"Pinterest Attribution" by Pinterest-Anti-Christ (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsOver the past few months, we have embarked on an epic journey through the world of copyright law, and how it affects the ability of freelancers, bloggers, and others to use stuff they find online. (Maybe using the word “epic” is over-selling it a bit, but maybe not.) We have discussed public copyright licenses like the Creative Commons licenses, and ways to take advantage of the Fair Use Doctrine.

Now that you have some idea of how to find images and other materials online that you can use without having to pay for a license, you need to know how to give proper attribution for the materials that you use. Remember: someone worked very hard to create this work that you are using for free (and even if they didn’t work hard, they put in more effort on it than you did). The least you can do to show your appreciation—literally, the least you can do—is to give them credit for their work.

Since I am going to demonstrate how to give attribution for a photograph, I may use terminology that is specific to visual images. This process can work for other materials as well.

Key Information Needed for Attribution

Ideally, you should be able to pull the following information together:

  1. Title: Some creative works, like photographs, might not have distinct titles the way books, songs, or films have, but you can still find some way to describe the work. If it’s a photo of a duck, you can at least identify it as “Duck photo.”
  2. Author: Who created the work? This might be an individual’s name, an online pseudonym, or the name of a webpage or organization.
  3. Source: Where did you find the work, and where was the work originally posted? There may be two separate answers to this question. You should try to find the work’s origin, if possible. If you found an image on a Tumblr blog that was originally posted to Flickr, for example, you should identify the Flickr page. You can also give credit to the Tumblr blogger if you want, but that’s separate from the issue of attributing authorship.
  4. License: This is what gives you the right to use the work in the first place. If you have permission from the author/photographer/designer/etc., you might say something like “Used with permission.” If the work is in the public domain, or subject to a Creative Commons license, you can use the abbreviations provided by Creative Commons. Other public licenses have their own abbreviations. If the work is subject to copyright protection, but you are claiming Fair Use, this is where you have to put up or shut up. You can create a copyright symbol by hitting “Alt-g” on a Mac, or “Alt-0169” on a PC (advantage: Mac).

Attribution Format

This one is up to you, to a large extent. If you have all of the above information, you can format it just about any way you want. If you’re still reading, though, I’ll give you the benefit of my own experience. I never saw any point in reinventing the wheel, so I just copied the attribution format used by one of the web’s biggest repositories of public domain and Creative Commons images, Wikimedia Commons.

Wikimedia Commons Example

I have done a walkthrough of Wikimedia Commons before, but let’s go a bit more in-depth this time. The “picture of the day” on the day that I am writing this post is this rather terrifying image of a manta ray:

"Giant Manta AdF" by Arturo de Frias Marques (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

You can see it identified as the “Picture of the day” on the main page:


If you go to the image page, you can see a description of the image (often in multiple languages) and information about the author.


You can also find license information. This image is covered by the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license, meaning that anyone using the image under this license must provide attribution, and must make any work they create with the image available under the same license, or a less-restrictive one. One could also make a Fair Use argument for my particular use of this image, since I am using it for educational purposes.


Near the top of the page, you can see several options for sharing the image, including downloading it, emailing it, and using it on the web or on a wiki. We want the “Use this file on the web” option.



When we click on that link, it brings up a window within the page that gives us several options. The third option, you might notice, is “Attribution.” You can copy this text, and it provides you with everything you need, except a title.


By Arturo de Frias Marques (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

You can use the image file name, “Giant Manta AdF,” as a title, or you can create a title from the image description, like “Front of a giant manta ray (Manta birostris) filter feeding.”

You can also click a checkbox that puts the attribution text into HTML format, which saves you a minute or two of adding links.


By Arturo de Frias Marques (Own work) [<a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0″>CC BY-SA 4.0</a>], <a href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGiant_Manta_AdF.jpg”>via Wikimedia Commons</a>

I generally use this same format for attribution of photos found on other websites, as well as other materials used in blog posts and other online publications.

Creative Commons Examples

Creative Commons also has a useful set of best practices for attribution, which includes attribution for works that you have modified.

When in Doubt, Ask

Much like my advice for when you are not certain whether or not you can use a particular photo, if you are not sure how to give attribution for something, try asking the author.

Coming soon: Copyright law in action, a guide to avoiding defamation claims for blogger, and more on software licenses.

Photo credit: “Pinterest Attribution” by Pinterest-Anti-Christ (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons; “Giant Manta AdF” By Arturo de Frias Marques (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.