No copyright on this planet – thank Heavens (and NASA) for that!

As the Space Age completes 50 years today, 4 October 2007, we have at least two generations of humans who take images like this one completely for granted.

Yet no one had the capability – and vantage point – to take such images until satellites were launched into orbit, and later astronauts followed.

Beginning in the 1960s, thousands of stunning images — showing our planet in space, as well as the Moon and other celestial bodies in our Solar System — have entered the public domain. These are now part of our popular culture and represent a major educational resource.

These images didn’t come for free. It has cost space agencies – primarily NASA, the American space agency – literally billions of dollars over the decades to capture and deliver these images that we happily, freely bandy around. Contrary to what some people believe, NASA is not a world space agency. It’s the national space agency of a single country, financed by tax payers of that country.

Yet, early on, NASA adopted a very far-sighted, public spirited policy that all its space images would be made available free of copyrights to anyone, anywhere on the planet. This is what enables me to use space images on my blog – and keeps tens of thousands of such images in the public domain.

This is what the NASA official website currently has to say about it:
NASA still images, audio files and video generally are not copyrighted. You may use NASA imagery, video and audio material for educational or informational purposes, including photo collections, textbooks, public exhibits and Internet Web pages. This general permission extends to personal Web pages.”

Significantly, this includes commercially produced and marketed products, even though NASA’s guidelines make it clear: “If the NASA material is to be used for commercial purposes, especially including advertisements, it must not explicitly or implicitly convey NASA’s endorsement of commercial goods or services…”

There are some reasonable restrictions on this fair use. Read the full NASA copyright policy.

I was curious to see what copyright policy the space agencies of other leading space-faring nations follow. This is what I found on the European Space Agency’s website:
“The contents of the ESA Web Portal are intended for the personal and non-commercial use of its users. ESA grants permission to users to visit the site, and to download and copy information, images, documents and materials from the website for users’ personal non-commercial use. ESA does not grant the right to resell or redistribute any information, documents, images or material from its website or to compile or create derivative works from material on its website. Use of material on the website is subject to the terms and conditions outlined below.”

As we can see, it’s a lot more restrictive than NASA’s. I haven’t been able to check the policy of Russian, Chinese or Japanese space agencies, and wonder how liberal or restrictive their copyright policies are.

On strict legal terms, I suppose, creators or finders can be keepers. Arguments can be made that space images obtained at tremendous cost to tax payers can be owned, copyrighted and managed by those agencies and nations footing the bill. This is what makes NASA’s open copyright policy so creditable. Our visual public media — broadcast television, video, DVD and the web — would all have been so much poorer if some nitpicking lawyer or bureaucrat had succeeded in persuading the early NASA management to be more restrictive.

While still on the subject of space images, I wonder why so many images of Earth from space show Africa. I had to search for some minutes to find an image that showed Asia – the largest continent – from space. Next to Africa, the one showing the Americas seems the most popular.

We have to remember that some images we find online are composite images, carefully assembled by combining the best attributes of many images taken over time. Photographing or video filming our planet is not as simple as just going to space, aiming a camera and shooting. It involves a great deal of skill, resources and effort.

And keeping the resulting images in the public domain and open to access takes foresight and public spirit. As the Space Age turns 50, we must acknowledge this aspect of space exploration, which allows compositions like this, found on YouTube, for all of us to enjoy.

3 Responses to “No copyright on this planet – thank Heavens (and NASA) for that!”

  1. Ayesha Says:

    Hi. This is interesting. I have always taken for granted that the space images belong to all humanity, but you are right: NASA could easily have claimed all copyrights. Many government research and development agencies, run with tax payer money, restrict the intellectual property of their products and don’t allow it to be in the publci domain.

    I have heard that the images of Earth from space, especially those taken by Apollo astronauts showing ‘Earthrise’ as seen from the Moon, inspired the environmental movement in the 1970s, including the first Earth Day which I believe was 22 April 1970. Can you or someone confirm this?

  2. dan Says:

    Very interesting, stumbled across this – I too love Nasa’s copyright free aspect, and as you say, it’s easy to forget it’s America’s space agency, not ‘ours’ even though it feels like that. I just got permission to use an image of theres – have to double check for my job etc, – and of course, all straightforward.

  3. Nuwan Says:

    it’s interesting you mentioned people making money off them. one of the instagrammers on that wired article is willing to sell her ‘edits’.

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