After pressure from campaigners, SpaceX has published a first batch of more than 100 photos on Flickr under a Creative Commons license. The decision gives the public the ability to download and remix the images freely (as long as they're attributed properly) and has been welcomed as a success for both space fans and copyright advocates. Unlike images of space published by NASA, SpaceX's photos do have some rights reserved, meaning they can't be used for commercial purposes.
In the US, there's a well-established tradition of copyright-free space images thanks to the work of NASA. Because the space agency is funded by taxpayers, its photographs are deemed "government works" and therefore have "no copyright restrictions on reproduction, derivative works, distribution, performance, or display."
NASA's most iconic images have started social movements and inspired millions
This means that iconic images such as The Blue Marble, Earthrise, or the Pillars of Creation are free to use in pretty much any scenario. They've appeared on T-shirts, in adverts, and been published in books, embedding themselves in our collective conscious as images that are both inspirational and aspirational. And, as Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Parker Higgins notes, they've also "formed the basis of major social movements [and] activism campaigns."
SpaceX, by comparison, has no obligation to release its images to the public. Speaking to Motherboard about the issue, intellectual property lawyer Andrew Rush said: "Just because they're operating on behalf of NASA does not necessarily mean the copyright of their images are owned by NASA or the US government. When SpaceX is operating as a NASA contractor, generally any of the copyrightable stuff they create is subject to copyright protections."
The newly-applied Creative Commons license for SpaceX's images isn't the same as putting them into the public domain, but campaigners say it's a start. "It’d be nice if these photos could appear in Wikipedia or be built upon without any caveats by artists and entrepreneurs," Higgins told The Atlantic. "But it’s still a good thing that these are going online under clear terms."
All images credited to SpaceX.