Why Yahoo selling canvas prints from my free images uploaded to Flickr doesn’t bother me

A few days after Flickr announced it would begin selling canvas prints of Creative Commons-licensed images, Doug MacMillan, a journalist from the Wall Street Journal contacted me. One of my photos had been featured prominently on Flickr’s Marketplace and Doug asked:

Did you know Flickr is now selling your photos and keeping all of the revenue they generate?
Were you notified by Flick by email or any other way?
Are you okay with this?
Did you ever anticipate this use of your work when you posted to Flickr?

Flickr photo "The Bridge"

The Bridge. I uploaded this photo under a free CC-BY SA license to Flickr in 2013. Now Flickr is selling it and I’m not concerned about it. Read the story behind the shot.

Last Sunday, I spoke to Doug on the phone and explained my reasoning behind uploading images to Flickr under a license that allows everybody to re-use, share, modify and even sell them. As my answer didn’t make it into the Wall Street Journal’s coverage, I’d like to elaborate here why I don’t object to Flickr’s move.

For me, sharing my content freely with other people is one of the most fulfilling things that I can do in life. I have been contributing to Wikipedia since 2005 and I enjoy uploading my photos to Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia’s media repository, under the terms of CC-BY SA (attribution, share alike) or CC0 (public domain) licenses. When I rediscovered my love for photography in 2011, I also started uploading some of my images to Flickr. And I’m sharing those images on Flickr under Creative Commons licenses because I’m hoping to raise awareness for the idea of freely sharing content with others.

Am I concerned about Flickr’s decision to sell my photos?

Now, am I concerned about Flickr’s decision to sell my photos? No. Did Flickr notify me in advance? No. Did I ever anticipate the commercial use of my work when I posted it to Flickr? Yes.

In general, I’d like to see as many people to enjoy my photography work as possible. The fact that one of my photos, an image of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, reaches an audience of more than ten thousand people every month through the English Wikipedia hugely satisfies me. And I won’t forget the day when my photo of the Golden Gate Bridge (the one that Flickr now uses on its Marketplace) reached an audience of more than 26,000 in only two days.

So, what’s the issue?

Flickr’s missed opportunity

The issue is twofold: first, I think Flickr missed an opportunity. When they started selling CC-BY SA licensed photos on their Marketplace, they could have used this to also educate the public and their own photography community about the nature of free licenses. About the motivation that drives enthusiasts around the world to share their images freely with others. Into each shipment of one of the framed CC-BY SA photos Flickr could have included a notice that explains that the image had been released under a free license. They could have paid tribute to the work of many thousands of photographers who spend large amounts of their time on educating the public though their images about the world that surrounds them without expecting any monetary benefits.

The reaction of the blogosphere

Second, I’m concerned about some of the reactions to Doug’s article. Petapixel, one of the most widely read photography sites in the U.S., thinks that people affected by Flickr’s move weren’t aware that CC-BY SA images could also be used commercially. It cites blogger Thomas Hawk who licenses all his Flickr contributions under a NC (non-commercial) license. Hawks reaction to the Wall Street Journal’s article had been to encourage Flickr photographers to “consider changing [their] license to Creative Commons Non-Commercial”. My personal take on NC licenses? While I understand people’s motivation to restrict the commercial usage of their photos, I’m also painfully aware of the fact that non-commercial licensed photos can’t be used on Wikipedia. The world’s biggest encyclopedia is using a CC-BY SA license which makes Flickr’s Creative Commons Non-Commercial photos unusable for the purpose of public education. As a Wikipedia author, I ran into this issue many times. In need for a good illustration of one of my articles, I turned to Flickr just to realize that I couldn’t use most of its photos for my Wikipedia articles because Flickr didn’t have enough (or good enough) images under a free license.

Giving others the opportunity to see the world through your eyes

In an article published in 2006, my friend and former colleague Erik Möller has listed the many reasons not to use a Creative Commons NC license. Arguing against the use of non-commercial licenses, he wrote:

You lose much of the potential for your work to be improved, combined, aggregated and shared by those who believe in unrestricted freedom of use. You exchange the opportunity to be part of a dramatic shift in the ideology of ideas for a vague sense of security.

For me, it’s not only the opportunity of being part of that shift in ideology that informed my decision to freely share my works. What I enjoy even more is the fact that I can share my knowledge with people around the world. And that I can give ten thousands of Wikipedia readers an opportunity to see the phyiscal world around me through my eyes and the lens of my camera.

Please join the growing number of photographers who use CC-BY SA licenses for their works. Whether Flickr and others sell your images or not. Because giving the gift of knowledge is worth more than money.

Ruddy Kingfisher
Six bird photos on Wikimedia Commons that make you wish you had feathers

The Ethics of Photographing Wildlife

Sand dunes in the Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.
My Favorite 2013 Landscape Photos on Wikimedia Commons