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.
“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.