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Flickr selling its CC photos shows: users don't just need control, they need to understand it, too

3 min read

Dazed reports that Flickr is going to start selling off your Creative Commons licensed photographs:

The site plans to handpick a few select photographers who will get 51% of the sales, but the vast majority of people will see their images printed onto canvas and sold for up to $49 a pop. The only credit they'll get is a small sticker at the bottom of the print bearing their name.

Flickr's founder, Stewart Butterfield (now founder of Slack), is on record as saying, "it's hard to imagine the revenue from selling the prints will cover the cost of lost goodwill".

On his blog, Jeffrey Zeldman says:

I want people to use my photos. That’s why I take them. I want that usage to be unencumbered. That’s why I chose a Creative Commons license. [...] But Yahoo selling the stuff? Cheesy, desperate, and not at all fine with me. I pay for a Flickr Pro account, and am happy to do so. That’s how Yahoo is supposed to make money from my hobby.

I've been a Flickr Pro customer for as long as that's been possible, and quite a few of my photographs have been uploaded under a Creative Commons license. I stopped in 2007, when it became clear that companies like Virgin Mobile were trawling the site to find photographs to use in their advertising for free.

There are a few parallel issues that both events reveal about giving users the ability to license their own work. Flickr is much more liberal than most services about letting users choose how their data is used; being able to apply a legal license of your choice to your photographs is theoretically great. But:

  • Users didn't understand that freely releasing photographs as being usable for commercial purposes meant that anyone, including advertising agencies and major corporations, could do this;
  • Users didn't understand that licensing photographs of people also meant getting a model release contract from the subjects.

In other words - and this shouldn't be a shocker - users weren't aware of the details of intellectual property licensing law. Anyone who's seen a YouTube video with "no copyright intended" earnestly pasted into the description field knows that the vast majority of people don't really understand the rules surrounding content.

Selling photos uploaded to Flickr under a Creative Commons license that allows commercial use is perfectly reasonable legally. However, it defies user expectations, and will come across as yet another way that sites are abusing private data (even if it's actually a side effect of them giving users more control). Legally it shows the flexibility of Creative Commons; strategically it's dumb. As Stewart Butterfield noted, this is likely to hurt them.

So that leaves an interesting case study for other vendors service providers who are trying to give users control. (For example, us at Known.) It's not enough for users to have that control; they also need to understand it. The former is an engineering challenge, while the latter is a design and legal task. Making the implications of sharing and licensing clear is a non-technical undertaking that any open platform should understand it is taking on.

For open source platforms, that leaves one more challenge: convincing both designers and lawyers that they should be contributors. Our open source tools, frameworks, communities and social norms are set up for developers. Finding ways to restructure them to make them more inclusive to other professions and skillsets will, in turn, lead to more usable software that empowers users more robustly than ever before.