The Reality of Professional Photography on Wikipedia

Noam Cohen’s piece in the New York Times over the weekend highlighted some of the issues surrounding photography on Wikipedia:

At a time when celebrities typically employ a team of professionals to control their images, Wikipedia is a place where chaos rules. Few high-quality photographs, particularly of celebrities, make it onto this site. This is because the site runs only pictures with the most permissive Creative Commons license, which allows anyone to use an image, for commercial purposes or not, as long as the photographer is credited.

But what Cohen somehow misses is the staggering amount of high quality professional photography (of celebrities and otherwise) that does make it on to Wikipedia. Take for example, the Davos World Economic Forum’s choice to release its entire Flickr stream, over 2,600 professional shot photos, under our Attribution-ShareAlike license. The result is a professional, high quality, and informative entry on the conference and organization filled with photos of celebrities that was entirely curated by volunteers. WEF didn’t even have to upload the photos themselves, they just made them available under the right license:

World Economic Forum - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Obviously, the WEF is in the business of running a meeting and not licensing celebrity photos, but there is no doubt about the value in the works they’ve contributed to the commons; value that could have been, but wasn’t, exploited using standard all-rights-reserved copyright licenses and stock photo agencies.

In other words, the WEF realized the obvious advantages of being the provider of a certain set of free photos that would otherwise be difficult to capture professionally. As Wikipedia continues its ascent toward being a cultural necessity (if not the nth wonder of the world), these advantages will only accumulate, thus further cementing the argument for free culture.

7 thoughts on “The Reality of Professional Photography on Wikipedia”

  1. You are missing the point. I am a photographer and I want people to share my photographs. I also want to put my best pics on wikipedia and I know I can fill in a lot of gaps. But right now I only upload my 2nd grade pics as being a photographer, people want to buy my photographs and I will lose all my rights with the existing license.

    I am all for non-commercial derivative use, but wikipedia needs to be clear on where and how it wants it content to be finally available.

  2. Hi Kalyan,
    Using a CC license does not mean you loose all your rights. All you’re doing is being clear about how you want your works used by the public.

    It is true that Wikipedia requires you to share your commercial rights with the site. But this does not mean that you cannot commercially sell your own photographs. I’m sure people will continue to purchase photos even if they happen to be on Wikipedia. If you’re developing and printing them yourself, you can also leverage that — your distinct effort and skill at developing your own photos can not be matched by anyone (because you are you).

    Also, why does it have to depend on copyright? You can still upload medium-resolution versions to Wikipedia and sell access to the high resolution versions. Both will still be under a CC license, but you’ll then have control over who gets the high resolution versions, at least initially.

    As for Wikipedia being clear about how it wants its content available: I’m a little unclear by what you mean by that. On one hand, Wikipedia is incredibly clear about how they want their content used:

    But on the other hand, they can’t feasibly predict how someone may end up reusing content they find on the site. And that’s part of the beauty of freely licensing works — whether its software or photos, you’ll never be able to predict the myriad of consequences possible when you open your work up to the public. But this is a good thing. Just think of how people now use computers to connect the Internet; the original inventors of digital machines had no idea about the possibilities of computers, but because they kept building on each other’s work (and were able to), progress was made.



  3. The use of CC licenses remains relatively new. Given time, CC licensed-material of high quality will begin to appear on the site, as the highest-quality CC stock continues to increase.

    Each professional photographer is of course free to withhold her or his “best work” from any free use, including wikipedia. This will have the result of reducing the flow of CC material by these photographers. Yet there will still be
    a continued accretion of images from those not so constrained about what they post, including professionals who see the promotional value in attribution, which will over time close the gap.

    Wikipedia is a massive sharing, not a resume nor a commercial marketing enterprise. Anyone who wishes not to share is free not to share. Yet time has already shown that the sharing at wikipedia continues, and over time improves the quality of its free product.

  4. Fred,
    Appreciate your comments. I do already upload quite a few of my photographs on wikipedia and yes they are all 800×600, so people do not exploit it (not that I care to be honest).

    Just that legally, I am technically giving rights away. In reality it does not matter, but in the long term no one really knows how it came come back in bite you. I think its that uncertainty thats keeping photographers away.

    Of course on the other side, wikipedia is a great way to get your work out and get noticed if you are trying to build a career as a photographer

  5. Hi!

    In 2007 I uploaded several photos to Wikipedia…

    In 2011 I want to remove all of them… but I can’t!

    In 2011 I want to re-upload them in small size… but I can’t!

    No Democracy in Wikipedia!

    For example with this file:

    Why it’s not possible to remove it or resize to a small file?

    In Wikipedia, the author lost all rights to their photos…

  6. Valter,

    1024×768 is not exactly a high resolution photo.

    However, that’s beside the point. As stated in the license grant is irrevocable.

    You might also wish to look at


    p.s. though I don’t understand your implication that democracy = single author ability to revoke rights granted to the public.

  7. the irrevocability of CC licenses is a JOKE. Users of flickr change the license to whatever they, whenever they want. If they want to stop offering a CC compatible license, they will do so whether CC likes it or not . After all the picture is THEIR work, it would not have existed without them taking the pictures.

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