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Google Life Photo Archive: Fantastic Images / Fuzzy Info on Usage

I can agree with all the positive acclaim for the archive of Life photographs Google is hosting. It is a vast archive of important historical moments.

What is striking me odd that is not strictly mentioned on this site is any statement on usage of the images. I looked high and low, and I am rather perplexed that such a collection would overlook something I have found front and center (or footer and center) on every other photography or art archive online.

After my cursory research this is what you can do with this site:

  • You can search or browser for images using the Google interface.
  • You can look at the images.
  • You can buy merchandise related to the image.
  • You can (guessing) provide a link to the page holding an image

And that is it. Everyone who is embedding copies of these images is violating copyright. It is not clear if you can use an IMG tag in your own site that references the Google hosted one.

There is no statement of copyright beyond a © Time in the lower left and a @copy; Google in the bottom. It’s not clear who is copyrighting what, but would guess Time owns the image (so you will hear from Time’s lawyers) and Google is copyrighting their web page.

There is certainly no Creative Commons anywhere here.

Google has tags for finding the images, but you have no ability to tag anything yourself.

As a summary, I have this copyright violating diagram of a Country Doctor a typically expressive Life photo by W. Eugene Smith:

I tried first on that link “About images hosted by Google” and it just plopped me back to the entrance page. That is a really strange way to provide an explanation of the site.

I finally got as close as I could get to a terms of use in the “Help” section:

What can I do with the images I find from the LIFE photo archive?
You can browse and view the images you find, rate them, and see detailed information about the photographs. There is also a link to buy image merchandise provided by LIFE.

Yep. You cannot download them. You cannot stick them in your PowerPoints. You cannot embed them in your blog posts. They are 100% totally copyright locked down shut. It is not clear on linking.

Which is not really gonna stop people (case in point).

There is no actual detailed terms of use here (were the lawyers out playing golf on the day they designed the site?).

Perhaps I have overlooked something and someone with better insight will show me the errors of my ways.

I would want to know these things before gushing any more about how Great a Thing This Is. As is, they have replicated a magazine file cabinet that you can paw through, but don’t get your grimy fingerprints on the collection.

So excuse me if my joy is tempered. I may come back some day to just mosey around, but my kind of content I will pay attention to is open or if not, clear about it.

But at least I can buy a framed version of a locked piece of media.

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


  1. This is exactly the same reaction as I had myself, as posted on my blog this afternoon (in Norwegian). I am very disappointed that such an important source to our culture and history is presented in a very old-fashioned and traditional matter. Because, as you so eloquently point out, most people will “steal” them anyway, and they will do so because the photos are important, useful and beautiful, but they will not make money from them. I am a teacher. I would love to give my students the opportunity to blog about these photos, or let them use them as illustrations in their posts, but this is prohibited. If I do that now, I’ll turn them into criminals. Most people don’t care, they’ll use the photos anyway. I wish they could do that without breaking the law. What a shame.

  2. Stephen beat me to that comment, and it wouldn’t matter except that it’s good to know what we can do no matter the copyright or owner’s intent. In K12 I see way too much fear over legitimate uses and that stuff permeates.

    I do find the lack of information regarding copyright strange. It’s an odd thing to leave out these days- cue conspiracy music- almost seems intentional.

  3. @Tom: I would think Google does not care about protecting copyright because like the rest of their image search, it ain’t their content, so it is Someone Else’s Problem. Now Time Magazine, which gave Google’s the Keys to the Life Kingdom, is another story… People get lost sometimes in seeing Google as some sort of altruistic non-business being, but Nicholas Carr has been helpful in reminding that they are,a t the end (and middle and beginning) of the day– a business with a need to generate revenue. And to that end, their prime motivation is generating ad sales.

  4. @Alan I agree with you there.

    I guess I was thinking about how the conversation must have gone between Google and Life. I mean, considering the standard Google image search warning “Image may be scaled down and subject to copyright” you get used to Google covering its ass.

    Maybe Life felt the watermark was enough but it still seems really odd not to have some direct usage statement.

  5. Alan … this was my reaction as well. Here is an amazing archive, but it is not compatible with the realities of the read/write web. No use, unless you do what you have done or you claim Fair Use for teaching and learning. Interestingly enough, situations push us into the closed, dark corners of our campus CMS/LMS to comply with the TEACH Act. Too bad.

  6. Poor old Jerry Yang – he’s faced a takeover bid from Microsoft, the wrath of his shareholders when he rejected it, job losses, and now the market seems to have applauded his decision to stand down as CEO. Yahoo’s shares soared a whooping

  7. Hi Alan,

    OK – my understanding of copyright is limited but I think there are a few obvious errors in the reactions so far…

    Many of the older photographs are well out of any copyright coverage… there are temporal limits to copyright despite any claims of ownership.

    Browsing many of the images I find there are simple statements at the bottom of the page…

    “For personal non-commercial use only” – seems to say to me that there is some permission to use them. Non-commercial seems to be the key…

    I tend to think its probably OK the way you’ve used the image here and in most educational contexts.

    There’s another aspect that’s often overlooked – simply asking for permission to use images – I’ve found that to be a very effective strategy – many organisations are quite happy to allow me to use materials after I ask.

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