How do licenses work on iNaturalist? Should I change my licenses?

Modified on Wed, 14 Feb 2024 at 04:00 PM

Photos and sounds that you post on iNaturalist are your intellectual property (IP). By using iNaturalist under our Terms of Use, you allow iNaturalist to publish that property and use it to direct people to your observations. This is all pretty normal for social media.

However, on iNat, your content is also licensed by default. A license is a statement that other people can use your property under certain conditions, and on iNat, the default Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial (CC BY-NC) license states that other people can use your photos, sounds, and observations without your permission as long as they give you credit and don't make money from their use of your content. This is the default so that scientists and resource managers can benefit from your contributions without violating your copyright.

To provide a concrete example, iNat shares many Research Grade observations with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), a sort of global clearinghouse for biodiversity data, and the primary way most scientists find and use iNat data. However, GBIF only accepts datasets that are licensed for reuse, so they only accept content with a CC BY or CC BY-NC license, or with the CC0 declaration (which releases all property claims over the content so anyone can use it for any reason).

To further complicate things, intellectual property rights generally only apply to creative works like photographs or written text, not facts like where and when an organism occurred, so it is not entirely clear whether an observation is itself intellectual property that can be licensed. On iNat we assume that it is because of the potential for a narrative description, and thus your observations can be licensed separately from your photos and sounds, but that assumption may change.

On our website you can see license information on an observation's page. On the right side of the page, if you scroll down to Copyright Info, you will see the license information pertaining to the observation (e.g. its description and other metadata). Here's what a typical CC BY-NC license declaration looks like. Click on the link to see the terms of the license.

And you can see an image or sound's license by looking at the icons at the bottom of the image or sound. See the icon on the left-hand side:

Click on the icon to see more details.

For your own content, you can choose to change the license either on a per-item basis, or change your default license choices. You may want to do this to either make your content usable in a wider variety of cases, or to make its use by others more restricted. You can also revoke the license entirely and make it "all rights reserved," meaning that someone will have to gain your explicit permission to use it legally. Note that if someone used your content under a certain license, you cannot retroactively revoke the license. 

Keep in mind that your license choice does not technically prevent someone from using your content. It only clarifies a limited set of preferences for how you want your content to be used. Exercising your rights in the case that someone doesn't abide by the license terms is your responsibility.

Should you change your license? That's up to you, but unless you actually make part of your living by selling your photos, we don't think you should choose a more restrictive license than the default, or revoke the license all together. iNat is about sharing information, and licenses make it easier and safer to do that. However, you might want to choose a more permissive license like CC BY or a public domain declaration like CC0 if you want your photos to be used on Wikipedia or other venues that require more legal flexibility.

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