Celestial Commons: SpaceX Makes Its Photos Easier for Everyone to Use

The contractor is releasing images under a Creative Commons license—with some restrictions.

One of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets lifts off from Cape Canaveral just before sunset on February 11, 2015. (SpaceX/Flickr)

Photos taken from space—that is, photos that implicitly have humanity in them—got a little easier for humanity to use on Wednesday.

The private space contractor SpaceX has released its photos under a “some rights reserved” copyright license and posted them to a new Flickr account. The move makes it relatively straightforward for members of the public to download SpaceX photos, and allows anyone to use or remix the photos as long as they cite them as SpaceX’s creation and do not sell their work.

On its Flickr profile page, SpaceX also grants news organizations permission to publish the photos.

The photos already included under the new terms include a robot-captured image of a satellite falling into orbit, a long-exposure shot of a rocket launching from Cape Canaveral, and a blurry but widely shared photo captured by a SpaceX rocket last month that shows nearly the full sunlit disc of Earth.

In the United States, there is a strong tradition of photos from space belonging to everyone. Photos from NASA employees—including astronauts—are government works, and thus belong to the public domain. One of the most reproduced images in history, the Blue Marble photo, is an astronaut-captured photo.

SpaceX hasn’t released its photos to the public domain, as many (myself included) originally called for last month. But its licensing could help set a precedent that images produced by commercial space travel companies should be able to be used permissively by the public, just as NASA’s are. Photos on the Flickr pages of other private American space contractors, like Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences, are listed as “all rights reserved,” the most restrictive copyright terms.

SpaceX’s copyright permissiveness now often matches NASA’s own. While NASA releases astronaut photos to the public domain, it also releases photos taken on Earth by contract photographers to the same Creative Commons license as SpaceX.

Beyond the U.S., this precedent is also not as well established. European space photos do not automatically join the public domain, although the European Space Agency has slowly moved toward more open copyright policies.

An image captured by a SpaceX rocket as it ferried the DSOCVR probe to the first Lagrangian point (SpaceX/Flickr)

“It’s great for the public to have access to these photos, and the Creative Commons license SpaceX has chosen is a nice show of goodwill. Of course, there’s a big difference between ‘public domain’ and ‘some rights reserved,’ and those differences aren’t always obvious at the time,” said Parker Higgins, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an online chat. Higgins was among the first to call for SpaceX to open its photos.

“It’d be nice if these photos could appear in Wikipedia, or be built upon without any caveats by artists and entrepreneurs, but it’s still a good thing that these are going online under clear terms,” Higgins added.

It makes sense for photos from space to be made available for public use. Last month, I argued that it was just common sense for SpaceX to open up its copyright permissions. Besides, contractors like SpaceX do not structure their business around copyright permissions: They structure them around getting paid to send people and things to space. Opening up the rights around their photos could allow the photos to be distributed widely, inspiring and educating as many people as possible, while costing SpaceX little.

In releasing its photos to Creative Commons, the CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, also continues on a path of sharing intellectual property created by his businesses. Last June, his car company, Tesla Motors, essentially permitted other companies to use its patents.