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Heather VanMouwerik is a Ph.D. candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. You can follow her on Twitter, @hvanmouwerik, or check out her website.



Summers in North Carolina were always long, boring, and hot. In order to survive the humidity, my sister and I would spend the morning at the community pool and the afternoon stuck inside. While Kristin preferred to play with her Little People, I would take over the kitchen countertop, covering it with crayons, colored paper, scissors, eight kinds of markers, two kinds of colored pencils, glitter, beads, magazines, and cool leaves I found in the yard. Then I would take a giant piece of construction paper and create these elaborate collages, displaying all of my little treasures by gluing them together.


I still love collages, but I don’t really have the time to create glitter-covered art anymore. Instead, as a graduate student in a visually uncreative field (history), I seize every opportunity to do creative work--making posters, adding pictures to my dissertation, writing lectures, and building websites. I love riffing on preexisting art, borrowing images from the internet and either using them as-is or mixing them into something new.


Images from the internet--any work of art, photograph, graph, or any digital visualization--is the property of the original creator and under copyright protection. In order to stay on the right side of law, I make sure that all of the visual materials I use as a graduate student are posted under a Creative Commons license and are properly attributed.


The Creative Commons, an organization started in 2001, was founded to promote responsible and legal use of media available on the internet. They believe, and I agree, that the internet provides a fantastic opportunity to form creative communities, display creative products, and inspire creative expression; however, this all must be done with respect to the rights of the artist or author. Yet, identifying and defining these rights, up until then, was difficult, unclear, and legally fraught. An artist or author didn’t quite understand their rights in posting an original work; a user of someone else’s original work didn’t know what they were legally able to do with it.


So, in an effort to make posting online easier and clearer, they put together the Creative Commons license, which outlines the types of rights artists and authors have over their work online. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, these licenses allow the poster to choose how much control she or he has over her or his own material.


There are four key components to Creative Commons: attribution (must cite original work), share-alike (your new work must be shared under the same license as the original work), non-commercial (the primary purpose of using the work cannot be for monetary gain), and no derivatives (you cannot alter the original work in any way). All of these licences except no derivatives allow you to alter or mix the original in any way you want, making it part of your new work. When you post a picture to Flickr, for example, you can pick between these four components, creating the license that best represents your desires. Better yet, the language of the licenses are free to copy and use. If you post a photo on your blog, for example, you can let users know exactly how they are allowed to use it by borrowing what you want from the Creative Commons.


As graduate students, we have many opportunities to benefit from materials posted under any version of the Creative Commons license. For the sake of brevity, I have limited the following examples to images; nevertheless, Creative Commons licenses can be applied to video, audio, and text-based media as well.


1) Dissertations and Seminar Papers: In my dissertation, I am making use of three schematics I found listed under an attribution-only license. This means, as long as I cite the proper source, I do not have to worry about getting permissions to use the images before I submit my dissertation for review. One less thing I need to worry about when the time comes. In addition, if I decide to post parts of my dissertation on my website, I can do so easily and legally. Images add so much to academic papers, so (if you can) think about adding some from sources with clearly articulated licenses.


2) Publications: Many academic presses are run through non-profit organizations, like institutes and public universities. This means that, even if  an image forbids commercial use, you can use it if it is under a Creative Commons license. This saves you a lot of time tracking down copyright information and money to buy the right to publish.


3) Lecture Slides: Yes, you can use just about any image in your lecture or class slides without breaking copyright law, because it is for educative purposes and doesn’t involve money. And it is highly unlikely that, even if you use an item without attribution, that you will be persecuted. However, it is always considered best practice to use images legally and with clear attribution. Also, if you start with images under a Creative Commons license, then you won’t have to worry about tracking down the copyright information if you decide to post your lecture slides online. Trust me: I have wasted hours doing this!


4) Teachable Moments: Since I teach history and English composition courses, I try to model proper citation techniques at all times. By including an attribution and mentioning the Creative Commons license on any qualifying picture or map, I am helping students understand what needs to be cited, when, and how.


5) Posters and Advertisements: Perhaps it is the stifled collage artist in me, but I love making posters and advertisements for events, talks, and courses for the department. If you don’t have an image to use in your design, materials in the Commons are a good place to turn. It is easy and could really make your poster standout on a crowded bulletin board.


6) Social Media and Website Building: We here at GradHacker use images in the Creative Commons to draw in our readers and make our posts look professional. You can use this same principle in your online writing, too. As long as you attribute, you can really make a statement online by using or remixing images available in the commons. You can put an image on a blog post, for example, or get inspiration and raw materials for a cool Twitter header.


Now that you have a better idea of what the Creative Commons license entails and why it is important, it is time for the fun stuff: finding some awesome resources! Below is a list of resources I have relied upon:


1) Flickr and Other General Pools of Images: If you just need a snapshot of an everyday item or a widely available image of a person or place, then a user-generated pool of images is going to be your best friend. Flickr, for example, is a website that allows anyone to load and share photographs. When a user loads an image, they have choose which (if any) Creative Commons license they want. Just be careful when you search on websites like this, since not all content is free to use and mix. On Flickr they make the license very clear, but it might not be that way on every site.


Some sites, as a way to get around this confusion, require all uploaded images to be completely free of any copyright. Wikimedia Commons, for example, is where Wikipedia stores its images. All material found there is free to use and mix, which is why it is my first stop when I am writing lectures.


2) The Met and Other Art-Related Museums: Although the art and the objects in a museum are not necessarily under copyright, images taken of these materials by the museum for publications or promotional use are. Any time you are on a museum’s website, for example, the collection of images are the property of the museum and cannot be used without explicit permission. This is very frustrating for those of us who rely on museums for research or lesson planning.


Nevertheless, in recent months, this seems to be changing. In a series of high-profile announcements, culminating in the Met’s entire catalogue, museums have started opening up their collections under a Creative Commons license. This makes museums one of the leading voices for increasing the availability of quality materials, making their images available to everyone from graduate students who don’t have the money to travel for research, professors building lectures, and undergrads writing research papers.


3) Google Earth/Maps and Other Map Makery: Although not strictly a part of the Creative Commons, Google has licensed images captured on Google Earth and maps made on Google Maps under very similar conditions. As long as either the Google icon is visible or you clearly cite Google in the image’s caption, then you can use the image in any non-commercial context without approval or monetary compensation.


This post is just the tip of the Creative Commons iceberg. For more information, check out the Creative Commons website, which also includes an ever-expanding list of resources.


Have you made use of materials under a Creative Commons license in your graduate school career? Or do you have a favorite Creative Commons resource? I, for one, am always looking for new resources, so please let us know about them in the comments!


[Image by Flickr user Naomi and used under Creative Commons license. I recommend taking a look at the rest of her collages, because they are beautiful!]