The Perplexed User’s Guide to Openverse

Landsat satellite image of multihued sand dunes in the Sahara

If you previously used Creative Commons (CC) Search, you may know that it was picked up by the project last year to continue its development. Here’s the official Creative Commons announcement. As of late last year, CC Search relaunched on and was rebranded as Openverse.

  1. Free to Use Images
  2. Openverse? Read the fine print first
  3. What are CC licenses and how can I use them?
  4. What does this mean for your site?
    1. Media Library
  5. Other sources of Free To Use Media
  6. Contributing your own images
  7. References

Free to Use Images users have enjoyed the integration of Pexel’s Free Photo Library. Pexel images can illustrate our pages and posts or be used as a Featured image without attribution, as well as be modified and used commercially.

Openverse? Read the fine print first

Screenshot of the Image Block and choices available when inserting a new image

Openverse, which was recently integrated in the WordPress Editor, also has free to use photos, but it has one major difference. Openverse is a search engine of images and audio that are available under Creative Commons licensing, under CC0 or in the public domain, and are also free to use, but may be subject to certain limitations depending on license.

When inserting a new image from Openverse in your Editor, the modal window that opens can’t display the image license, although Staff have advised this is being worked on at For now, the image license can only be seen after the fact, either as the caption in the inserted image or in the Media Library image details. Otherwise, bupkis.

This is in contrast to the search results in the Openverse utility itself on, where the license is visible as a sticker when hovering one’s cursor over the image.

What are CC licenses and how can I use them?

“CC licenses are copyright licenses, and depend on the existence of copyright to work. CC licenses are legal tools that creators and other rights holders can use to offer certain usage rights to the public, while reserving other rights. Those who want to make their work available to the public for limited kinds of uses while preserving their copyright may want to consider using CC licenses. Others who want to reserve all of their rights under copyright law should not use CC licenses.”1

If you are not familiar with Public Domain, CC0 and the six Creative Common’s licenses, here’s a run down from the rights owner’s viewpoint, from the least restrictive at the top to the most restrictive at the bottom.

  • PD: Public Domain-A work may be part of the public domain because the applicable term of copyright has expired, because the rights holder surrendered copyright in the work with a tool like CC0, or because the work did not meet the applicable standards for copyrightability.2
  • CC0: also a Public Domain dedication which indicates you waive all your copyright and related rights in your works to the fullest extent allowed by law.3
  • CC BY: This license lets others distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation.4
  • CC BY-SA: This license lets others remix, adapt, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.4
  • CC BY-NC: This license lets others remix, adapt, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.4
  • CC BY-NC-SA: This license lets others remix, adapt, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.4
  • CC BY-ND: This license lets others reuse the work for any purpose, including commercially; however, it cannot be shared with others in adapted form, and credit must be provided to you.4
  • CC BY-NC-ND: This CC license is the most restrictive, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.4
  • Copyright © All Rights Reserved: The rights owner retains all rights over their work, including the right to reproduce, distribute, display, and make adaptations.5

The Creative Commons FAQ explores licensing in detail for both licensors and licensees, including sections discussing copyright and fair use of both CC and copyrighted materials. While it is quite lengthy, I highly recommend taking the time to read it and bookmark it.

What does this mean for your site?

When choosing an image from Openverse keep in mind that it may require attribution (CC BY) and may have other limitations defined by the rights owner on how the image can be used (Non-Commercial, No Derivatives, Share Alike).

openverse search results showing license
Image with license sticker

For ease of identifying which license is in use on any Openverse image, for now I’d recommend searching and downloading directly using the Openverse utility on and not from the modal window in our Editor, at least until the modal window in the Editor has the ability to display the license sticker. Additionally, when you search only images on the Openverse utility, you’ll have many more search options available than those currently in the modal window, including sorting by image orientation, something that’s been on my wish list for Pexels since forever.

However, if you’d still prefer to use the modal window in the Editor, insert the image and then check the license in the caption or head to your Media Library to view the image details if the image is a Featured image.

Media Library

Like Pexels, any image you insert via Openverse will be added to your site’s Media Library and count against your storage quota. Of course, that is also true of any image you download from the Openverse utility and then upload to your Media Library. The advantage to downloading the image from the source is that it gives you the opportunity to resize and optimize it prior to uploading to your Media Library, something that is more important than ever.

Other sources of Free To Use Media has created a resource page of the most useful rights-free image collections currently available, many of which are already included in Openverse’s search. Openverse itself links to other resources at the bottom of the search results page. Being a responsible blogger, I have no doubt you’ll read the fine print first before using any of them on your site.

Contributing your own images

If you are an avid photographer who has lots of quality photos taking up space on your hard disk and are willing to share your images under CC0, consider submitting your images to Pexels or the currently in-the-works, but growing, WordPress Photo Library.

As always, the information in this post is correct as of publication date. Changes are inevitable.


1Creative Commons – Frequently Asked Questions
2Creative Commons – What is Public Domain
3Creative Commons- CC0 No Rights Reserved
4Creative Commons Licenses – About the Licenses
5Creative Commons FAQ – Some Rights Reserved

Published by JenT

After 4 years hand-coding websites, 2 years setting up and running WordPress sites, I launched my first website on in 2006 and never looked back. Since then, I’ve helped other site owners safely navigate through the ins and outs of the ever-changing ecosystem. Find me at

8 thoughts on “The Perplexed User’s Guide to Openverse

  1. I used to have all my WP photos as creative commons and I like the way those copyright models work(ed) . . . and I always worry when something that’s worked well for a long time gets bought by another company.

    The new company seldom resists the urge to muck things up.

    As for contributing to Pexels, even as I don’t plan to sell my stuff, as a general rule I don’t like ‘donating’ it to for-profit companies. Besides, few people these days attribute anything. They just use it. Heck, I do the same thing . . . I use my photos and seldom attribute them to myself.

    1. That’s very “meta” of you, E. 🙂 I’m not sure what you’re referring to when you say, something that’s worked well for a long time gets bought by another company. What do you mean?

      If you mean Creative Commons itself, it is a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization. There was no sale, per se, of the search engine.

      The whole point of my post was to try and make people aware that not all free-to-use image libraries that WPcom provides us with are created equal. Without knowing that Openverse images have varied licensing, the current way that it works here on WPcom, there’s nearly no way to tell.

      1. Sorry about being meta . . . I slip into the mode whenever I can but few people recognize it. I’ll be more careful to mask it. (insert appropriate smilie here).

        Let me rephrase it. So, when I see an entity “join” or provide “free” support to another entity, I’m always cautious in my optimism. Per my reading, WP will join the development team for the search engine. They also hired key members of the team. That’s a good way to direct things. Maybe it will all be to the good, but maybe not.

        We recently had a discussion about copyright.

        So, for instance, WP already has the right to use whatever media I publish on my blog (the whole reblogging kerfuffle we agree to when getting a blog).

        Realistically, few enough people read my blog so that it’s not a bid deal (but not insignificant to me).

        Imagine, if you will, if at some point, under the terms of the WP license (a fluid thing, as we’ve come to understand) the CC Search comes to include all my digital content.

        Again, under the terms I’ve already agreed to:
        License. By uploading or sharing Content, you grant us a worldwide, royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, and non-exclusive license to use, reproduce, modify, distribute, adapt, publicly display, and publish the Content solely for the purpose of providing and improving our products and Services and promoting your website.

        As with other companies (Google, FaceBook, etc.) TOS can and have been modified (tweaked) for the benefit of the company to sell their services, especially after the companies have become well-established and users are deeply involved and making use of what’s “freely” provided.

        It doesn’t take much cynicism to imagine WP might want to market the tremendous media content they have access to. I could reserve judgment, but I’ve never known companies to give up any rights. Always, they expand them. And I’ve never known companies to fail to take advantage of opportunities, especially opportunities they’ve created.

        I can envision the CC Search engine someday including WP user content for the “exclusive benefit of other WP users” (is reblogging for my benefit? Nope.)

        As you mention in the above piece, WP doesn’t exactly go out of its way to make clear the digital rights of available media. Plus, even if they did, most people ignore the license terms (I see few attributions of Wikimedia images).

        Now, realistically, I don’t care much about individual users grabbing a photo (or a hundred, or a thousand) for their benefit. I feel differently about for-profit entities.

        Will WP do what I fear? I don’t know, but they’re not exactly on my “most trusted” list, especially when it comes to copyright (neither are Google, Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, etc. etc.).

        Should that happen, it may or may not undermine the whole idea of CC.

        Then again, I might be completely and utterly wrong. Given how much WP cares about its users, as they are fond of reminding us, perhaps all will be fine. (insert appropriate smilie here)

      2. It’s the WPorg community that has picked up development of the CC search engine, which is available to anyone searching for CC licensed content. Whether the current WPcom ToS will *someday* include our images and audio content in that search engine is an interesting thought. AFAIK the current ToS speaks to our content only being reused on WPcom (Reader, emails, reblogs) to promote our sites and improve their products, which Openverse is not one of them. I’m not saying it’s an entirely unlikely scenario, but I’d think it would need explicit notification in the ToS, just like the “firehose”.

        As far as individual bloggers ignoring or abusing CC licenses, same old, same old.

        It’s amazing how much that (appropriate smile) looks like a grimace.

      3. “Products AND Services.”

        A small but important detail that leaves the door open to interpretation.

        Did I write smile? I meant smilie, and it’s not a grimace . . . although, ‘appropriate’ could be open to interpretation.

      4. But more importantly, unless I missed the connection, there isn’t a direct one from WPcom to Openverse other than it being integrated in the “insert image” interface (which it is as a part of standalone WP) and Automattic developers also working on the standalone WP software.

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