Yahoo may start selling Creative Commons-licensed Flickr pictures — and keeping the profits

December 01, 2014

Some photographers are understandably pissed at Yahoo for trying to profit from their work. In an article for The Wall Street Journal, Douglas MacMillan reports:

More than 300 million publicly shared Flickr images use Creative Commons licenses, making it the largest content partner. Yahoo last week said it would begin selling prints of 50 million Creative Commons-licensed images as well as an unspecified number of other photos handpicked from Flickr.

For the handpicked photos, the company will give 51% of sales to their creators. For the Creative Commons images, Yahoo will keep all of the revenue.

This seems to be a fairly incendiary and short-sighted move by Yahoo, but the article fails to mention that there are different types of Creative Commons licenses available to Flickr users. Presumably, Yahoo will only be able to sell pictures that were released under any of the licenses that allow for commercial use. There are currently three such licenses:

The reason this is a thorny issue is that, legally, Yahoo hasn’t done anything wrong. Morally though, it’s a different matter.

And it’s not only about sharing the profits, either. When you make something and decide to release it under a CC license, you usually do it for the good of the community. It’s an act of generosity towards other human beings, not an opportunity for a corporation to make millions of dollars on your behalf. The only way to honor the true spirit of the Creative Commons license would be to sell the prints at cost, that is, without deriving any profits from the sale whatsoever.

In any case, Yahoo should focus on the big picture here.1 They may be in the right legally, but in the court of public opinion there’s no way they’re going to come out of this as a winner. If they want to avoid an even bigger PR mess, they should rethink their stance — and soon.

That said, there’s also a bit of user responsibility at play here. It may not seem like a big deal, but choosing the right CC license for your work is incredibly important. As a Flickr user, you should be aware that if you’re using one of the three CC licenses listed above, then Yahoo is free to sell your photographs without owing you anything in return. What’s even worse, you cannot revoke the license unless Yahoo violates its terms.

From the official Creative Commons Wiki:

What if I change my mind about using a CC license?

CC licenses are not revocable. Once something has been published under a CC license, licensees may continue using it according to the license terms for the duration of applicable copyright and similar rights. As a licensor, you may stop distributing under the CC license at any time, but anyone who has access to a copy of the material may continue to redistribute it under the CC license terms. While you cannot revoke the license, CC licenses do provide a mechanism for licensors to ask that others using their material remove the attribution information. You should think carefully before choosing a Creative Commons license.

If you don’t want Yahoo to sell your pictures but still want them to be available under a Creative Commons license, you may want to consider using a more restrictive CC license, like the Attribution-NonCommercial License. The new license may not apply to the existing pictures in your photostream, but it should cover any pictures you upload to the service in the future.

And to Yahoo, I say this: don’t be jerks. Flickr users rallied to bring the service back from near death once; don’t be so cocky as to presume they’ll do it again. That’s one more chance than most Internet companies get, and it only worked because Flickr was a deeply beloved service and everybody wanted it to survive, but no service is irreplaceable. You would do well not to forget that.

In the long run, Flickr will thrive or die with its users. If you continue to piss them off, they’ll slowly but surely move away from the service, never to return. And then Flickr will be back where it was a couple years ago. Only this time, there will be no one left to bring it back.

  1. No pun intended.