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Flickr Wall Art Puts a Spotlight on Creative Commons Commercial Licenses

Posted by Rebecca Blake on January 15, 2015

Creative Commons FlickrIn mid-October, Flickr announced the roll-out of a “new opportunity” for users to share their work as photo-mounted or canvas-printed Wall Art. One month later, the photo-sharing site announced that it had added over 50 million “freely-licensed” Creative Commons images to its Flickr Wall Art service, without the participation of the photographers. The announcement understandably enraged Flickr users. As Dazed reported, Flickr, or rather its parent company, Yahoo, would pocket all profits for the bulk of the sales, with the photographers receiving only a small attribution at the bottom of the print. (A small number of curated photographers, contacted by Flickr, would receive 51% of the sales.)

The announcement resulted in a firestorm of outraged articles from ardent Flickr users such as Jeffrey Zeldman, with the consensus being that the move on Yahoo’s part was short-sighted. As Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield (who left the company in 2008) told The Guardian, “It’s hard to imagine the revenue from selling the prints will cover the cost of lost goodwill.” Copyright advocates predictably took a tough line. Artists’ Bill of Rights urged Flickr users to change the licensing terms on their uploaded images from Creative Commons to “All Rights Reserved”, and warned that “‘share and share alike’ needs a reality check in today’s internet: the CC license adds dollars to an internet entrepreneur’s pocket, not yours.” The only organization that seemed to be unperturbed was the Electronic Frontier Foundation; EFF’s intellectual property director was reported as saying that it didn’t appear Flickr was doing any wrong.

The issue wasn’t that Yahoo intended toviolate copyright law. The images folded into Flickr’s Wall Art collection were covered by Creative Commons licenses which permit commercial use: “Attribution” (CC BY), permitting wide usage, including altering, remixing, and distributing; Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA) permitting the same rights as the CC BY license, as long as any derivative work is covered by the same license terms; and Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND), permitting distribution without alteration. Additionally, users had to knowingly select the CC commercial licenses. Flickr’s default license stipulates, “All Rights Reserved,” and users can select from any of the six licenses covered by Creative Commons, including the three which don’t permit commercial use.

However, many users, including supporters of sharing and remix culture, felt that Yahoo’s intention to profit from the works covered by the CC commercial licenses violated the “spirit’ of the Flickr community. Web developer Jen Simmons wrote “If the only option for preventing corporate abuse is to lock everything behind non-commercial-use licenses, the whole purpose of Creative Commons is weakened.” She identifies a key weakness in the Creative Commons commercial licenses — the licenses make no distinction between different kinds of commercial use, lumping together major corporations with small businesses, non-profits, and individuals: “I don’t believe that photographers, illustrators and others who want to share their work should have to agree that big companies can do whatever they want, including selling copies of those images on a massive scale. ”

In a thoughtful essay, Morten Rand-Hendriksen pointed out that the spirit of the Flickr service (which he defines as the “commonly agreed upon understanding” of its users) is at odds with the legal interpretations of the CC licenses. Rand-Hendriksen boils down the dissonance between spirit and legal meaning to “everyone should be able to do whatever they want with my photos, including earning money off their use without sharing it with me, as long as they are not the corporation that hosts those photos or a large corporation that should be able to pay me.” He agrees with Simmons that the Creative Commons licenses may need reevaluating. But as he concludes, “If you put content on the web, remember that the [Creatie Commons] license you apply to that content is universal. It grants the same rights to your neighborhood blogger and the corporation that hosts your content.”

Yahoo eventually backed down on the scope of the Wall Art Project, apologizing in a December 18, 2014 blog post. They announced that they were removing the Creative Commons-licensed images from the Wall Art pool and refunding all sales of those images. (Flickr users can still produce Wall Art of their own work, and only the work of Flickr-curated licensed photographers appears in the Wall Art site.) Artists’ Bill of Rights used the episode as an object lesson, cautioning creators to not use Creative Commons licenses, and urging them to embed metadata in their images, and register their copyrights.

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