Using ‘open’ resources for digital storytelling

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Pretty Saro by Bob Dylan,Pretty Saro by P D Cawley

The recent release of previously unpublished performances by Bob Dylan and the associated Pretty Saro video, produced by Jennifer Lebeau, which makes extensive use of archive photographs hosted by the US Library of Congress, has highlighted the usefulness of ‘open’ resources for digital storytelling. In the examples at the top of this post you can see Bob Dylan’s version alongside a version I’ve produced using some of the same ‘open’ online content and simple online tools. In this post I aim to provide advice on using these types of resource to create digital stories. (Please note: I am not a legal expert and this is not legal advice).

There are a huge number of photographs published on the internet. Like all intellectual property, these images belong to someone, and if you want to re-use them you need to find out if the use you have in mind is permissible. Before looking at ‘open’ archives, I should mention that there are many sites (e.g. iStockphoto, Pond5) which sell “copyright cleared” content and where, for a fee, you are granted certain rights to reuse. These ‘royalty-free/rights managed’ sites are not covered in this post,  rather I aim to provide tips for using ‘open’ or ‘free to use’ digital photographs and other digital content.

  1. What is ‘open’ content?
    By ‘open’ content I mean digital images, photographs, music and video that have been been made explicitly available for use without payment. Being ‘open’ doesn’t necessarily allow you to do what you like with the content, but you may be permitted to re-use within certain restrictions. For example, content owners often use ‘Creative Commons’ (CC) licenses. These licenses have been developed to enable owners to make it very clear to others, in non-legal language, what it is permissible to do with their content.
  2. A word of caution
    When looking for ‘open’ content online it is good practice to treat copyright, and Creative Commons notices with a degree of skepticism. People uploading content to the Internet may not be fully aware of all the rights included in the content they upload and may mistakenly apply a CC license or make an erroneous claim that it is in the Public Domain (and therefore free for anyone to use for whatever purpose). Although you can’t always be 100% sure of the origin and ownership (provenance) of all content, you can take steps to manage the risks involved (for more on this see tip #9).
  3. Use reliable sources
    The best approach is to search for images and other content in collections that have been uploaded by bona fide public organisations, this is because it is more likely that they have undertaken a thorough audit of the provenance of each item they upload. Because many public institutions use the photo sharing site, Flickr, to host their content, this site is rapidly becoming the ‘go-to’ site for ‘open’ photographs, images, and video.
    I have started a Google spreadsheet containing a list of useful Flickr collections that I have found – some of which I have used. This list is open for comment – so if you’ve found other useful resources, please let me know.
  4. Licensing in Flickr
    Flickr enables users to apply Creative Commons licenses to their content – from the moderately restrictive ”attribution only’ license (CC-BY) to the more restrictive ‘attribution, non-commercial, share-alike’ (CC BY-NC-SA) or ‘attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives (CC BY-NC-ND) licenses. Flickr users who would like you to approach them first before using their content apply an ‘All Rights Reserved’ notice to their uploads.
    Public organisations often use the term “No known copyright restrictions” to describe the copyright status of their content. Sometimes this means that as far as their research shows, no evidence has been found to show that restrictions apply. This is the copyright status of all the photographs and video used in the Pretty Saro videos shown above. Something to watch out for, however, is when the term is used to describe content that is owned by an institution who are making it available for private, research, educational and noncommercial usage only. My advice? Always check copyright status before using.
  5. Downloaded images
    If you plan to edit high resolution videos with the images you’ve chosen you will need to download the largest size you can find, and either resize or crop the image to fit the 1920 x 1080 dimensions of HD video. You can use images with smaller dimensions, but this will result in a lower quality, fuzzy, image.
    Use a desktop image editor (e.g. Gimp or Inkscape) if you need to process your images before using them in your video, or use an online image editor (e.g.
  6. Move it
    The photographs and images in the Bob Dylan video at the top of the page have been animated in a style made famous by documentary director Ken Burns – a style often referred to as the ‘Ken Burns effect’. Animating images in this way can be achieved very effectively in many editing packages as well as motion graphics programs like Adobe After Effects. If you’re working within a tight budget, an online slide show editor like or an online video editor like Wevideo can be used to produce this effect quite effectively.
  7. Contact and attribute
    If you use someone’s content, you should let them know. Not only is it good manners to tell them where and how it’s being used, you can also check if your interpretation of the copyright status is correct and find out the proper name they would like to be attributed as. In addition it can act as a useful (but not definitive) check that they have sufficient rights to allow re-use. If you need to change the terms of use (e.g. it is sometimes difficult to ‘share-alike’), you can also politely ask owners to permit the use you prefer.
    Keep a record of all your correspondence – it may come is useful if there’s a dispute over your usage at a later date.
  8. Attribute
    Your acknowledgement, credit or attribution of the images and other content you have used should allow anyone to find the source of the content, the owner and the type of license used. An appropriate format for attribution is:
    Title of image and resource number, if applicable (with URL to image source)/Name of owner and creation year/License (with URL to Creative Commons license or relevant “No known copyright restrictions” information).
  9. Have a ‘risk management’ strategy
    This is a complex issue which space does not allow me to go into detail about here. There are some very useful resources which can provide expert guidance on this issue (listed below). The essentials are:
    a) To help you avoid potential problems with disputed ownership, only use content provided by established, reputable sources (e.g. public organisations, museums, national archives) and check before you use.
    b) Contact owners before you use their content.
    c) Be prepared to ‘take down’ (i.e. suspend access to) within 24 hours anything you create using third-party content, while you investigate disputes.
    d) Err on the side of caution. If a claim to ownership, or assertion of public domain status looks odd (e.g. a photograph of a trademarked logo not attributed to the owner of the trademark), it probably is – so don’t use it.
  10. Put it all together
    Once you’ve found, checked, and downloaded the content you need for your digital storytelling project, you’ll need to put it all together. In my next post I show how I made my version of  Pretty Saro using content from Soundcloud Commons and Flickr Commons, and the online editing tool WeVideo.

Useful resources:
Web2Rights – Toolkits for practical, pragmatic and relevant Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and other legal issues.
JISC Legal  – Legal Guidance for ICT Use in Education, Research and External Engagement.

With thanks to Theo Kuechel for inspiring this post.

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