Do the motives of iNaturalist users influence their copyright decisions?


I am conducting a class research project on the motives of iNaturalist users and how that relates to the usability of citizen science data. My primary research question is: Do the motives of iNaturalist users influence their copyright decisions? I want to know why iNaturalist users participate and what influences their licensing decisions.

To answer the question myself: My motives in using iNaturalist are to learn about taxonomy and share my photos and observations. I enjoy seeing all my observations on the interactive map and contributing my part to the world of biodiversity conservation. I am also interested in using citizen science in research. I am specifically interested in using citizen science data to map American Goshawks.

As for my license decision I recently realized that after using iNaturalist for eight years, I had not chosen a license. For me, this was not something I wanted. I suspect when I set up my account I did so as quickly as possible so I could get to observing. I didn’t read about the licensing at the time.

Upon this realization I went straight to my account settings and chose a license that allows for my observations to be shared with the scientific community at large. My choice to reserve all rights was a mistake and did not align with my motives to use iNaturalist.

I want to hear from you. Please share comments of why you like to use iNaturalist, what influences your licensing decisions, or anything else that is interesting to this topic.




what kind of class are you doing this project for? (what level of education? what subject?) i’m having trouble visualizing how a bunch of random posts in a forum topic are gong to help you answer your question.


This forum thread discusses many of these licensing decisions and is what motivated my decision to change my own licensing terms to CC-BY.


Yes, it’s not a systematic survey. Forum users are not a representative sample of iNaturalist.


I contribute to iNaturalist to help scientific understanding of biodiversity. I set my license (for both my observations and photos) to CC0 to maximize their reusability.


This isn’t just limited to iNaturalist, but every image I upload to anywhere:

All my photos are generally CC-BY-NC except for one that I changed to CC-BY.
(Due to this:

I may change all my photos to CC-BY, though.)
The reason for this decision is that as I am not a photographer and don’t have very specialised equipment. I also don’t think much about composition. As nature doesn’t belong to me, I feel like anyone could have made these photos if they were at the right place at the right time.

All my other stuff (drawings, paintings, etc.) are generally “All rights reserved”. IMO, these are more personal and I put a lot of effort into them. As of yet, I don’t have any of these on iNat though.


What influences decision:

  • willingness to help ‘science’ by disseminating data
  • reluctance to others making financial profit from unpaid work
  • legal barrier to for-profit reuse of things created/funded by taxpayers’ money

Hence the CC-BY-NC


My photo licence is “Attribution, non-commercial”, which I think means anyone can use them for non-commercial purposes so long as I am named as the photographer. I don’t take a lot pf time over the photography so they are unlikely to be wanted for commercial reasons and I’m happy for other users to take them for e.g. illustrating a key.

As to why I am in iNaturalist in the first place: I often want another naturalist’s opinion on an identification and iNaturalist gives me access to thousands of naturalists covering all groups of wildlife. In return for this identification service, it is only fair that I do identifications for others. And filling in slack time doing identifications gives me the impression I am doing something constructive, so long as I don’t examine the cost:benefit too closely.

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This is true for many other users as well.

Apart from the question of whether an informal discussion in the forum (used only by a small number of users) can provide you with meaningful data about licensing choices, a question that first needs to be asked is: how many users consciously chose a license in the first place, do they understand what the various CC licenses mean, and are they even aware that they have a choice about what license to use?

For example, regarding awareness about CC license types: “non-commercial” sounds like it should mean that you don’t want people to use your images if they will be making a profit from them. In practice, it also means that photos typically cannot be used in things like scientific journal articles without getting permission (because journals are commercial operations), and they cannot be used on Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons.


The magic word here is “permission”. :point_left:

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Yes, that’s why I noted that – it is always possible to use a photo (even one labelled “all rights reserved”) with permission; cc licenses don’t change that. They just preemptively grant permission for certain types of use under certain terms.

But in practice, the different licenses are not the same as what people are likely to assume they mean (use for educational or non-profit activities often falls under “commercial use”; minor edits like cropping or lightening a photo are considered “derivative works”, etc.). As a consequence, some people may choose a license without fully understanding what uses are covered (or not covered) by that license.

If one wants to understand license choices of users, one also has to determine what users think they are choosing with those licenses.

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I use CC0 for my observation license to best enable the data to be used, and CC-BY for photos so they can be used with attribution.

My impression is that many users don’t have a good understanding of the license options when they sign up, so they either go with the defaults or choose restrictive options (e.g. “All Rights Reserved” for observation license) without realising that this makes their observations much less useful for citizen science.


The thread linked by larry216 above covers this in much more depth but in essence. I log observations of wildlife to try to ensure that data is available to support conservation, particularly at the local scale.

I’ve previously worked for a local environmental records centre (‘LERC’) in the UK, the LERC is a public sector organisation but because we recover costs by charging commercial users and the end use (informing commercial planning) is commercial we are unable to use any NC licenced observations.

I am aware that this makes an enormous amount of observational data unusable for what is a otherwise one of the few places where biodiversity data can directly inform and influence planning decisions at an early stage.

As a result, i initially set my licence to CC-BY though ultimately changed it to CC0.


I am an open licence activist (at my little scale, no biggies, just advocating for such licences whenever I get the opportunity), it’s the people I encountered on my way through life who give me the motivation to do so.
And anyhow, when you see the way people share photos and informations on internet, especially on social networks, without caring about licences, I think that my little “work” or “art” are not valuable enough to care about “protecting them” as “my property” (and anyway most of the people who would like to use them won’t bother to ask, and I will never get to the point where I get a suitcase for a bunch of smartphone made photos).

So both the fact that, I’m aware about the value, power and interest of free licences, and the fact that, posting photos on internet there is little to no way to “protect” them, I mostly decide to publish under CC0 for most of my pictures, or eventually CC-by for pictures that I value the most and I would like to see my name glued to it.

Some years ago I went with CC-by-sa and even CC-by-nc-sa, but I now think this was and is pointless.

Now if I may share my thoughts about open licences, I think they are incredible tools that give the opportunity to everyone to do much more than the autor of the photo would have ever dreamt about.
For exemple, few weeks ago I was contacted by someone who put up a web to present the flora of a little area. He didn’t had all the photos he needed from its own, so he used photos of plants I and many others published on Tela Botanica (a french speaking network for free botany). I was so happy to see that my “little photos” where usefull and someone thought of them as valuable to use them as presenting pictures. It confirm my motivation to publish even more under free licences.


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I am a M.E.S student at The Evergreen State College. This is a qualitative research study and this is one of three methods. I’m also doing a textual analyses of other forums as well and I’ve distributed a survey.

In my experience, when asking users if I can include their observation in a dataset many people don’t know they have no license for re-use and assumed it was being shared.


Hey! That’s my alma mater! B.S. in Environmental Studies. Go Geoducks!

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This complicates things for me.

I am not a professional photographer. As such, I do not have the considerable monetary investment in coursework and equipment that professional photographers have; hence, commercial use of my images would not be making money at my expense, as it would be for a pro.

As I would be flattered if someone found one of my photography efforts worthwhile for a publication, my inclination is to go with CC BY-ND – use it if you like it, credit me as the photographer, but don’t turn it into something else that I might not want credit for. But if even simple things like cropping or adjusting the lighting are considered “derivatives,” that interferes – CC BY or CC BY-SA are the appropriate licenses to allow for this, but that also opens the door to other alterations and derivatives that I might not approve.

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