Can someone explain licensing to me please

I am a bit confused about how the licensing options in iNaturalist work.

I have my settings set to “No License” for observation, photo and sound (“You retain full copyright over your content aside from those rights granted to iNat in our Terms of Service”).

I took this to mean that the data from my observations would not be shared with 3rd parties such as GBIF. Having done several random searches on GBIF I cannot find any of my iNaturalist records on there so this seems to go along with my thoughts.

However, I have just found out that a large number (>2000) of records of mine have been exported from iNaturalist to iRecord (a UK site that you can enter records to go into the UK biological recording systems).

The problem is a large number of these are duplicates of records that I have already submitted to the relevant local recorders or iRecord itself and in many of the cases the data are wrong (e.g iNat observations with a location accuracy of 2.34km have become records with a 10m accuracy - from the wrong spot). This has caused a problem that I have no idea how to solve.

From how I thought the licensing system on iNaturalist works I think that this should never have happened or have I just been misinterpreting the information given?

I am much better at identifying plants than understanding this kind of thing :)


I think your understanding of how licenses work on iNat is correct. However, we can’t control how third parties update their own records when your license choices on iNat changes, and, at least to me, it’s legally unclear whether changes to your choice of license are intended to apply retroactively. If using CC-licenced content comes at the risk of being sued for copyright violation in the future when the content author changes their decision on licensing, I’m sure that would make the risk of using CC-licensed content too high for many.

In the specific cases you cited, GBIF stays in sync with iNat on a weekly basis, so if you change your license choice for all your observations, GBIF should pick up on that in a week and remove any records from iNat it had under your previous license choice. I’m not sure how iRecord gets data from iNat. We don’t generate a pre-made archive for them like we do for GBIF, so presumably they’re using (or once used our API). Maybe they only sync of up yearly, or maybe they don’t sync up at all and they retrieved the data in a one-time event.

Regarding duplication on iRecord, that’s between you and iRecord, so you’ll have to reach out to them.


Thanks for the explanation. I don’t really understand it all but doubt I really ever will.

I haven’t changed my license choices on iNat in many years so it’s not really a case of dealing with records retroactively, some of the records involved are very recent ones.

I shall try and reach out to iRecord but unfortunately their website seems to have no contact details other than the forum.

One more important point: your license is a declaration that you are ceding your legal copyright to a work within whatever legal jurisdictions respect such rights and the ability to cede them with licenses. It is not a technical barrier to retrieving copies of your work from iNaturalist, so you might declare that you retain full copyright and that you don’t want anyone re-using your work, but the only thing stopping someone from doing so is the risk of you suing them. Thus, iRecord might be ingesting iNat observations without respecting your license choices.

I should also point out that while photos are subject to copyright in most jurisdictions, observations may not be, as they represent facts about the world and not necessarily the kinds of creative works copyright was designed to protect (unless you write a description). On iNat we assume observations are copyrightable, but the only way to really test this is in court.


I think in my head I imagined that third parties extracting data from iNat would only be able to download the data with a CC-license rather than all data and then look have to look at (or ignore) the license.

I have to say the situation is making me reluctant to upload further observations to iNaturalist.

I’m sorry to hear that. There are a couple reasons we do this:

  1. We use our own API, and we need to be able to access all observations regardless of license choice
  2. Third parties might need to access unlicensed observations as well. Not all use of the API involves the kind of republishing that would be subject to copyright law
  3. It is impossible for us to publish anything AND prevent people copying it. Copyright violation is as simple as taking a photo of a screen and posting that photo to Instagram.

As an open data geek, part of the reason I use iNat is to share information. Creative Commons licenses were devised to share creative works with partial legal restrictions, but if I wanted absolute technical control of how the information gets disseminated, I would do as you suggest and not publish this information on the Internet. If that’s the path you choose to take, that’ll be a loss for us at iNat, but if you require that kind of control, I totally understand.


I certainly understand what you are saying and am in general agree with open data.

However, the problem in my case is that the vast majority of my observations are made in the immediate vicinity of my home and giving too exact data online is to be frank dangerous (I have personal experience of this).

This is why I enter observations with such vague location details (not actually that vague as I live in a fairly sparsely populated area). However, as apparently this now means that incorrect record data is going into third party sites this is a problem.

The solution does seem to be that I stop posting observations, at least from my local area but I don’t know how I marry that up with my long standing iNat addiction :)

Anyway, thanks for the help. I have sent a message to iRecord and hopefully they can get the current records problem sorted out.


Sharing location data is a different issue than licensing. @kueda correct me if I’m wrong, but all you have to do to protect your location data is to mark the geoprivacy as “obscured” or “private”, which you can do from the app or the website. That should prevent the actual location from being accessible by anyone except you and iNaturalist administrators (if my understanding is correct). Personally, I mark all the observations near my house as “obscured”.

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Yes, geoprivacy is one way to address this issue, but you should always be aware that partially disclosing location information usually means only partial privacy, and obscured coordinates on iNat are no exception. Much like the lock on your house, it will dissuade most people, but it may not stop someone who really, really wants that information from combining even a vague location with other contextual information to refine a guess at where the true coordinates are.

I also obscure records from my house. The level of privacy we provide is good enough for me, but everyone needs to make their own decision about how much is enough.


The way I understand it, the licensing is for the photos themselves, not the data. It’s to protect people who may be uploading their livelihoods (ie, photographers, artists, etc) up by outlining what rights we want to give people who may want to use our photos, and how they can show them. No one can legally say ‘well, i found your photo on iNat, and thus it’s free for me to use in my article that I’m not crediting/paying you for’. if you scroll down, this outlines what each license allows.

No, users can separately license the observations themselves, as well as photos and sounds.


@tiggrx - I’m curious is there a way to drill into the details of a record by clicking on it on the dot on the iRecord site ?

I’ve certainly never created an account on there but just did so. I have very few records on iNaturalist from the UK; but as a check, searched for records for Eurasian Moorhen on the iRecord site from the very day and location where I put one into iNat.

While my observations are licensed as open, my photos are licensed on iNat as all rights reserved. I’m curious to see if they have uploaded my photo.

It sure does seem like they are harvesting records from iNat, as I filtered the iRecord site search to records sourced from iNat, and mine is the only iNat record for the species loaded from the UK on the date I saw it.

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This was not my understanding of how a Creative Commons license works.

The licenses say specifically “The licensor cannot revoke these freedoms as long as you follow the license terms.”

Please correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that, once you license and publish (i.e. upload to iNat) content licensed as Creative Commons, that version of the content is forever licensed thus. Nothing stops you from re-licensing a work and making any subsequent changes to that work be unlicensed for public distribution (i.e. all-rights-reserved), but the version that you originally published as CC will continue to be available for use under that license, and it’s only subsequent modifications that will remain yours only. You can make the latter explicit by using the CC-BY-ND (no derivatives) license.

With this in mind, all downstream data aggregators such as GBIF can use those original observations that one licensed as CC however they see fit (as long as they respect the terms of the license).

Similar to Tiggrx’s original post: I’m also unclear on the scope of the “observation” license. I’m well aware of copyright concepts regarding photographs and audio recording. Does the Observation license apply solely to the date, time, coordinates, and optional descriptive text? Or to all of the above except descriptive text (the only field where creative authorship can be exercised)? I’m assuming iNaturalist is subject to U.S. law, no matter where a user lives or where an a observation was recorded, if iNat’s servers and headquarters are US based. Raw data is largely not copyrightable in the U.S. Per U.S. Copyright Office Circular 33: “To be copyrightable, a work must qualify as an original work of authorship under the copyright law.” I am no expert, but I think if copyright cannot apply to an entity, then it is is by default in the public domain, no matter what someone declares it to be. The concept of crossing a threshold of originality is key. Facts and ideas themselves are not copyrightable: e.g. a simple phrase like “a square has 4 sides”, the color red, a drawing of a square, and compilations of data (such as a recipe or a list of numbers in a phone book) are not copyrightable. Copyrightable entities must exceed the threshold of originality (which is interpreted differently by different countries). So while a photograph of a lizard is eligible for copyright (the threshold of originality met by choices of composition, camera angle, etc.), the nonvisual, abstract data representation of “organism=lizard; time= 5:28 PM; date= May 10, 2018, location Main Street Park, Foosville, California, United States” is probably ineligible. Similarly, a simple straightforward text phrase like “I saw a brown lizard on a log” in the Description field is uncopyrightable, but a short poem describing the lizard in creative, literary prose probably would be copyrightable.

Sorry for the wall of text. in short: as iNat sees it, what pieces of data does “Observation license” refer to?


True, but true regardless of the license, right?

Yes, obscuration works the same for every copyright license type.

I tried looking into this a little while ago for a discussion of account deletions and what happens does/should happen to data if someone deletes their account. My key takeaways from reading through the legal sources I could find online were:

  1. as others have mentioned, you can’t really copyright facts/data in the U.S. If you publish a fact, it is available for others to use as they see fit. Some facts might be protected in the contexts of other legal statuses (like patents), but this shouldn’t really apply to iNat data. So it seems like if you publish data on iNat (or anywhere) it doesn’t have legal protections, and the CC license wouldn’t really apply (facts aren’t “creative”).

  2. If you publish something under a CC license and someone accesses it under that license, it is available to them in perpetuity (ie, those rights cannot be revoked if you change the license later). This is the point that @mftasp made.

One implication of this is that it doesn’t seem like iNat would be legally required to remove observation data for users who leave the site/delete their accounts.

In regards to the concern about geoprivacy around one’s home, I think iNat does allow for one geofenced location per user to enable some protection for people’s home addresses. Though again, as others have pointed out, if you make a lot of observations from one obscured location, it wouldn’t be impossible for a really dedicated user to figure out more or less what the location is.


They’ve always allowed for full deletion. Even of IDs which has been controversial.

In terms of obscuring, geofences don’t exist but may someday. However, because of how the obscuring works, it doesn’t matter how many things you obscure, you can’t infer a centroid because it’s scattered over a set rectangle

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@cmcheatle I’m curious is there a way to drill into the details of a record by clicking on it on the dot on the iRecord site ? I’ve certainly never created an account on there but just did so. I have very few records on iNaturalist from the UK; but as a check, searched for records for Eurasian Moorhen on the iRecord site from the very day and location where I put one into iNat. While my observations are licensed as open, my photos are licensed on iNat as all rights reserved. I’m curious to see if they have uploaded my photo.

I’m not sure if you can get to the record details or not by clicking on the dot but you can search for the record.
Your Moorhen record shows source (iNat), species, site name, date, your name & grid reference (8 figure, i.e. equivalent to 1m square location accuracy). The photo is not shown.

In my case some of the observations have imported my photos in others not, all of the photos that I looked at having been uploaded to iNat with no CC-license set.

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A lot of information to digest from various people’s replies for which thank you.

What I am mainly getting out of this is that the whole subject is a bit of a minefield and many people either don’t know what the situation actually is or are assuming that their understanding of the matter is correct.

It would be very helpful for iNaturalist to have some much clearer guidelines on this. Certainly the information that is given where you are setting the licenses falls very short in my mind, especially for the the ‘no license’ option.

There does seem to be a general feeling that the observation itself aside from photo (and sounds?) is not copyrightable in which case (as asked by someone else above) what does the choice on iNat for licensing the observation mean? It appears that it may well be pointless and in that case extremely misleading.

In my particular case the transfer of my observation data to iRecord may well be completely legal but the transfer of my photos not (my settings have been no license for several years and some of the photos transferred I uploaded to iNat as recently as last month). Why they have transferred photos for only some of the records I have no idea.

As to geoprivacy I think it is clear that I have been going about this the wrong way and should have been obscuring my location rather than decreasing the location accuracy (this did occur to me at 12:30am when I was in bed, so I’m glad to see others suggested the same thing).