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Toolkit: How to Give Proper Attribution

This toolkit is a growing library of wisdom that highlights the hurdles of owning your content and building your platform. We not only curate the wisdom from creative leaders and artists, but also from the community—a balance of both, like cheese and wine—so that you’re supported and empowered to build your home on the internet.

Have you ever held a door for a stranger and they didn’t thank you for it? That’s what it feels like when someone uses your work and doesn’t give you credit or proper attribution. It’s not the end of the world, of course, but simple acts of courtesy often feel like they should be a default of internet behavior.

How do we change the culture? Not with shame, but through kindness, patience, and holding each other accountable. It won’t happen overnight, but if we at least start tonight, then tomorrow is more promising.

From thoughtful attribution to using Creative Commons licenses, we’ll share the resources that can improve all aspects of your online presence, and also a general rule of thumb for respecting people’s work that makes you look good. The least we can do (which happens to be enough) is to give credit where it’s due, link to the person’s website—and if you want to go the extra mile—send them a kind note that you’re using their work with proper attribution.

Practical wisdom from like-minded creatives


Meet Ryan Merkley, the CEO of Creative Commons—a global nonprofit organization that enables creators to share and reuse creativity and knowledge through the provision of free legal tools.

He admits that attribution is often incorrectly done, and it’s not always out of malice. It’s just people are lazy or don’t know the “right” way. He said in our Season 1 interview:

“Attribution is gratitude. It’s the least you can do to thank someone for creating something and allowing you to use it. CC’s minimum standard for attribution is author, title of the work, link to the original work, link to the CC deed for the licenses.

“For example: Ryan Merkley, “Self-Portrait”,, licensed CC BY 4.0

“Unfortunately, attribution like that is done incorrectly quite often. Sometimes it’s malicious, but most of the time I think it’s because people are confused, or a bit lazy. I think we should make it easier, or better yet, automatic.”

Read Ryan Merkley’s interview on why attribution is gratitude and how you can use the Creative Commons license to ensure that the work you use is respected.


Intellectual property law is a topic that is easy to ignore, yet it’s paramount to have a foundation of understanding so you can protect yourself and your work. It’s a topic that lacks urgency until someone steals your work and makes a profit or a cease and desist arrives in your mailbox. The internet has loose boundaries and infinite possibilities, and it behooves us to know some of the basics so your work doesn’t suffer the iron grip of the terms and conditions.

Meet Heather Meeker, a specialist in intellectual property licensing. Heather’s clients cover a range of industries including software, communications, educational testing, computer equipment and medical devices. She has wide-ranging experience in open source licensing strategies, and in intellectual property matters related to mergers and acquisitions.

“If you understand the four types of IP and what each one does, you will be much better equipped to protect your work — not to mention understanding the legal environment for creative work.

“Copyright covers “works of authorship,” which include traditional works such as books, drawings, movies, plays and sound recordings, but also computer software and semiconductor layouts. An author owns a copyright as soon as the work is “fixed in a tangible medium,” or written down in any form. It’s not necessary to register a copyright to own it, but doing so is a good idea, if you think you will ever want to enforce your rights. Registration is inexpensive and not difficult.

“Patents are much harder for most people to understand. A patent is a pure “negative right”  — meaning the ability to prevent others from making, using, selling or importing a product. It does not give the owner the right to do anything. Patents are expensive and time consuming to get — the inventor must submit a patent application and convince the patent office to issue the patent.  You have to prove your invention is new (in patent parlance “non-obvious” in light of prior inventions) and that you are the first inventor of it.

Trademarks are much more understandable. A trademark is a brand name or logo. They can usually be registered for a modest investment. Every business and artist has a trademark, whether they know it or not.

Trade secrets are also a common-sense IP regime. This area of law covers information that is confidential and has business value.”

Read Heather’s insightful interview that covers the basics of intellectual property law.


Consider going back to your posts and checking to make sure that a photo or illustration is properly attributed—full name and link to their website. This is also a good time to let that artist(s) know that you’re using their work—you never know what kind of connections that may lead to.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you forget—it’s something none of us learned in school or while growing up alongside the internet. Fix the error and be mindful next time.


Adding to what I said on this yesterday: Attribution and recognition also serve to build awareness of the capabilities, talents, or specialties of contributors. This is a great way to contribute to the career development of a colleague, friend, or respected stranger.

— Matthew Rechs (@MrEchs) March 23, 2019

I always try and refer people to the book I’ve read or the podcast I’ve listened to if relevant ideas or quotes come up even in conversation… never try and pass anything off as your own thought if it’s a comment on someone else’s idea 💡

— Jennie Bennett (@benniejennett) March 23, 2019

Always attribute to author or creator’s username. If attribution can’t be found, then cite link to where it was found. Always be ready and willing to update attribution. The harder question is what happens if they don’t want work shared or linked to? Individual take downs, etc.

— Eric Nakagawa 💪🏻🍕🚀 (@ericnakagawa) March 23, 2019


The Noun Project
Need an icon for your project? The Noun Project is a generous resource has over 2 million icons from designers around the world. You can use it for free (attribution included) or buy the icon.

Creative Commons
There are over 1.1 billion works in the CC archive. This means that you have access to audio, video, photos, scientific research, and so much more to use and remix for your projects. Each work comes with a specific license that teaches you on what the boundaries are and how to properly attribute the work if you were to use it.

Unsplash allows you to use gorgeous photos from talented and generous photographers from around the world.

Internet Archive
Internet Archive is a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more.

The Gender Spectrum Collection from Broadly
The Gender Spectrum Collection is a stock photo library featuring images of trans and non-binary models that go beyond the clichés.


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Toolkit by Paul Jun. Illustrations by Jeffrey Phillips. ‘Own Your Content’ illustration by Annica Lydenberg.

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