Marking a tragic anniversary: News organizations can find free-to-use 9/11 images with a little creative searching

America is approaching a grim anniversary that is no cause for celebration — 10 years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 — and many journalistic organizations, including campus ones, will be looking for the right images from the tragedy to accompany their coverage.

This is an excellent reminder that, while journalists should always assume that material they find online is copyright-protected property and may not be indiscriminately reused, the Internet does offer some copyright-safe refuges.

The first is material created by federal government employees as part of their employment. Under federal law, their work is copyright-free from the start. So your media outlet is free to republish, without concern for copyright infringement, these White House photos documenting President Bush’s role in responding to the 9/11 disaster and subsequent commemorations, or these images taken by Environmental Protection Agency workers on the scene of New York’s “Ground Zero,” or these images of NASA emergency-responders in the wreckage of the Twin Towers. (Of course, the normal ethical standards apply when crediting work that your staff did not create.)

Remember, of course, that not every image on a .gov website will be the work of a federal employee — this government website, for example, contains a copyright-protected Associated Press photo from the World Trade Center attack — so read the fine print and activate your common sense.

The second resource, a useful one not just for national news events, is material marked with a Creative Commons “some rights reserved” license. Amateur photographers increasingly are placing their work on public available photo-sharing sites such as Flickr or Photobucket or Smugmug, in hopes of receiving wider recognition, or just for the satisfaction of displaying and sharing their creativity.

For example, here is a powerful photo of Coast Guard crew members viewing the freshly smoldering ruins of the collapsed Twin Towers, marked with a Creative Commons license that allows noncommercial sharing of the image with proper attribution.

Here again, it is important to read the fine print and understand what different types of Creative Commons licenses mean. A typical type of CC license will entitle a nonprofit user (student media included) to reuse a photo without the need for payment or consent, so long as the photo is credited exactly as the photographer asks, and so long as the photo is not being sold for profit.

It’s undoubtedly more time-consuming to search for free-to-use images online than to grab the first result off a Google Images search. But the small additional investment of effort will pay dividends in peace of mind.

Assessing the local impact of national news events is a legitimate undertaking for the student media — and with a little planning, it can be a legally uneventful one as well.