copyright symbol
Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Yahoo! will begin selling prints of 50 million Creative Commons-licensed images uploaded by Flickr users as well as an unspecified number of other photos uploaded by users that will be handpicked from Flickr. Images bearing a Creative Commons licenses that allow for commercial use will be sold as canvas prints for up to $49 each with no payments going to the image owners. Instead, Yahoo! will retain all revenues. However, each canvas print will include a “small sticker bearing the name of the artist.” Handpicked images won’t have the Creative Commons license that allows for commercial use, so owners of those images will receive 51% of the sales revenue with Yahoo! keeping the rest.

There are more than 300 million images on Flickr with Creative Commons licenses. Of course, the missing link here is the question of copyright owner vs. author. The person who uploads a photo to Flickr and puts a Creative Commons license on it might not be the owner of the copyright. In copyright law, the owner and creator aren’t necessarily the same person (or entity) either. In other words, many images on Flickr bearing Creative Commons licenses might not even be licensed correctly to begin with.

The Problem

The problem is not what Yahoo! is doing. It appears that they’re following the purpose of Creative Commons licenses. The problem is that people don’t understand what the Creative Commons licenses mean, and they don’t understand their basic rights under copyright law.

Creative Commons licenses were created to foster sharing because some people believed that copyright laws were too stringent. There was no option that made it easy to give large audiences permission to share and use creative works. Fast-forward to 2014, and you can bet that a large number of those 300 million Creative Commons-Commerical licenses on Flickr were applied to images by people who didn’t understand what they were doing. The outcry among Flickr users’ who are unhappy with Yahoo!’s new revenue-generation strategy proves this.

Many Flickr users are changing the licenses on their uploaded images and others are removing their images from the site entirely. As Nelson Lourenco, a photographer from Lisbon, Portugal, told The Wall Street Journal, “When I accepted the Creative Commons license, I understood that my images could be used for things like showing up in articles or other works where they could be showed to the public. [Yahoo!] selling my work and getting the full money out of it came as a surprise.”

Copyright law exists so people can protect their creative work and exploit it for their own commercial gain. If owners of creative works choose to license their works using a Creative Commons license, they need to fully understand what they’re agreeing to and what they’re giving up.

Take a look at the license descriptions on the Creative Commons website. Start with the Attribution license which allows anyone to use images bearing this license, including commercially. The short license description doesn’t make it clear what you give up if you choose that license. Click the “View License Deed” link for the Attribution license, and it’s still not clear. The only reference to commercial use is a line that says, “even commercially.” By the way, it’s the License Deed page that Flickr users see when they click through to learn more about a specific Creative Commons license. Now, click the “View Legal Code” link for the Attribution license. Read through the legalese and you’ll see that nowhere in the text is it clear that works can be sold by other people for profit once this license is applied. While it’s allowed, the average person is unlikely to understand as is evidenced by the public’s reaction to Yahoo!’s plans to sell Flickr users’ images.

The Good News

The good news is that Yahoo!’s plan to profit from its users’ content just might help content owners in the future. “This is a classic case of the letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law,” says Intellectual Property attorney Kelley Keller. “Industry practices over time become the accepted interpretation of programs like Creative Commons. When someone like Yahoo! pushes the envelope, it exposes vulnerabilities that, when addressed, ultimately serve to strengthen the program.”

Copyright law is confusing, but with clearer laws, improved Creative Commons licenses, and educated content creators and publishers, creativity, sharing, and profits will be able to coexist so everyone is happy. We’re just not there yet.

Do you have any images on Flickr with Creative Commons Attribution, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike, or Creative Commons Attribution NoDerivs licenses applied to them? If you don’t want Yahoo! to sell them and you want to preserve more of your rights as the owner of those images, you might want to change that license or delete your images.

Image: Joshua Gajownik for OpenSource.com licensed CC BY-SA 2.0