A few years ago I found myself in need of images for an earlier edition of my book that I did not have on hand, or have any way of shooting. I needed a winter scene but was 250 miles and 2 months away from one. I needed strongly lit footage to demonstrate color matching with extreme lighting; this I could have shot, but more than just images, I needed inspiration.
We've come a long way in the past decade with image sharing. Thanks to increased bandwidth the growth of the web, and fantastic photo sharing sites like flickr, you no longer have to find, stage and shoot everything yourself.
Or do you? It's illegal, and uncool, to use imagery against the wishes of the user. Standard copyright law plans for this by assuming that the creator wants to retain all rights, and requires big bucks for usage. This law may be in place whether or not a work specifically states it is under copyright. Is there a better way? Absolutely.
Perhaps no one disagrees with more commitment to evolving copyright law than Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons, whose motto is "Share, Remix, Reuse- Legally."
The philosophy is that culture is built upon one artist extending the work of another. The result is the Creative Commons license, which allows a copyright holder to specify where and how creative work is re-used.
And Flickr turned out to have the solution to my dilemma, via the Flickr: Creative Commons page. Artists who wish to contribute photos to the commons use tags which appear in searches performed from this page; the four flavors of a Creative Commons license are summarized to make it easier to find the proper subgroup. Some photographers are, for example, willing to share high-resolution source photos provided you don't derive them - use pieces of them in some other context - or provided you don't use them commercially.
One important note I wish to emphasize: all forms of Creative Commons license state that you must attribute the creator. This is the step too many people skip, perhaps with the old idea in mind that it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission. I can share my own experience, that I was not turned down by anyone we asked for book contributions; quite the opposite, the photographers were thrilled to see their work get more life, and one even called the process of seeing his photo shot in Tokyo end up in an American publication for artists "a beautiful thing."
Flickr's Creative Commons has recently received its 100 millionth photo. If you know of other valuable sites making use of Creative Commons licenses, by all means share them.