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Do you have to give attribution if an image falls under Creative Commons? Let's say you're sharing it on social media and you're not getting money out of it. Is it fair use even if you don't credit the author of the image? It seems crazy to me that you would have to give credits for some image especially if you're just sharing those images for fun.

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It seems crazy to me that you would have to give credits for some image especially if you're just sharing those images for fun.

It seems crazy to me that anyone would think you can just use someone else's image without giving them credit. I mean, it's not really a good idea to assume that if you see something you want, you can just take it.

But anyway, back to the point: in order to share an image on social media, (1) you have to make a copy of it, (2) you have to give ("distribute") that copy to the social media website, and (3) they have to make and distribute copies of it in order for anyone else to see it. In the US or countries with similar copyright laws, the right to make copies of a creative work - like an image - is reserved to the copyright holder, which is often the person or company that created the work in the first place. Same with the right to distribute copies. So based on that part of the law alone, all three steps I mentioned above would be illegal, and if that were all there were to it, it would be flat-out illegal to share images on social media.

However, there are two ways to get around this. One is to have the copyright holder give you permission to (1) make copies of the work, (2) distribute those copies, and (3) legally give other people the right to make and distribute copies of their own. The typical way to do this is with a license, such as the Creative Commons licenses. For example, the CC-BY-ND 4.0 license says this:

Subject to the terms and conditions of this Public License, the Licensor hereby grants You a worldwide, royalty-free, non-sublicensable, non-exclusive, irrevocable license to exercise the Licensed Rights in the Licensed Material to:

  • reproduce and Share the Licensed Material, in whole or in part; and
  • produce and reproduce, but not Share, Adapted Material.

In your case, what that means is that the copyright holder for the image ("Licensor") grants "You", the person who downloaded or otherwise acquired the image, permission to (1) make copies ("reproduce") and (2) distribute copies ("Share") of the image (the "Licensed Material"), as long as you abide by certain conditions ("Subject to the terms and conditions of this Public License"). And there's another section that says this:

Every recipient of the Licensed Material automatically receives an offer from the Licensor to exercise the Licensed Rights under the terms and conditions of this Public License.

which means that the copyright holder ("Licensor") gives anyone who gets a copy of the image (such as the people you share it with) permission to (3) make and distribute copies of their own, as long as they comply with the same conditions. So there you go: as long as you abide by the conditions, and the social media site abides by the conditions, you have permission to do all three things you need to do to share the image on social media.

Now, what are those conditions? There are a few of them but this is the main one for what you're asking:

If You Share the Licensed Material, You must:

  • retain the following if it is supplied by the Licensor with the Licensed Material:
    • identification of the creator(s) of the Licensed Material and any others designated to receive attribution, in any reasonable manner requested by the Licensor (including by pseudonym if designated);
      • a copyright notice;
      • a notice that refers to this Public License;
      • a notice that refers to the disclaimer of warranties;
      • a URI or hyperlink to the Licensed Material to the extent reasonably practicable;
  • indicate if You modified the Licensed Material and retain an indication of any previous modifications; and
  • indicate the Licensed Material is licensed under this Public License, and include the text of, or the URI or hyperlink to, this Public License.

This says that if you share the image, you have to keep the attribution information provided along with the image when you got it. The attribution info might be in the image itself, or it might be part of a web page in which the image is embedded, or something else. Whatever it is, you have to pass it on along with the image in some reasonable way. On social media, that might mean including the attribution info in the same post where you share the image, if it's not already included in the image itself. If you don't, then this part of the license kicks in:

However, if You fail to comply with this Public License, then Your rights under this Public License terminate automatically.

That means that if you share the image without keeping the attribution information that was there when it was shared with you, then you have lost your right to share the image at all (because, remember, the license was the only thing that allowed you to share the image in the first place; otherwise it would have been illegal to copy or distribute it).

So in summary, if an image is under a Creative Commons license, yes you must share the attribution info along with the image. Otherwise it's illegal for you to share the image at all.

For completeness, though, I should mention there's another way to get around the sharing of images being illegal. Most countries' copyright laws provide limited exceptions where you can copy and distribute something you otherwise wouldn't be able to in order to enable education, research, journalism, critical analysis, and that sort of thing. In the US, the factors that go into determining whether this exception applies are

  • how you're using the copyrighted work (in your case, the image) - this includes whether you're trying to make money off it
  • the nature of the work, such as how creative it is
  • how much of the work you're using
  • whether and how your use affects the market for the original

And although the details vary widely in other countries, many of them also use some of the same or similar criteria. This is one way that the fact that you're not making money from sharing the image could conceivably push it toward being okay, although you don't necessarily get a free pass to share the image just because you're not making money from it.

Because the laws vary so much from country to country, and the circumstances vary so much from case to case, it's impossible to say in general whether attribution is really required when you're taking advantage of this exception. Even if it's not mentioned directly in the law, it might be among the relevant pieces of information taken into account by a court in any particular case. However, I have a hard time imagining how including attribution could hurt this kind of case, so my guess would be that even someone who intends to rely on this exception to copyright law is better off keeping attribution information intact.

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  • This answer very well describes the license conditions of a CC license, and why they apply in such a case, but badly misdescribes fair use. Fair use 1) is a strictly US doctrine and does not apply elsewhere, though exceptions to copyright apply elsewhere; 2) isn't limited to nonprofit or noncommercial use, though that has an effect, and is not limited to "small portions" of a work, although that is one of the factors; 4) is less likely to apply if the use harms the market for the original; 5) is more ;likely to apply when the use is "transformative"; and 6) typically requires attribution. Nov 30 '21 at 15:41
  • Thanks for improving your answer. I have now upvoted. Yes, non-US countries have exceptions, but they are generally much more specific and less flexible, see the post linked about fair dealing. Attribution is not a statutory factor, but it has been mentioned as significant in some court cases. "fair use is meant to allow people to copy small parts of a work, especially when it's for education, research, commentary, or sometimes other noncommercial use" seemed to imply fair use was only for non-commercial use, and only for small parts of the source. Neither is correct. Nov 30 '21 at 23:26
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    I am looking for specific cites on that casaelaw. If i find enough i will ask and self-answer a new question, if no one else has already asked. Dec 1 '21 at 0:24
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Attribution is normally required

There are several ways in which a person may be able to lawfully make and distribute copies of a work. These are:

  1. The work may not be protected by copyright at all. This is common for older works (say those published before 1900, in the US before 1925 at the moment) but rare for modern works, except for works of the US Federal Government, which US copyright law declares not protected within the US.
  2. The person may be the copyright owner.
  3. The person may have the permission of the copyright owner. This will usually be expressed in some sort of license. The terms may be broad or narrow, individually negotiated, or publicly available, exclusive or not. Whatever the terms are, the person must comply with them, to do otherwise is copyright infringement and possibly breach of contract as well.
  4. An exception to copyright may apply. In the US this means fair use, in the UK and several other countries, mostly members of the British Commonwealth, this means fair dealing, which is somewhat similar to far use but more limited, in other countries it means whatever their laws provide. India includes something like 27 specific exceptions to copyright in its law, for example, most of them rather narrow.

Let us consider these four cases. Let us call the person wishing to copy and distribute the work R for re-user.

Unprotected Work

If the work is not protected by copyright, R may legally do anything at all with it. R may make copies, R may create a modified work and put R's own copyright notice on it. I and many others think there is a moral obligation to attribute the source, and in an academic or journalistic context failure to do so is plagiarism. But there is no legal duty to properly attribute unprotected works.

Self-owned work

If R is the copyright owner, R may doe whatever s/he pleases with it. There is really no more to say here.

Licensed Work

If the work has been licensed by the copyright owner, or by someone else to whom the copyright owner has delegated that power, R may use the work in accordance with the license. R may not violate any of the terms and conditions of the license. If R violate those terms, the license may end (all CC licenses end if there is a breach of their terms). Then the owner may sue R for copyright infringement, and possibly for breach of contact as well, depending on the license terms. R may not lawfully make further distribution relying on the license.

This answer by David Z explains the specifics of relying on a CC license well, and why R must properly attribute the work if R relies on such a license. I will not repeat those details, because I could hardly improve on that part of David Z's answer.

Fair Use

Te question specifically asks abut fair use. This is a specifically US legal concept. It was originally judge-made law, but was included in the 1976 Copyright Act, and is now defined by 17 USC 107 This law provides that:

he fair use of a copyrighted work, ... for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.

Section 107 goes on to list four factors which must be considered and weighed by any court considering whether use of a work is fair use, and permits such a court to consider "other factors" as well. Thes factors are:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;

  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

For the case of sharing an image on social media, with no fee charged and no commercial purpose:

  • Factor 1 fav0ors fair use in that the use is non-commercial, but leans against it in that none of the purposes specifically mentioned (such as "criticism, comment, news reporting ..." etc) seem to imply. In addition, under factor 1 is typically placed the question of whether a use is transformative. A use is transformative when it is for a purpose significantly different than the original. For example, the lyrics of a popular song are normally intended to entertain, and to cause an emotional response in the listener. ut in a book on the art of poetry, those same lyrics might be quoted as examples of how to use rhyme and meter and other poetic elements. That would be a transformative use. Parody is usually a transformative use also.

  • Factor 2 protects creative works like fiction more than factual works such as newspapers or textbooks. Ther is not enough info in the question to fully evaluate this factor, but random graphic images are likely to be creative in nature.

  • Factor 3 favors short excerpts, adn lans against the use of most or all of the source work, It leans against fair use here, because R is presumably re-using entire images.

  • Factor 4 depends on the nature of the source image and what market it has. But as applied, factor 4 incldues the teat "what if many people did the same sort of thing that the defendant had done?" That might well harm any market that would exist for the source work, and so factor 4 probably leans against fair use in this case. (Transformative use is sometimes considered under this factor.)

In addition to the four statutory factors, courts often consider whether a reuser has properly credited the source, and lack of such credit in and of itself leans against fair use.

Thus the kind of use described in the question, particularly without giving credit, is not likely to constitute fair use.

More on fair use and when and how it applies can be found in Is this copyright infringement? Is it fair use? What if I don't make any money off it? on this site.

Other exceptions to copyright

Fair Dealing is much more specific than fair use. The copyright laws of countries that use the fair dealing concept generally provide a short list of purposes into which a use must fall for fair dealing to apply. None of these would seem to include the sort of use described in the question. See What is the practical difference between "fair use" and "fair dealing" in Copyright law? for more on fair dealing.

The laws of countries that neither use fair use nor fair dealing generally prescribe specific narrow exceptions. Typical are exceptions for news reporting, personal use, research, and teaching. The use described in the question is not likely to fit into any of these categories.

Conclusion

  • Use in reliance on a CC license always requires proper credit (attribution).
  • Fair use and other exceptions to copyright are not likely to apply, and will probably require proepr attribution if they do.

The only images which R may lawfully reuse without attribution are those out of copyright (mostly quite old) or those where R actually owns the copyright.

The kind of use described in the question of essentially random images from the net is very likely to constitute copyright infringement.

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