Illustrations for the penniless

ILLUSTRATIONS ARE ESSENTIAL to digital content. Just imagine, for example, a webpage that is merely a wall of text. Regardless of how pertinent it may be for its intended public, it would be dead on arrival. To spruce up their publications, many companies thus hire photographers and graphic artists, subcontract artwork, and subscribe to stock photo services like Shutterstock or Getty Images. But what if, like Synaps, you have no dedicated staff and budget, and still must satisfy the internet’s boundless appetite for lively imagery? Luckily, there is an abundance of quality, free references available to use under conditions few people are sufficiently aware of. 

Indeed, the internet is rife with worst practices you must not emulate. Pictures have become so easy to take, share, store, and view that it is tempting to believe that their value is nil. Why wouldn’t I own the image of a masterpiece that I captured on my phone in a museum? Shouldn’t the illustration I saw in a free article be reusable at will? And why would anyone post visual content on the internet if they didn’t want to make it available to others in the first place?

The answer to all these questions is intellectual property rights. Even the most trivial visual output is produced and maintained at some cost to someone—in the form of equipment, professional skills, time invested, travel expenses, and storage. Disregarding the value of and ownership over graphic content amounts to misappropriation and theft. Fortunately, the rules for legal compliance and proper etiquette are easy to grasp and implement.   

Avoid all images without attribution. A picture’s owner should appear clearly in the credits, which may feature in a caption or anywhere else on the publication. It is essential to discard any image whose holder is patently unknown, because that makes it impossible to ascertain the conditions for reuse.

Determine an image’s rights. Pictures meant to be reusable will often carry labels from permissive licenses that may specify some restrictions, such as commercial applications. Creative Commons is perhaps the most ubiquitous such example; many Wikipedia illustrations, for instance, are governed by it. Public authorities have developed similar frameworks, such as the Open Government Licence, which the United Kingdom’s archives fall under. Items may also enter the public domain, which means that they are free of any copyright. This may be the owner’s decision or occur after copyright protections have expired, as with historical artefacts. Legislation differs from one country to the next and its implementation may also be challenged in court, so it is important to check an item’s status. 

Contact the owner of proprietary images, which neither come under a permissive license nor are part of the public domain. Some artists may graciously contribute their work or sell it at an affordable price—as Synaps experienced on several occasions. Other owners will not, and so be it. The wondrous drawings contained in Le Petit Prince, for example, remain in the hands of the author’s descendants, who have retained, through legal proceedings, lucrative rights long after they should have elapsed. 

Always provide clear and accurate credits. Identify the images you publish with as much information as possible and relevant, notably the author’s name, the work’s title, its production date, the source you took it from, and its license. If you are a regular user of free imagery, you may also give back to the community through labelling any illustrations of your own under Creative Commons. 

Even better, post them separately, with keywords to make them discoverable, on a platform devoted to sharing unrestricted items. A popular such website is Unsplash, which holds hundreds of thousands of photos pooled by both professionals and amateurs. 

Depending on your needs, you will turn to various websites—that you should bookmark for future reference whenever you find something useful. Wikipedia, as mentioned, is an extraordinary repository of clearly labelled illustrations across an encyclopedic range of topics. Institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art have also released vast collections under permissive licenses. Similarly, research centers and national archives around the world are increasingly sharing pictures, with tags and credits that make them easy and safe to reuse. Creative Commons, for its part, runs a dedicated search engine called CC Search.

Even generic tools such as Google can come in handy. When searching results in “Images,” choose “Labelled for reuse” in the “Usage rights” dropdown bar that appears in the “Tools” tab. That will, in theory at least, restrict your findings to reusable visual content. However, always check that the item truly respects copyright legislation, as many lovely pictures posted on sites like Flickr have been labelled incorrectly. 

The one problem left to solve is how to trigger your imagination. At Synaps, we typically start with a selection of keywords related to our article’s topic. We then search some of the above platforms to bring up a first crop of possible images. It is good, at that stage, to let your mind freewheel and make new associations before refining keywords or exploring new avenues. Finding a good match is an iterative process and a fun one at that. Our brain, arguably, likes nothing better than to juggle pictures. So knock yourselves out! 

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Illustration credit: Photo by Sean Kowal on Unsplash / licensed by Unsplash.

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