Sharing photos online – a decision matrix for non-profit organizations

Many non-profits, NGOs and International Organizations are of two minds when it comes to sharing photos on the internet. On the one hand, they want their material to be shared as widely as possible, on the other hand they want to have total control. The decision matrix below will help you decide which photos to share and how.

Generally speaking, your photos are more likely to be widely used if you give people the explicit permission to use the pictures. The best and easiest way to do this is by publishing them under a so called “Creative Commons License”. These are legally binding terms of use that give you more flexibility than “© all rights reserved”. Photo websites like Flickr allow you to choose a license for each photo so that you can decide exactly what you want to share under which conditions.

You can for example give everyone the right to copy, distribute and transmit your photos but not to alter it or use it for commercial purposes. This license has the technical designation “CC by-nc-nd” (stands for: Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivative Works) and  is the recommended license for most non-profit photos.

Below is a flow chart that helps you decide when to publish photos under this license and when to attach “all rights reserved”.

Photos and Creative Commons Licensing

Decision matrix - click image to see a larger version.

The basic idea of this matrix is that photos that contain branding should be shared more widely under CC than photos that do not contain branding. The reason for this is that I have personally seen photos being taken from one NGO and reused on another NGOs website, which is something you don’t want to happen and is less likely if the photo contains branding.

Control distribution by controlling resolution

Of course people might still take your photos without permission, even when you have protected them with “all rights reserved”. That is why I recommend that you upload photos which you don’t want to share through CC with a comparatively low resolution such as 1024 x 786. At the same time, you should always include a sentence beneath each photo saying that higher resolution versions can be requested by email.

Make absolutely sure you have all rights

A word on rights: Images shot by staff or by consultants working for an NGO are normally the property of the organization, so you can do what you want with them – check this with your photo department or media unit. However, if you buy or accept photos for free from anyone who does not work for you, make sure that he gives you explicit permission to use the photos and distribute them under creative commons license in writing. I know of an organization that received photos for free after the Tsunami, shared them with the media (not even under creative commons license) and was later sued for royalties.


  1. Adam March 27, 2012
  2. isaacgriberg April 1, 2012
  3. Craig_Duncan April 16, 2012
    • Timoluege April 16, 2012
  4. Timoluege June 26, 2012