The Tragedy of the Commons

Wikimedia Commons is a database of over 25 million “freely usable media files to which anyone can contribute.”  Wikimedia and other databases like it are fantastic resources for bloggers and website owners to jazz up their postings with eye-catching content.  For the unwary user, however, such databases can present an opportunity for costly mistakes.

“Freely usable” on Wikimedia means that a user does not have to pay to download the content.  It does not, however, mean that use is without strings.  The only online material you can safely use with complete freedom are works in the public domain.  If content is in the public domain, that means its copyright has expired or it was never eligible for copyright protection.

Much of the content on Wikimedia is made available pursuant to “open content licenses,” which may require attribution of the original creator, that the specific license be identified when the content is used (including stating or linking to the terms of the license), or other conditions on its use.

If you violate the terms of any such license, you may be liable for infringing the creator’s copyright.  And that can be a very bad thing, since even  innocent infringement of another’s copyright (using it without knowing you were violating the copyright) could result in a lawsuit and award of statutory damages  under the federal Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 504, of up to $30,000 for each use.

Think it can’t happen to you?  In the past year, over a dozen lawsuits have been filed by a photographer against unsuspecting downloaders of a single image he made available on the Commons.  Their mistake – not clicking through to the “More Information” page, which details that the photograph is subject to a license agreement requiring attribution.

So, when you visit image databases, insure that you have read all of the rules for use and strictly adhere to any license requirements for the image you want to use.  Or, only use databases with public domain images.

Bottom line?  When in doubt, do not use the content.

Original Post – Eaton Peabody Intellectual Property Blog