that you took yourself, you can do whatever you want. When using my own images in the past, I think I usually didn’t tag them. However, the more I think about it, the more I think that it’s better to be consistent and to demonstrate best practices. I.e., go ahead and provide the attribution (even if it’s only to yourself). It won’t hurt anything, and it demonstrates a consistent ethic across your platform. (Sorry for sounding all bureaucratic and buzzword-bingo-esque there.)


  13. On the point about whether to attribute public domain sources: definitely! As a former U.S. Government scientist whose images and video are in the public domain, I hope that people who use my work will acknowledge me or at least my agency. No, you are not required to cite the source of public domain media, but it is common courtesy to do so…..and including a link back to the source helps lead others to that source. Sometimes the creator is not listed, but the government agency or website hosting the image should be apparent. Also, as you say, look carefully at the information associated with the media; not all images on government sites are in the public domain–some are produced by contractors, which may be copyrighted..


  14. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] Institutional Blogging: Do You Really Want To Do This? › Communication Breakdown

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