UPDATE: Unsplash has responded to CC’s concerns, and offered clarifications and additional information to address the issues. In particular, they have updated the license to make it explicitly irrevocable. We will update this post if there are further changes to the Unsplash license and terms.
Unsplash, a photo sharing startup, has launched their own branded license and updated their terms to add new restrictions and remove CC0 from their platform. As a result of the changes, Unsplash images are no longer in the public domain. Unsplash now has the right to pursue infringement on behalf of their users. Also, in some cases, attribution is now required. The terms of the new Unsplash-branded copyright license may create issues for users who hope to re-use the images, and for those who shared using the service and wanted their works available under unrestricted terms.
We feel it’s important to inform the CC community, as many have been supporters of Unsplash and we have been receiving questions from users in the open content and free software movements. We reached out to Unsplash and then also, with their consent, spoke to their legal counsel to understand the new license and terms.
Our intention is to ensure that CC community members understand what has happened to a service they have been using that incorporated CC tools, and to protect the content that was dedicated to the public domain. We don’t want to oppose a startup’s business and marketing decisions, nor deny them the IP they might now want to claim to protect their business model.
We understand from Unsplash that they felt that copycat services were detracting from their offering and upsetting their users. We are sympathetic to that challenge — the predominant players in photo sharing like Flickr, 500px, and Wikimedia Commons all use CC0 in their platforms, and have faced those issues with their users. But it’s also clear that Unsplash wanted to extend their brand to have their name incorporated into the license. That’s a perfectly valid business and marketing decision.
We’ve outlined some issues for consideration in more detail below for the benefit of contributors to Unsplash, and those who wish to re-use their images:
NOTE: Following the publishing of this post, Unsplash clarified and update their license to state that their new license is irrevocable. Irrevocability is designed to ensure that anyone who uses the image can do so with the confidence that the author can’t withdraw the permissions they’ve previously granted.
CC0 does not require attribution, though we encourage users to do so because it gives gratitude to the creator, and can support further re-use by linking to the original work and its license. The new Unsplash-branded license doesn’t require attribution, but the Unsplash API guidelines do require attribution. So depending on how a user, a developer, or their app retrieves the image from the Unsplash service, they are subject to different terms.
Copyright and sub-licensing
The new Unsplash terms of service require users who share to grant a copyright license to Unsplash, which permits them to sub-license their work. Unsplash also requires users to grant them the authority to enforce copyright on their behalf. Beyond the compilation of photos in a competing service, it is not clear if there are other scenarios under which Unsplash would enforce copyright against reusers.
CC0 Collection and Archive
Following the switch to the new Unsplash-branded license, there is no marking of works that were previously shared in the public domain using CC0. The Unsplash API restricts/obscures the full CC0 collection, which we believe to be about 200,000 images, but it isn’t possible to access the complete archive. In order to ensure that the commons is maintained, we hope that Unsplash will either a) properly mark all the works shared using CC0 and/or b) make available a full archive of the CC0 works so they can be shared on a platform that supports open licensing and public domain tools. Previous platforms that have gone under or abandoned open license tools have shared their CC archives for this purpose. We hope Unsplash will follow the same path.