Google Image Search Adds Creative Commons

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One of the bigger headaches many visual artists have talked to me about is that many, often misguided, think that Google Image search is the same thing as a stock photo gallery and that anything they see or can find is right for the taking.

The problem, however, is that most of the photos in Google Image Search are copyright protected, legal for Google to use in the way it does under the Perfect 10 v Google ruling. Others, using the full-sized images in blog posts or site designs, often run afoul of the law.

However, today Google announced that it was integrating Creative Commons into its image search. The new feature promises to find images available for a variety of reuse scenarios, including commercial use, and actually make Google Image Search an effective way to find images for repurposing.

As promising as this sounds, the system isn’t quite perfect, though it is a great first step.

How it Works

If you’ve ever used the basic Creative Commons Search under Google, you are probably already familiar with how to use the one for image search. First, visit the Google Image Search home page and click the “Advanced Search” link.

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There, toward the bottom of the options, you’ll find a dropdown box for filtering the results by license.

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Once you select your desired license terms, just perform the search as usual and you should see the familiar results, but with a notice like this one above the thumbnails.

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From there, as with regular image searches, you can click the thumbnails to view the Web pages they are on.

All in all, the search seems to work very well. The results seem to come mostly from environments with clear licensing and there’s a good variety of images on most of the queries that I tried. That being said though, there were still a few hiccups and concerns that I saw.

Some Limitations

The biggest limitation that I saw when using Google Image Search’s CC functionality was that it, understandably, can not detect licenses perfectly. In the original blog post, Google warns that users should verify the licenses independently, which is a very good idea.

A big reason is because Google is detecting image licenses on the page, not within the post. So, for example, if a blog post has its text in under a CC license and but uses an image as a fair use example, the image, at least in some occasions, winds up in the search. It can also happen to where Google places unneeded restrictions on an image if, for example, a public domain work is used on a CC-licensed blog.

The other, and less avoidable, problem is that many people are placing CC licenses on works they don’t own. A simple search for “Marilyn Monroe” found many commercial images that were, almost certainly, not licensed for commercial use for free. Other celebrities produce similar results.

The user has to make the final decision about whether they have the correct license for an image and, on that front, I urge caution. Remember, all the search does is point you to pages where an image you like and a CC license exist at the same time.

The other problem is that, despite Google’s impressive breadth on the Web, there seems to be a limited number of sources that it pulls from for these searches. Flickr is by far the most common source, which isn’t shocking as it is the largest repository of CC-licensed images, but it and Wikimedia seem to make up well over 90% of the results I checked. There were a few Blogspot blogs and at least one Typepad blog as well as a few other domains, but they were the extreme minority.

In the end, Google’s search did not seem significantly more robust than Zemanta’s image search, even if they have far more images on paper.

Still, it is a tremendous step forward for Google Image Search, even if it also a catchup to Google’s main search product, and means that, with just an extra step, those used to using Google Image Search to find photos for their blog posts and templates will now be able to do so legally and freely.

Bottom Line

In the end, this new feature is nice, but doesn’t blow me away. Though I’m a big supporter of Creative Commons, the implementation of this is understandably flawed and limited. Much of the benefit is already available via Flickr, Zemanta and Photo Dropper.

Furthermore, as with its main search product, Google works to bury its CC search functionality as deep as it can. Though it isn’t as well hidden as its counterpart, its unlikely anyone is going to stumble on it by accident.

This is definitely a step in the right direction for Google Image Search but there is still more that could and should be done with it. The question is whether or not Google has the dedication to this project to make it happen.

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