Picture Copyrights: An Iceberg Study

Created: Wednesday, March 20, 2013, posted by Geetesh Bajaj at 4:00 am

Explore this story of an iceberg picture that provides some learning about copyrights for images, and why some copyrights are not so obvious.

Let’s talk about a fascinating picture of an iceberg by photographer Ralph A. Clevenger. This is a fully copyrighted picture, yet a quick search on Google Images will show that this picture has been used hundreds of times on the web (see Figure 1, below).

Search and you get hundreds of the same results
Figure 1: Search and you get hundreds of the same results

So have all these web sites licensed the picture? That doesn’t appear to be true since this picture is sells at a very high price on Corbis. They won’t even publish the price on the Corbis site, as you can see in Figure 2, below.

Iceberg Picture on Corbis
Figure 2: The same picture on Corbis

Why are we even discussing this picture? That’s because the subject of picture copyrights is not always clear. This brings up a question: how can you even know if the picture you are using is copyright free or not? Unless the picture is placed within a Creative Commons license on a reputed site such as Flickr, there is no way you can really trust any site that says that a picture is free to use! This picture is, therefore, a perfect case study. Let us start with a little history.

I first saw this picture used in a presentation slide, and this was one of those slides that stayed in my memory. It stayed long enough that I wanted to use it in my own slide where I was using an iceberg as an analogy to explain a difficult concept to my audience. I searched for iceberg pictures on iStock, Fotolia, Bigstock, and many other sites, but could not find this picture anywhere. Of course, there were many similar pictures available on all these sites, but none of them looked half as good as the original!

Imagine my surprise then, when I found this picture freely available using Google’s Image search options. Some results were actually fairly high-resolution pictures! Most of these high-res variations were freely downloadable from wallpaper sites. Now some of these wallpaper sites proclaim that these pictures are copyrighted by them. You might actually end up believing that this picture belongs to them, and they are kind enough to allow you to use it! Fortunately, that thought did not satisfy me, and I am so glad that I was not contented with that conclusion, as you will learn later in this post!

Most Google Image search results can span many pages, or at least you need to use the “Page Down” key multiple times. One such instance of this picture actually led to a page with a story about this picture. Apparently, this picture was composed of four pictures (two icebergs, one sky, and one water) by photographer Ralph A. Clevenger. There was also a nice video clip that had a small interview with the photographer on YouTube; find this video clip embedded here.

This story and some more research led me to Corbis. Now I knew that this was not a copyright-free picture; in fact, this was a very expensive picture! That does mean I cannot use this picture in my presentation, so I just had to select the second best this time and use a Creative Commons licensed picture from Wikimedia Commons instead. Incidentally, this picture was also a photo-montage composed of different pictures.

So what’s the moral of this story? You need to be sure that anything you are using is within copyright limits. Sometimes you may not see the obvious, but be persistent and do your research well.


This picture is so familiar – therefore it makes a great topic to discuss copyrights. But then you also need to know about visual clichés – don’t go and use this iceberg picture in your next presentation! As my friend Carmen Simon points out:

Copyright or no copyright, that iceberg picture has been used so much in presentations for the past few years that it has become a cliché. I was working with someone just a few weeks ago and he said “Can we use the iceberg pic?” and my reaction was please, not the iceberg picture again! So the advice that I would have for people is that if they look for a picture on Google and they see so many references to it, then don’t even bother to check copyright; better to search for another picture because the climax is gone, the concept is too beaten up, and the freshness is gone.

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  • Excellent article, Geetesh.

    Carmen, your counterpoint is spot on. The iceberg concept has been overused for at least 20 years!

  • This is an issue I wrestle with constantly as I seek images for presentations. What do you think about Google's Advanced Search whereby one can qualify the images that come up as "free to use" and "free to use, even commercially"? Based on your article it seems like even this qualification wouldn't be enough but I'd like to learn your thoughts.

  • Laura, I doubt if there's a complete solution to this problem since every image is a different case altogether. However, being curious and intuitive can help — and that's where a human can score higher than a computer 🙂

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