Following a launch last month that was operated by SpaceX but paid for by NASA, we wondered: Who owns the photos taken on the mission? And what do we lose when a company starts to own many of the photos taken in space?
Since the beginning of the Space Age, most photos we have of space, and most of the photos taken from space of the Earth, were taken by NASA. NASA is a government agency, so those photos go into what's known as the public domain, meaning they can be used by anyone for any purpose, including commercial ones.
UPDATE: Elon Musk has tweeted that these photos are now in the public domain—we've got a new article that explores what that means and what you can do with the photos.
"We don't talk about the public domain too often, but there are no restrictions, which is how it is for most NASA photos," Parker Higgins, a copyright expert with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told me in a podcast we recorded about the subject. "You can use them for literally whatever you want… I saw an old ad the other day and the ad was for a chocolate bar that said it was 'out of this world,' and then it had a picture of space. They didn't have to clear that with anyone."
Soon after my first story, SpaceX reached out (after not responding during the course of my original reporting), to let me know it was working on a solution.
"We're actually looking at this right now and will have more to say soon," the company said at the time.
Wednesday night, the company created an official Flickr account with all of the photos released under what's known as a Creative Commons license, which gives the public the chance to reuse and share the photos in many cases.
More than 100 photos, including some of the company's offices, employees, launches, and pictures taken from space, are currently available.
The specific license SpaceX used is known as Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic, and it does have some restrictions. Notably, no one can resell SpaceX's photos, even if you remix or alter them (unless it falls under "fair use," which is another area of copyright altogether that we can talk about sometime). The photos can be used by journalists to illustrate news stories. UPDATE: SpaceX has changed the license to Attribution 2.0 Generic, which means the photos can be used anywhere, including for commercial purposes, as long as SpaceX is credited.
The license also allows, say, schools to make posters and put them in their hallways, students to use them in science fair projects, and internet artists to adapt and mess with them.
"We lucked into every photo of space happening to be accessible to everyone. Except now maybe it won't be," Higgins said in the podcast. "For each photo, it may not matter that much, but the fact we had a resource of all the images of the Earth freely accessible, and that could go away."
SpaceX's move is a good one, but we're still losing something here. The Creative Commons license is much better than nothing, but it's still a shift from what we've gotten used to with space photos. It's a side effect, I suppose, of democratizing space.
UPDATE: SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced that the company has decided to make the photos available on Flickr under a more generous license, removing the "non-commercial" requirement. The move seems to have been prompted by a Twitter user's question to Musk about why the company originally went with a more restrictive license. SpaceX confirmed the change to Motherboard in an email. (Note that while Musk referred to the new license as "full public domain" on Twitter, the legal designation in the US is not technically the same, Higgins said. "The complicating factor is that (a) who knows if Elon Musk is using the word 'public domain' carefully, and (b) Flickr does not have an option for marking works with the CC tool used to release things into the public domain, a [Creative Commons] Zero waiver," Higgins said in an email. "It only has a 'no known restrictions' option (for, say, govt or historical works) which isn't quite right here. So I don't know which it is! Either [public domain] or [Attribution 2.0] is a marked improvement... but they're not the same thing and it's not clear which it is.")
Much more information in our follow up story here.