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Wikipedia images - freely usable, but not unconditionally usable

Publication date: 6 December 2017
Many companies and platforms use the “free” images on Wikipedia. “Free” images, yet out of a sudden a high invoice arrives because of copyright infringement. How can you prevent this?

Foto: Buitenveldertenaar, CC-BY-SA 4.0

For companies it is rather attractive to use images on Wikipedia. The pictures are available for commercial use and may often even be modified so that you can adapt them for your own purposes. So you put the image on your own website or blog. But then a lawyer’s letter arrives: you have violated the licensing conditions and are using the image illegally. Please be so kind as to pay a compensation for the use of the image and the legal fees. How did this happen? And how can you prevent this?

How “free” are the images on Wikipedia?

“Free” means that images on Wikipedia – or rather: Wikimedia Commons – may be used for free without paying any financial compensation. Whether there are any other conditions depends on the licence under which the author/uploader of the image has released it. Thus, if you don’t satisfy the licensing conditions, you are not allowed to use the image.

Where do I find the licensing conditions on Wikipedia?

The licensing conditions for images on Wikipedia are included in the file description on Wikimedia Commons. You can find the file description by clicking on an image and then click the “More information” link bottom right of the image.

“Image: Wikipedia”

It is a frequent misunderstanding that the copyright of images rests with Wikipedia. This is not true. The copyright rests with the author of an image. For most of the recent images on Wikimedia Commons one of the versions of the “CC-BY-SA” license (Creative Commons – By – Share Alike) is used. This means in the event of reuse you have to do the following:

  • Provide the name of the author (by)
  • Release the image under the same license used by the author (share alike)

So when you claim the copyright for your website and you fail to mention that the image you use is exempt from this claim you are wrong. “Image: Wikipedia” as a source reference is wrong too, as you fail to provide the name of the author.

How can I satisfy the licensing conditions?

Mostly, providing the name of the author and the license will be sufficient. This can be best done by providing them in the text for the image. To provide the license you can insert a clickable link to the original file containing all relevant information. You can also place this link directly under the image with a pop-up text. When people click on the image, they see all required information.

Are there additional requirements?

For some images there are additional requirements. Professional photographers may ask to link to their website or cite the name of their company. The English Wikipedia sometimes inserts images on the basis of the copyright principle of “fair use”. However, this does not allow use for commercial purposes. Therefore, always click on the file description to see which conditions you have to satisfy for reuse.





No source reference whatsoever is given.

Image: Wikipedia

Author’s name and licence are not given.



Image: Wikimedia Commons

Clickable link to author’s name and licence.

Image: Buitenveldertenaar, CC-BY-SA 4.0

Author’s name and licence provided in text underneath image and clickable links to licence

This is a picture of Van Boshuizenstraat in Amsterdam. Far right you can see the former offices of Russell Advocaten.

What do I do when a claim arrives?

Check whether the licensing conditions have actually been violated. If this really is the case, you have to make sure that the insertion of the image does satisfy the licensing conditions. If such a modification isn’t possible, directly delete the image from your website.

In the event of an infringement you will also have to pay the invoice. You cannot prevent payment by correcting the violation because it has already occurred. As the author – and his or her lawyer – can, in principle, claim full compensation of the costs incurred, it is not advisable to assume that the counterparty won’t commence legal proceedings because of the high costs for litigation involved. If they are right, they will be reimbursed the costs anyway. Only if the claim is excessive and the costs are not caused by the infringement but by the author and his or her lawyer, you might not have to pay part of the requested amount.

What can we do for you?

Russell Advocaten can check whether the licensing conditions have actually been violated and whether you have corrected the infringement. We can also help you with a defence against an excessive claim. Naturally, we can also check in advance whether your use of images satisfies the licensing conditions.

More information

Have you received a copyright claim and do you have doubts as to whether it is justified? Do you intend to use images of Wikipedia or other “free” sites and would you like to know what the conditions are? Or is somebody else showing off with your pictures? Please contact us:

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