I’m a big fan of free stuff. Big fan. It’s basically why I take my kids to the Auto Show ever year. It’s why the exhibit area of every conference is so awesome—free pens, USB keys, phone wipes, even candy. I’m also a fan of free stuff when it comes to presentation design. It’s why I love free photo sites like Unsplash, Pixabay, and Gratisography (full disclosure: I supported the Unsplash book on Kickstarter). Sites like these offer large, high-quality images for free and don’t even require you to give credit to the creator.

But what gets me in a ranty mood is when someone offers something for free and then takes it back and tries to sell it.

This happened recently with a photograph I was planning to use in my forthcoming book on presentation design. The photographs in my book come from two main sources: for sale on Shutterstock, and from Unsplash, which provides free, large, high-quality images.

creative-commons-783531_960_720Unsplash—and other similar sites—publish their images under what’s called a “CC0” license. If you’re not familiar, “CC” refers to “Creative Commons,” a nonprofit organization that provides a standard way to give people permission to use and share your creative work. Creative Commons offers 6 different license types, which you can apply to your work as you see fit. Want attribution for your illustration? Fine, use the “CC BY” license, which let’s others use it—even commercially—as long as they give you credit. Maybe you don’t want to let people use your photo for commercial endeavors: that’s fine too—maybe use the “CC BY-NC” license, which let’s others use your work as long as they attribute you and don’t use it commercially.

Even though the Unsplash images fall under the CC0 license, for purposes of my book, I’ve decided to include the photographer’s names because I think it gives them the recognition they deserve. And that recognition is not only for the high-quality photos, but also for letting the rest of us use their work for free. It’s a pretty awesome thing if you think about it, just giving really good material away for anyone to use and not even asking for credit.

But here’s where things turned. I was making sure I had the Unslpash photographer’s names spelled correctly, but when I went to find this image (I save the URL in the Notes pane of my PowerPoint files), it had been removed.


I emailed Unsplash to find out why and they told me that the photographer had closed his account. They recommend—and I’m quoting here—“consider[ing] respecting the photographers decision to sell the photo.”

Well, here’s the thing. This person offered me something for free (which I appreciate, don’t get me wrong) and then took it back. And then offered it for sale (I found it on Flickr and 500px). There may be legitimate reasons why he took it down, I don’t know, but on the face of it, it seems like, “just kidding! buy this instead.”

What really got me thinking was what would happen if I published the image in the book and the creator came back at me and accused me of stealing the picture. With the URL no longer working, I have no documentation that it ever existed on Unsplash in the first place. Fortunately (after a few emails and a short Twitter conversation), Unsplash did confirm, in writing, that the photo was in their archive.

And here’s the thing about the CC0 license, and this in the words of Creative Commons:

CC0 is a one-way street. Once you apply CC0 to your work you can’t change your mind later and re-assert copyright or database rights over the work.

Now, I’m no lawyer, but it seems that I’m good here. The creator can take it down from Unsplash or wherever and try to sell it, but it’s still covered under CC0. And fortunately, I now have documentation that it was indeed on Unsplash.

Figure2.20d_NEWBut I’m not going to use it. I found a different image (also on Unsplash) with similar content and a similar color palette. It’s of course possible that the creator of this image will take it down, but I can’t track down every image all the time. But I now have a plan: I’ve not only saved the raw JPEG image and recorded the URL, but I’ve also printed a PDF copy of the Unsplash page (with the date) for my own archives. It’s one extra bothersome step, but now I feel like I need to be a bit more careful.

There’s often a concern that people are going to steal creative content: Google an image, download it, and insert it in a graph or PowerPoint without worrying about the copyright. And stealing someone’s creative work is not cool. But when a content creator releases a product under a particular license, they are making an implicit agreement with users and should respect that agreement. Thus, I’m not going to publish the name of the photographer who took down this photo and give him credit. It’s just not cool.

So if you are a content creator who allows others to use your content for free, with or without attribution, I salute you. And if, like me, you try to be careful about using and attributing images, icons, photos, and illustrations, be careful about what you use and where you get it. Document your sources, record your URLs, and create your own archive.

And if you want a preview of some of the images that will appear in my book out this fall, check out my Book Collection on Unsplash.