September 14, 2016

Teaching professional skills… using Creative Commons and Pubic Domain images

Posted by Laura Guertin

This blog post is motivated by my desire to see students engage in best practices in obtaining media (audio, photo, video) to support classroom assignments. Since so many of my course-based projects have a service learning component, and the outcomes will be shared beyond our academic community, I need to make sure all of the materials my students utilize are being used with appropriate permissions/licenses and citations.

Unfortunately, I can’t bring my students across the globe to obtain all of the resources they may want/need to complete a project. But more and more of the world is becoming available to them through the internet – and selectively available with a “stamp of permission” for them to use and share. This is why I do a very quick instructional unit on the basics of public domain (see and Creative Commons (

I supplement my short lecture with materials I place in our online course management system. This page from the Harvard Law Library is an excellent summary on finding and attributing public domain and Creative Commons media. Stanford University Libraries has great definitions of public domain, and there is a very detailed description on citing images with Creative Commons licenses. These are videos I have available for students to view so they can have more background information.

creative-commons-783531_1280This graphic is useful in helping students recognize the symbols for an image/song/video with a Creative Commons license. There is a webpage that describes all Creative Commons licensing types and well-defined pages that explain each license. For example, a CC BY-SA 4.0 license is defined online and lets users know they must give attribution and share under the same license.

There are several websites that have listed sources for items in the public domain and with a Creative Commons license. My university’s Media Commons has a Free Media Library to guide students to these types of materials. Students can also utilize Wikimedia Commons, or do a Google search and click on Search Tools –> Usage Rights to select a Creative Commons license to search.

I typically steer students towards the Flickr Advanced Search page and encourage them to go to Any License and select All creative commons. With so many digital libraries on Flickr with public domain and Creative Commons images, such as the NOAA Photo Library (close to 8,000 images!), NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, EPA, U.S. Geological Survey… you see my point. When a student clicks on one of the images of these digital libraries in Flickr, all one has to do is look in the right corner right below the image to see what the license is (and Flickr has it set up where you can click on the license and it will explain what the license means).

I know that some (many?) of you reading this post are probably thinking that instruction on this topic does not belong in a geology course. But if students don’t learn about the appropriate use of images and attribution in my courses, then where and when will they learn this? Will they seek out this knowledge on their own? Do they even know to ask questions about where images come from? And if I am requiring students to generate media content (podcasts, videos, online slideshows, etc.) that will be shared with the public, don’t I have a responsibility to make sure students are following the law with accessing and using multimedia material? It takes so little time to instruct students on the correct way to access and use photos, that there is certainly no harm in making sure students engage in good practices from the start, even if the dissemination of a class project never goes outside my classroom walls.

If you assign students any public domain/Creative Commons-themed assignments, please share them below! I would enjoy hearing about how others approach this subject with their students.