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Paleontological Art and the Creative Commons

During the past few years, I’ve been making more and more of an effort to incorporate artwork licensed via Creative Commons (CC) into my blog posts and presentations. Two reasons underlie this–for one, PLOS requests that its bloggers license their blogs under a Creative Commons license, and thus I have to be careful about the artwork I use (i.e., even if I get permission from an artist, they have to be okay with a CC license–more on this below). The second reason is that I want to make more of my presentation slides (and videos of my presentations) available via CC license. Although fair use allows many uses of copyrighted material for classroom lectures, etc., it doesn’t necessarily allow me to distribute those more widely (particularly with a CC license on them). Thus, using only CC-licensed work (and public domain work, when available) allows me more freedom in what I do with it.

Sinocalliopteryx eating a hapless dromaeosaur. From Xing et al. 2012. CC-BY.
Sinocalliopteryx eating a hapless dromaeosaur. Illustration by Cheung Chungtat, from Xing et al. 2012. CC-BY.

Finding Sweet, Sweet CC Artwork
It’s actually fairly easy to find artwork licensed under various Creative Commons licenses. Wikimedia Commons is my usual go-to, and a Google Images Search (with licenses specified) works adequately. PLOS ONE articles also function as sources, particularly if I have a particular topic in mind (the image above originally appeared in the journal). My other new favorite is Phylopic, for its broad coverage. That site focuses just on silhouettes–very handy for abstractly showing a whole bunch of taxa in a uniform style. It’s not just a bunch of Velociraptors drawn and redrawn, but lots of obscure insects, modern mammals, and the like (full disclosure: I submitted a silhouette of myself for the site).

This search strategy usually works pretty well, but I consistently run into three issues:

  1. Images are often of variable quality. On the Tyrannosaurus page at Wikimedia, for instance, they range the gamut from cartoony to inaccurate to woefully inaccurate to actually pretty good.
  2. Licensing. There are many flavors of Creative Commons license, ranging the gamut from permissive (attribution only) to quite restrictive (no commercial use, no modification, all derivative work must use same license). I usually err on the permissive side (CC-BY / CC-By), because I want others to be able to reuse my own work as easily as possible. Plus, the commercial clause freaks me out a little bit – if the artwork goes on an exhibit in a museum that charges admission, does that count as commercial use? Probably not, but I’m not inclined to test the waters.
  3. Permissions. In many cases, photos licensed under CC licenses are images of specimens in museums with restrictive photography policies. Thus, I suspect that they may not validly licensed as CC, particularly for casual snapshots from museum exhibits. I don’t necessarily agree with this (if museums argue that fossils shouldn’t be commercial commodities, why commercialize all of their images, even by casual photographers? This is what some call a mixed message.), but as a person who works at a museum I want to abide by the rules when possible.

Fortunately, the situation is steadily improving. The selection of artwork and specimen images available via Creative Commons expands daily, and I’ve found that the average quality is also getting better. I’m not a huge fan of some of the art styles, but at least it is something to use! In light of all of this, here are some of my own closing thoughts:

  1. Whenever possible, we should make our work available via Creative Commons licenses or a public domain dedication. A recent project required a human silhouette–so once I made it, I uploaded it to Phylopic under a CC-BY license. If going to that effort, it isn’t much harder to share the wealth.
  2. That said, if you commission an artist to produce original art for a publication that will be released via CC-BY (or another CC license), make sure the artist is aware of this. In talking with one artist, they said they aren’t always kept in the loop on the plans for a piece of work, and were surprised to see it released as CC-BY. Such a CC license could potentially affect their income down the road (especially for commercial artists). For a forthcoming paper, we alerted the artist as to our plans, and compensated the artist appropriately for releasing the work as CC-BY. It’s good to be good to artists (and they appreciate the concern, too).
  3. For those of you just starting out on designing lectures and the like, use Creative Commons and public domain images from the start. I have found it a real pain to retrofit some of my class lectures!

And that’s all I have to say about that (for now).

A ctenophoran, by Scott Hartman. Public domain.
A ctenophoran, by Scott Hartman. Public domain, from Phylopic.

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