Read the Fine Print

broken image iconRTFM

Creative Commons licenses are a wonderful thing. Without them, I’d probably be unable to do my job, so I am extremely grateful to all who apply a CC license to their photos.

All, that is, except people who mark their work with a CC license and then get huffy when someone actually uses it.

Ever since the day when I wasted more than an hour heavily altering a CC-licensed Flickr image, only to discover when I went to the photographer’s profile page to write the credit that it said, “All rights reserved world wide. None of these photographs may be reproduced and/or used publicly in any way without the expressed permission from Me personally,” I have always checked people’s profiles before downloading their work, regardless of the license. Because apparently there are a lot of people who don’t understand what they’re doing when they select a CC license as the default for their Flickr accounts.

Unfortunately, not all Flickr users wear their reading comprehension skills on their sleeves. Yesterday I experienced a related incident: used a cool photo in a story, commented on the post to thank the photographer, and then received a somewhat cross e-mail in reply, saying I should have asked for permission first, and could I move the credit closer to the picture?

So I took it down. Not to be petulant (mostly). But because I wasn’t going to move the credit—it’s where we put all our credits—and I didn’t want the guy to be any more pissed about it than he already obviously was.

In the interest of saving other potential licensees similar pain, I pointed out to the photographer a few relevant passages from the CC deed he had chosen. The license in question is an old one, but this language is almost identical in the current array of CC deeds:

Items 3 and 3a, “License Grant”

Subject to the terms and conditions of this License, Licensor hereby grants You a worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive, perpetual (for the duration of the applicable copyright) license to exercise the rights in the Work as stated below:

a. to reproduce the Work, to incorporate the Work into one or more Collective Works, and to reproduce the Work as incorporated in the Collective Works

In other words, you grant permission when you assign the work a CC license. This is reiterated in the FAQ:

By applying a Creative Commons license to a work, the creator or licensor has decided to clearly signal to members of the public, such as you, that you may use the work without having to ask for permission—provided that you use it consistent with the license terms.

Item 4c, under “Restrictions”

If you distribute, publicly display, publicly perform, or publicly digitally perform the Work, You must keep intact all copyright notices for the Work and give the Original Author credit reasonable to the medium or means You are utilizing by conveying the name (or pseudonym if applicable) of the Original Author if supplied; the title of the Work if supplied; and to the extent reasonably practicable, the Uniform Resource Identifier, if any, that Licensor specifies to be associated with the Work, unless such URI does not refer to the copyright notice or licensing information for the Work. Such credit may be implemented in any reasonable manner; provided, however, that in the case of a Collective Work, at a minimum such credit will appear where any other comparable authorship credit appears and in a manner at least as prominent as such other comparable authorship credit.

The online magazine is a collective work, and we place CC credits where we place all credit lines. We include the creator’s name and/or Flickr handle, the title of the work, and the URL, and we list all credits, from whatever source, in the order of the photos’ appearance within the article.

As I said, I took the photo down, because I don’t enjoy pissing people off, even when it’s a result of their own misunderstanding. But I did this purely as a courtesy. I was not legally required to do so, and even if he had replied with, “Oh, snap!” and changed the license, I’d still be allowed to keep it online. You can always choose a different license, but you can’t retroactively revoke rights from preexisting licensees. I say this not because I’m a lawyer, because, y’know, I’m not, but because it’s right there in the deed. See item 7b, under “Termination”:

Subject to the above terms and conditions, the license granted here is perpetual (for the duration of the applicable copyright in the Work). Notwithstanding the above, Licensor reserves the right to release the Work under different license terms or to stop distributing the Work at any time; provided, however that any such election will not serve to withdraw this License (or any other license that has been, or is required to be, granted under the terms of this License), and this License will continue in full force and effect unless terminated as stated above.

(The “unless terminated as stated above” means “if the licensee violates the terms of the license.”)

So. The lesson here today is that if you’re using Creative Commons licenses on your stuff—and you should! I usually do, unless the photo includes someone else’s copyrighted work or shows a person who hasn’t given me express permission to whore his or her likeness around the Internets—make sure you understand what the deed actually says.

And for my fellow photo consumers out there, may I recommend the free-image search engine everystockphoto? It’s fab. Also note the Flickr CC-search bookmarklet that Brian W. made for me, which I use every single day.

3 thoughts on “Read the Fine Print

  1. I was annoyed recently when I used some art under a CC license, linked to the license on my Web site as part of crediting the original source, and someone assumed that meant they could use other parts of the page under the same license. It wasn’t a share-alike license. As far as I can tell, there are search engines out there that assume anything on a page containing a link to a CC license is covered by the license, and report that assumption as fact in their search results.

  2. This is an issue we’ve run into at Wired, also. In more than one case we’ve used a photograph that was marked as CC-licensed, but the photograph got subsequently changed to “all rights reserved.”

    Creative Commons is pretty clear on this: You don’t need to continue licensing your work under a CC license indefinitely, but if someone uses your photo while you have it under a CC license, that someone can continue using your photo forever, even if you change the license later.

    It’s up to the person doing the re-use to document things, though, and that usually means saving a copy of the Flickr page showing that it was in fact under a CC license at the time that you borrowed it, or using’s Wayback Machine.

    Here’s a story I wrote on the topic in November:

  3. Sorry—bad hostess. No twinkie!

    Matthew: Yes, I have noticed that seems to list some images as CC that perhaps were CC-licensed but that have since been upgraded to full copyright. The licensee has to be able to demonstrate basic research and reading comprehension skills, as well. This is especially challenging for designers, who, as we all know, are, through no fault of their own, illiterate.

    Dylan: Yes, that’s a very good suggestion. I have long considered whether I should be taking screenshots of the Flickr pages of images I use, since I have seen licenses changed after I download something. But I had this crazy fantasy that Flickr actually kept track of the licensing history of each image; I can’t imagine why I would have imagined that. I guess I’ll have to start documenting, henceforth. What a drag.

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