'Copyleft' activists victorious as Elon Musk's SpaceX frees more than a hundred photos for reuse
Photo shows SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket being launched (SpaceX Photos/Flickr)

Elon Musk’s private spaceflight company SpaceX has conceded to pressure to free its images, and released a batch of more than 100 photos under the “copyleft” Creative Commons license.


As the first private spaceflight firm to win a contract to resupply the International Space Station, SpaceX is a trailblazer for capitalism in space. While national spaceflight agencies have been subcontracting out work for decades (for instance, the rockets that took man to the moon were built by three different aerospace firms, all of which are now part of Boeing), the missions themselves have largely been operated by government agencies.

A side-effect of that historical structure is that, particularly in the US, images taken from space are overwhelmingly in the public domain. For instance, as a US government agency, all photographs taken by Nasa are classed as “US government works”, meaning that anyone may “without restriction … reproduce the work, create derivative works … display the work [or] distribute copies or digitally transfer the work to the public”.

Those rules mean that some of the most famous photographs ever taken are free to be used. That includes the Blue Marble, a photograph taken by the Apollo 17 crew as they travelled towards the moon in 1972, the “first selfie in space”, taken by Buzz Aldrin during a spacewalk in 1966, and the Eagle Nebula’s Pillars of Creation, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, most recently in 2014.

As well as those pictures, there’s a great many more mundane photos which are collectively owned by the public, artefacts of our shared history of space exploration.

By contrast, pictures taken from SpaceX’s rockets are not clearly a “government work”. The company’s first ever deep-space flight, made in February as it tested its Falcon 9 rocket, was paid for by Nasa, as the main object of the launch was more work on the ISS. But the cameras mounted on the rocket, owned and operated by a private company, weren’t part of what was paid for.

“SpaceX is not a government agency, unless the contract says otherwise they own the copyright of anything they create,” IP Lawyer Andrew Rush told Motherboard’s Jason Koebler . “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.”

That fact led many, including Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Parker Higgins, to start campaigning for a change in policy from SpaceX.

“A robust and well-documented space program is a major boon for motivating young people to study science,” Higgins wrote. “Images from space have formed the basis of major social movements , and the target of activism campaigns .

“All this is to say, society has gotten so much out of media from space being free for all to share, and that shouldn’t end as private companies get access. Please, Elon Musk, commit to releasing photography from SpaceX into the public domain. The future will thank you.”

Higgins’s goal has not yet been achieved, but SpaceX has made a big move towards it. The company now operates an official Flickr feed , where a number of photos – including some of those initially criticised by Higgins for being covered by copyright – are uploaded with a creative commons “CC BY-NC” license on them. This “some rights reserved” license allows the work to be shared and remixed provided the original author is properly attributed, and the use is non-commercial.

It is still a long way from public domain, however. The prohibition on commercial use is widely understood to encompass journalistic use – which is why no SpaceX pictures are used to illustrate this article – while the requirement for attribution makes it that much harder to use in situations where attribution may be tricky or impossible.

But it is one small step closer.

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