Who owns your photos?

You do. Always.

Unless you assign copyright to someone else, perhaps after selling a photo.

But how your photos can be used requires a different, more complex answer.

After seeing a question on the Campfire forum this week about Google Street View image licensing, I decided to dig into the fine print to find the answer.

Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer.

And now the disclaimer is out of the way…

Contributing to Street View

Content you upload, submit, store, send, or receive through Google Maps/Google Earth is subject to Google’s Terms of Service.

These terms apply to content across all Google’s services, not just Street View, and define the intellectual property rights to the content that you find in Google services – whether that content belongs to you, Google or others.

Of particular interest is the section, “Permission to use your content”.

When you contribute imagery to Google Street you submit them under Google’s contribution policy.

This policy mainly [defines what you can and what you cannot upload.

Though importantly, it also defines where your content may appear.

For example,

Published content, along with your profile name and photo, may also appear within third–party sites that use Google embeddable widgets or the Google Maps Platform API.

Google explicitly states:

If you do not want to share your experience, imagery, video, or the location in which it was taken, please do not publish it using this service.

Simply put; when you upload content to Google, you grant them a licence to use your content under the defined terms:

  • host, reproduce, distribute, communicate, and use your content — for example, to save your content on our systems and make it accessible from anywhere you go
  • publish, publicly perform, or publicly display your content, if you’ve made it visible to others
  • modify your content, such as reformatting or translating it
  • sublicense these rights to:
    • other users to allow the services to work as designed, such as enabling you to share photos with people you choose
    • our contractors who’ve signed agreements with us that are consistent with these terms, only for the limited purposes described in the Purpose section below

Correct April 2020. See full Terms of Service for current wording

How Google Uses Your Contributions

When you upload photos to Google Street View, you are explicitly granting Google some commercial rights under the licensee.

This means they can use your images, and make them available for other to use within their terms.

You are probably aware that anyone can embed any Google Street View image on a website, like I’ve done above, free of charge. If not, this post explains how to.

Google also charges customers who want to use a larger volume of Google Street View photos. This includes access to all published Google Street View photos. Pricing varies, but starts at $7.00 USD for every 1000 images requested. Correct April 2020.

A good example of a customer paying for Google Street View imagery is the brilliant game, Geoguessr. Yes, every time you move between images in Geoguessr, they are having to pay Google. I wonder how big there bill is!

But you won’t see a penny of their payment. And, in most cases, this should not be a concern – just being attributed on Google Street View is publicity enough.

How Others Can Use Your Images

All uses of Google Maps and Google Earth (this includes Google Street View) content must provide attribution to both Google and the author.

A great example of attribution can be seen when embedding Google Street View imagery into a website.

You can see the copyright for the first Google Street View embedded image in this post is attributed to, “Trek View HQ”, and that the second to, “Google”.

Those buying Google Street View imagery from Google, like Geoguessr, still need to provide this attribution – they can’t use your photo without crediting you.

Though the ways people can use your images extend far beyond embedding it on a website.

For example, the Google Maps, Google Earth, and Google Street View permissions page lists digital advertisements as an acceptable use of Google Street View imagery (under the defined conditions).

They do list some prohibited uses of Google Street View imagery:

  • creating data from Street View images, such as digitizing or tracing information from the imagery;
  • using applications to analyze and extract information from the Street View imagery;
  • downloading Street View images to use separately from Google services (such as an offline copy);
  • merging or stitching together multiple Street View images into a larger image.

Again, to simplify, it is impossible to stop someone using a photo you’ve uploaded to Google Street View in their own project, assuming they are operating within Google Terms.

It is also worth noting that once you publish an image to Google Street View it is visible to the world. It is not possible to make images private or to restrict who can see them.

Removing photos from Google Street View

Having read all of this, you might want to remove a photo from Google Street View.

The license you grant to Google to use your imagery is effective until you deleting the photo from Google Street View or by deleting the Google account to which the photo belong (thus, deleting all the content).

As stated in Google’s Terms of Service:

If you remove from our services any content that’s covered by this license, then our systems will stop making that content publicly available in a reasonable amount of time. There are two exceptions:

  • If you already shared your content with others before removing it. For example, if you shared a photo with a friend who then made a copy of it, or shared it again, then that photo may continue to appear in your friend’s Google Account even after you remove it from your Google Account.
    • If you make your content available through other companies’ services, it’s possible that search engines, including Google Search, will continue to find and display your content as part of their search results.

The easiest way to delete a photo from Google Street View, and thus revoking the license you’ve granted Google, is using the Google Street View app.

Should I care?

Probably not.

Though it’s always worth understanding the terms to make an informed decision.

We upload our photos to Google Street View – it’s a great way to put them in front of billions of people. No other platform can do this.

Generally speaking, having your photo on Google Street View outweighs any negatives.

That said, if you were shooting for a client who might want to resell the images, it’s worth having a discussion with them as to the implications of uploading to Google Street View.

We highly advocate “openness”, from software to imagery.

All Trek View images are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. This means you can use them non-commercially outside of Google Street View without asking us, provided you credit us.

After all, what’s the point of an image if no one sees it?

David Greenwood

Professional explorer.