This is a delight long extended to consumers of NASA imagery. Because cultural works produced by the government are publicly funded, U.S. copyright law takes the view that they are already publicly owned. Thus, you can do anything you want with NASA photos—you own them.
As Mike Masnick writes at Techdirt, other space agencies do not take the same approach. The European Space Agency, for instance, has taken images out of circulation by appealing to copyright law. It is Europe’s loss. The American approach of public works becoming public property has reaped riches for the commonweal. NASA pictures have given rise to social movements, art projects, and developments in intellectual history. Landsat, a U.S. program that releases pictures of Earth from space, was estimated to generate almost $1.8 billion for U.S. citizens in the year 2011 alone.
And they do more than that. As Parker Higgins, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who first highlighted the discrepancy, writes, pictures of space get kids interested in science. Space photographs, whether of our home planet or home galaxy, just look cool. They reveal the massive structures that undergird every moment of our lives.
They say, and the picture above says: You inhabit a planet that orbits around a star, and you have for every moment of your life.
Were SpaceX just in the game to make money, I would excuse their private photos. But SpaceX is essentially concerned with something broader—something just as crucial to the common good. Musk has said so himself. Last spring, he told an audience: “The reason SpaceX was created was to accelerate development of rocket technology, all for the goal of establishing a self-sustaining, permanent base on Mars.”
Public photos of space, to be used freely, would further that precious goal of human spaceflight. And SpaceX seems interested in expanding copyright on its photos. “We’re actually looking at this right now and will have more to say soon,” a SpaceX spokesman told me.
This is an important moment in the history of photographic copyright, and SpaceX should seize it. SpaceX should take the untraditional and pioneering strategy of releasing some or all of its photographs of rocket launches, landings, and spaceflight to the public domain by licensing them under CC-0.
This would permit a level of experimentation and proliferation unmatched by any other approach. (One of the most widely distributed photographs in history, after all, is The Blue Marble—a public-domain space photo.) If open-sourced, SpaceX photos could appear in textbooks and on T-shirts. They could be used for art and fashion.
And the company would set a bracing precedent: that pictures captured in spaceflight should be free, that artifacts of a crowning human technological achievement should belong to all humans. Such a precedent would protect and bolster the company’s mission even if the company itself does not live to see its objective through.