Flickr removes CC-licensed photos from Wall Art program

Ryan Merkley

In October, Flickr announced a new service that allows its members to order printed photos on wood or canvas, choosing either from their own photos, from a set of curated images, or from about 50 million CC BY or CC BY-SA–licensed images. Flickr would share profits with the photographers of the curated images, but not the CC-licensed ones, as those licenses permit Flickr to use the photos commercially.

Today, we learned that Flickr is removing all CC-licensed images from the Wall Art program. I understand why Flickr has made the decision to change the program, and appreciate their commitment to working to strengthen our community.

This has been a controversial topic here at Creative Commons — at all levels of the organization, and in our community. Some feel that a community discussion should have come before launching the program, or that Flickr users should have had a choice of whether to allow Flickr to monetize their CC-licensed photos. Others think that abiding by the terms of CC BY isn’t enough, and that there is a moral obligation to share profits. And still others think that this is exactly what the free culture movement intended — permissive use of any kind by anyone (even large companies), so long as the terms are met.

Flickr has been a big part of the growth of the commons, and the advancement of CC licenses. In our recent State of the Commons report, we identified over 880 million licensed works — 307 million of them are on Flickr. It’s the largest public archive of CC-licensed images. So when I read articles and blog posts recommending that Flickr users remove their works from the commons, I was concerned. Users of any media platform should feel secure in their understanding of how their content will or won’t be used.

A central principle of open licenses is that the rights they grant apply to everyone, from hobbyists to large corporations. I hope this decision does not create confusion for those who would use licensed works. Under CC licenses, everyone plays by the same rules. Entrepreneurs should be able to experiment with monetizing openly licensed content without fear that if they become successful, the licenses will no longer apply to them. Just as licensors should be able to feel confident that the licenses are legally airtight, so should licensees.

Everyone can agree that providing clearer information on how CC licenses work — and what rights they grant — can prevent many misunderstandings. I see this as an important opportunity for Flickr and CC to do more to engage and inform users. We’re a global nonprofit that represents a diverse community of creators, users, businesses, and activists. In order for our work to be meaningful, we must recognize that the people who make up the commons are its most important asset.

Our vision is one where content of all kinds is freely available for use under simple terms, where the permissions are clear to everyone. If that doesn’t happen, creators can feel misled or cheated, and users are left uncertain if they can use the commons as a source of raw material. That’s not just about the terms of the licenses. It’s about how platforms develop and position their products and services, and how users engage in a community.

The Flickr team has asked Creative Commons to work with them to help make their messaging about CC license options clearer, and help ensure their programs are in alignment with the spirit of both communities. We hope that we can use this opportunity to help foster stronger relationships throughout the commons community, license users and media platforms alike. As we do that work in the coming months, I welcome your suggestions and ideas.

4 thoughts on “Flickr removes CC-licensed photos from Wall Art program”

  1. With all due respect, this politburo-style TL;DR does not help the reader to understand the issue and possible solutions. I find it quite strange that CC license be undermined like that by both the Flickr community and CC.ORG itself.

    The whole point of the CC BY license is (among other things) to grant the user the right to extract profits from the object of the license. There are other licenses disallowing that, and any Flickr community member may choose it instead.

    Now, how is Flicker in the wrong by adhering to the terms of the license chosen by the creators of the photographs in question? I can clearly understand why Flickr would overreact and discontinue use of CC BY images — to protect itself from the horde of people who either never understood the CC BY license and think that anything with “CC” in it “should be free” or who, strangely, insist that while the license allows using its object for profit, the “morality” should require such user to either forego the profits or at least share them.

    However, let us keep in mind that had the authors of photographs in question wanted to receive profit for the third-party use of their works, they could have — and would have — chosen a different license. It was their choice, and it should be respected.

    Compromising the CC BY license by demonstrating that abiding to its letter, while legally safe, is not safe for you or your business for some dubious “moral” grounds will not do it or any other CC and CC-like license any good. Now that noone is sure whether its safe to use, they will be tempted to avoid objects of such licenses in fear of reactions similar to that of some members of the Flickr user community.

  2. Now, my view is that Flickr was in the wrong, but the people it was doing down were the purchasers of prints.

    The photographers had made a deliberate decision, much as I do when submitting to Geograph, that a CC2 by licence allows people to re-use my image without anything other than a byline. But the same licence should be inheited by the derivative work.

    This, by extension, seems to imply to me that the printer cannot charge the customer for copyright in the price – it is perfectly fair to recover that sum from a purchaser if it is going to be passed on to the originatoer under some other licence. Which Flickr were doing. But if no such compensation needs to be paid, then it should not be charged for. The customer should have had the advantage of a cheaper product because of the generosity of the copyright holder.

    To me what Flickr did in pocketing the premium on a CC2 image was dishonest and contrary to the licence. They did nothing wrong in offering to print the image, but they did in (implicitly) implying there was a copyfee owed to the photographer.

    When I was a child someone taught me that if you are right you should never apologize. So I am still trying to understand the reasons that led the management of Flickr to publish this absurd “we are so sorry” statement.
    They where right: Flickr has decided to do a commercial use of those pictures just because it was permitted by the Creative Commons licenses chosen by the photographers independently and without compulsion. In fact, when you upload a picture or an album on Flickr, you have to set the copyright status. You can choose one of the the six different CC licenses, and you can also keep your works under a “full copyright”, choosing the “all rights reserved” option.
    If a photographer is not able to read a simple and clear license, the problem is in his brain (or maybe eyes) and not in the behavior of Flickr. If reading the licenses is not enough to understand, people can also read the “Creative Commons licenses” entry on Wikipedia or the FAQ written by the CC community. In the web there is a huge amount of clear and very simple material to learn more about these tools; please no more excuses to say “ops, I didn’t know it was like this!”.
    Flickr in this case has been transparent and honest. Why should they apologize? If they apologize, they debase the value of the Creative Commons licenses and all the activity of disclosure made in recent years to make them known to users.

  4. I think it was wrong of Creative Commons to have put pressure onto Flickr to withdraw the service. I think it was wrong of the Wall Street Journal to have written such a biased article and I think that it was wrong of Flickr to withdraw the service. You have all debased the value of the Creative Commons license.

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