In a continuation of President Obama’s campaign for openness, a White House photostream has been created. The terrific photos were taken by the official White House photographer, but anyone can download them and use them. The photos are offered under a Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution license. All you have to do when you use the photo is to attribute it.¬†This is modern, open, and terrific.
Unfortunately, it’s wrong.
Neither the White House nor the official White House photographer can own these photos. The American people own them. They are federal property so they are your property. The government can’t own a copyright and a government worker can’t claim a copyright on work he did as part of his government job.
Doubtless attributing the photos is the right thing to do. But it can’t be a legal requirement.
It is also modern to assume everything is copyrighted, since that is virtually always the case. I’m sure the White House is trying to say these photos are in the public domain. But it’s awfully hard to say that. It’s pretty much impossible to give up your rights if you have them — the Creative Commons license was designed to do something very much like that. So the White House’s instinct is exactly right. It has simply forgotten that it, unlike any other creator of a creative work, can’t own copyrights in the first place.
No need to ask or to credit. You already paid for those photos.