Among a list of topics in our field that I am least interested in is the seemingly endless bickering about one Creative Commons license versus another.

It’s more that the details of licenses always seems to cast the largest area of attention in talking about open education sharing. After the array of licenses are tossed out in some pretty infographic, the train moves on.

The statement that “grinds my gears” is nearly always how public domain / CC0 is described:

You do not have to provide attribution.

Yes, that is technically true if you literally follow the license. But is that all it means? I prefer the spirit of it explained as dedication, of being offered to be shared in the most widely way possible:

Copyright and other laws throughout the world automatically extend copyright protection to works of authorship and databases, whether the author or creator wants those rights or not. CC0 gives those who want to give up those rights a way to do so, to the fullest extent allowed by law. Once the creator or a subsequent owner of a work applies CC0 to a work, the work is no longer his or hers in any meaningful sense under copyright law. Anyone can then use the work in any way and for any purpose, including commercial purposes, subject to other laws and the rights others may have in the work or how the work is used. Think of CC0 as the “no rights reserved” option.

CC0 Frequently Asked Questions (Creative Commons)

or better yet, this phrasing:

CC0 enables scientists, educators, artists and other creators and owners of copyright- or database-protected content to waive those interests in their works and thereby place them as completely as possible in the public domain, so that others may freely build upon, enhance and reuse the works for any purposes without restriction under copyright or database law.

Creative Commons CC0

Again, it’s technically true that the flickr photos I license under CC0 can be used for any purpose, commercial or not, and people do not have do anything, they need not attribute, they need not share the same way, the can make derivations, they can even make money.

So while many people see licenses as some way to “protect” their works, my switching from CC-BY to CC0 was my own test to see what would happen, just because people do not have to attribute and because they can do what ever they want, how badly would it hurt me?

As far as I know no one has made a ton of money from my photos, nor have I lost any. In fact, in that time:

  • A blues band is using a CC0 photo on an EP cover, they attributed me anyhow, and they are sending me a copy.
  • Someone used two photos taken on the day her great nephew was born in a self published book of “on this day”
  • A filmmaker asked for use of an image in a documentary, and asked how I’d like to be credited.
  • A professional photographer asked to use one of my photos in the banner image for her contact form “I realize I could totally go and take a photo myself, but if you don’t mind me using it, I’ll use it with that text overlay so you have photo credit. Thank you and let me know either way.”
  • An author of a Polish travel site used a photo in their travel guide“Your pictures on Flickr are very good. Beautiful compositions and interesting places. I used one of them with attribution and link to your Flickr account on my site which promotes the U.S. overseas”
  • An author of a book about dog statues asked for one to use in their self-published book, “I am very interested in your lovely picture of Toto and would love to use it in my book. The book will initially have a small print run of 200 and then be print on demand and I am self financing a large part of it. I would of course fully credit you and link to your flickr account. “

That’s just about 2 pages worth of more than 24 pages of flickr mail. Each one a story.

“That’s the good stories, where is the slime?”

Good question.

There’s an increasing raft of web sites out there offering collections of open licensed photos. Previously they used CC0, but now each seems to offer their “own” flavor. I am not quite sure why the world needs to sort through what makes a Pixabay license, and Unsplash license, or a Pexels license different from CC0 (there are subtle differences, and the license mavens can help you fine tooth comb why they are no pure open licenses, but I could not give a hoot).

So usually it’s described as… “you can use it for free and not provide attribution.”


I like Pixabay a lot- it’s my go to often for metaphors. And in a yet to be written posted, they are pretty darn picky on what they pick ( have had lots rejected). I know lots of people like and they do have stunning photos- sometimes to me a bit too stunning.

But there’s worse. There are some shadier outfits out there that rather than be places where photographers share photos, they go around and scrape images from other sites to put into their collections- and those scraped ones are often CC0 licensed ones, because technically, the license allows a scraper slimeball to do so.

Recently my dog pal Martin Weller spotted one of my photos out there

Of course that’s my dog! And my photo. The site it is on just gives credit to Pixabay (no link)- and the only contact the site has is a Facebook page. Dead-endville for me to send them a message.

With some reverse image searching, I did find my photo of Felix on Pixabay… uploaded there by someone else. And used on a whole raft of other sites (if you see the link, you will also see my comment, informing “skeeze” that he got the breed of the dog wrong).

So by the letter of the license, that’s ok. But is it the right thing to do? I did find on Pixabay a place in the forums where someone else had this issue, and there is a way to report the account who did this (UPDATE April 17, 2019- Hans from Pixabay moved the image into my account, thanks!)

Ahhhhh but there is worse, the scourge of a site called “Maxpixel”- the URLs change every now and then, for a while it was now maybe it is Their results come of very often in Google Image search results with filters set to license for free use.

And you find there some beautiful pictures, like

There it is a CC0 license Public Domain image. But here is a trick- take any maxpixel URL like and just change out the for — and wow, oddly familiar

Now if that does not feel slimy, well try the mackerel ice cream.

The entire MaxPixel site is a wholesale theft copy of Pixabay. Again, because of public domain licenses, it’s not quite anything that breaks the letter of the license… but it sure seems smelly (Pixabay knows of this, I have seen it discussed, it’s hard for them to fight).

I am rather disgusted that Do Not Evil Google just let’s this stuff slide in their search results. For more, read Just Say No to Maxpixel.

Here’s another fish smelling site. Tonight, while adding a regional travel link to one of my Arizona web clients, I noticed on the Discover Gila County site a photo that I recognized.

Yep, that’s my photo!

Even before seeing my name on the credit, I saw my red truck from a series of photos I did a few years for the Fire on the Rim Mountain Bike race. It is odd that this site identifies it as “All Rights Reserved” because my photo has a CC0 license:

And if I was dithering to the letter of the license I could complain, because you cannot add an All Rights Reserved to a CC0 license image. But I don’t really care.

But without a link to my original I first tried a Reverse Google Image search, and landed to a swath of my CC0 flickr photos on (it’s not the exact photo but is one and the ones running down the page are all mine from the same event)

While I see in some places pxhere does provide attribution, here they don’t… because by the letter of the license they don’t have to, right? But they scavenged my photos, even lifted my entire caption, and stuck it on their site. What happens is other people land here bby search, and they just follow along the crowd that says, “I’ll take this, and I do not have to attribute.”

Okay, so if you have not said it already; the obvious question is, “Alan if you care that much about attribution why do you not license them CC-BY?”

It’s because I do not see the license as protection or enforcing, and again, this is my experiment. I am more interested in the people that do attribute and say thanks when they do not have to, than the people who just care about the minimum, letter to the license interpretation.

As rule, I do not use photos from sites like and others that do not give credit to the photographers who share photos. I have a search shortcut set up in Chrome where I can type gcc search-terms – it not only does an image search filtered to ones licensed for use, but I also remove maxpixel and pxhere from the results (example) For a lesson in doing this, see The Gift of Time.

Please, please, for the sake of all open licensed cute puppies do not explain public domain / CC0 only as “use freely and you do not have to attribute.”

That may be legally and technically valid but from a human, sharing, what would your mom say perspective, a bit morally stinkyfish. My suggestion is always, always attribute, even if you do not have to. It’s more about gratitude than license nibbling.

The flipside of not attributing, also is it sends a signal to every person who looks at your stuff, to do the same, because “that’s what everyone else does.”

Don’t be that person.

Featured Image: Hah, sometimes you search for slimy and you find it! I modified the Geograph UK image Slimy purple ice-cream by by  Peter Barr and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons CC BY-SA Licence. I changed the top text to read “PUBLIC DOMAIN” and sprinkled some CC0s around. So I share as Peter did under CC BY-SA.

Yum, slimy ice cream and CC0 served here…
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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. Last Wednesday I was giving a blogging/digital storytelling workshop for a History class where the prof had a great formulation for this. She said “as a historian, everything is either something you created or something you should cite.” It reminded me of you, and I like the way this teaches the students to think about citation – not as a legal responsibility, but as a mental and social habit.

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