Flickr, Facebook and Other Terrible Tales

4 Dec 2014
This week photographers have been up in arms. It doesn't generally take much to get photographers up in arms and most weeks something, whether it be digital manipulation or an art critic claiming photography isn't art, has photographers up in arms. On this occasion the issue is copyright theft… or rather it isn't copyright theft but people are up in arms over copyright theft anyway. The photo sharing site, Flickr, has drawn the ire of many of its members by selling prints of member's photographers, for profit, with no money being paid to the photographer who took it.
Article text
Creative Commons: Everybody wants a bite.
Photographers are quite sensitive to this sort of thing, and this isn't the first of this type of furore. A year (maybe two) ago, there was a bit of a hoo-hah about Facebook using images posted by its members in ads supporting its sponsors. This brought about a lot of scrutiny of the terms and conditions of social networking and image sharing sites and the general consensus was that people didn't like how Facebook's terms and conditions allowed them to use their images in this way. Many people started to remove their images from Facebook, or even deleting their accounts altogether. It's a very familiar story, on any given day, there will be some form of outrage over social media terms and conditions doing the rounds (currently a lot of people have been posting links on facebook to an flawed statement based on a flawed understanding of intellectual property which they believe prevents Facebook from using their images).

Of course Facebook's intention was never to commandeer anybody's creative efforts as a key part of an advertising campaign. All they wanted to do was show thumbnails of the happy faces of people who had liked 'X' product, as part of an advertisement for that product. Which isn't hugely different from what Facebook does with your profile picture when you like something non-commercially. While many people still won't like this, it isn't really about the artistic merit or creative vision of the photos being used.

Flickr is a bit different in this regard, as it isn't simply putting your grinning mug as an endorsement into ads, but is profiting directly off your hard work. The photos which will make Flickr the most money are the ones which sell the most prints which (you may argue) are the ones with the greatest artistic merit. These photos are often genuinely creative affairs, and a lot of work has gone into making them. This is what has been seen as particularly grievous to most people, it could seem as though Flickr are employing you as a photographer to take images they can print and sell, except they aren't paying you.

Despite a lot of attention being turned towards Flickr's terms and conditions, this actually has nothing to do with those, and everything to do with the type of licence applied to the photographs Flickr is using. This licence is called 'creative commons' and when you upload your images to Flickr you are given the option of including a creative commons licence with your work. Creative Commons is a non-profit organisation who have written a licence document that encourages the free sharing of creative works and which is free for anyone to use and apply to their work. The creator still has the copyright but what a creative commons licence does is authorises anyone in the world to download, use and redistribute your work freely.

Flickr have not started to sell prints of members work because it has changed it terms and conditions; by licencing the works as creative commons, the creators are allowing Flickr to do whatever it likes with them; and not just Flickr but anyone. A work licenced as creative commons could allow anyone in the world to download the work, produce a print (or in the case of music, burn it to a CD) and sell it.

This profiting off the work of artists has caused such consternation, not just because it seems wrong to people that their work can be simply taken and sold as-is, for another's profit so easily and so cheaply but because many of the people who use creative commons are doing so precisely because they want their work to be free. Many people think of creative commons as this anarchic thing where carefree artists share their work and profit is a dirty word; but yet without the correct clause; creative commons does allow people to take work that was 'gifted' to the world and use it for profit.

The issue with creative commons is more to do with the details that with creative commons licencing itself. Creative Commons themselves are committed to the idea of free art as a catalyst for collaborative work and generally to make the world a better place; but to allow people to licence their work as creative commons while placing some limitations on how the work can be used, they have created some optional clauses which can be added to the creative commons licence.

These clauses can state that the creator must be credited wherever the work is used; that derivative works cannot be created from the original; that derivative works must also be licenced as creative commons; or, most importantly to this debate, that the work may not be used for commercial purposes. Each of the clauses is represented by a two-letter code which is added to the copyright statement, and for the non-commercial clause, the code is 'NC'. Flickr allow you when setting your licence to apply any of these clauses to your licence, and it is only selling prints of photos marked as creative commons with no 'NC' clause. Add the NC clause (or alternatively don't use creative commons at all and leave the photo as 'all rights reserved' which is actually the default when uploading a photo to Flickr) and Flickr can't and won't sell prints.

I seem to have come down somewhat on Flickr's side here, well certainly I'm saying that they haven't been dishonest really. Works have to be actively set as creative commons by the creator, so it's not as thought they've sneakily set it as the default, requiring people to opt-out rather than opt-in. Perhaps I don't necessarily approve of what Flickr is doing though, they still seem to be exploiting the ignorance of people who have uploaded images and set them to creative commons without looking more into what that means; and whether the people uploading images intended them to be used for commercial purposes or not, making a profit simply on the back of selling prints of the images is a very cheap and cheeky way to make money. The reason that so much fuss has been kicked up over Flickr selling prints is because to many photographers, the issue of sharing work on the internet is a thorny one. Whether you're an amateur and just want to find an audience for your work, or a professional and need to impress potential clients with your portfolio; there are considerable benefits to using the internet to do this. The internet is not only cheap, but the potential audience for your work is massive. However sharing work on the internet comes with strings attached. While making something accessible online doesn't affect your legal rights to it, a combination of how easy it is to download and copy anything on the internet; ignorance about the fact that material online is still somebody's copyright; and a general view of intellectual property theft as a victimless offence you're unlikely to be caught for; have led to a view that anything made available on the internet is up for grabs.

There are a couple of common methods photographers use to protect their work. One is to place a watermark across the image you share which (so long as it's made difficult to remove) renders the image unsuitable for other purposes and not worth stealing. Another method is to only upload low-resolution images which at the very least are unsuitable for anything more than displaying in the corner of website.

I would certainly recommend against uploading the full resolution images, the sort of resolution you can run off high quality prints from; not just because these are an invitation to theft, but also because the large file sizes aren't idea for internet use. However, watermarks and very low resolution uploads aren't everyone's cup of tea; it's a controversial topic as many photographers don't want to share a tarnished version of their images, especially if they hope to impress potential clients; and they also don't want to look paranoid that people are stealing their images or smugly aware that their images are worth stealing. There are other supposed techniques which, for example, prevent right-mouse-clicking on the images to make them harder to download, but these are easy enough to get around if anyone wants to download the images.

It's worth bearing in mind that most so-called 'theft' of images on the internet is unwitting theft by people who naively assume that anything they see on the internet is free. People may take your photographs to illustrate their blog posts, or share on Facebook without a second thought. There are some instances still of people who clearly know what they're doing taking photographs and using them for their own profit, (as New York photographer Noam Galai found in 2006), even going to lengths to remove watermarks. It isn't unheard of for photographers to walk past shops and see their own work up for sale; or even for wannabe professional photographers to pass off another photographer's work as their own, but these occasions are mercifully rare and it's more relevant to focus on how you might deal with theft of the unwitting variety.

When someone does use their work for some simply non-commercial purpose such as a blog, totally unaware that the were stealing intellectual property, it's best to tread softly. They didn't mean to offend you, of course ignorance is no defence in the eyes of the law but a bit of acceptance on your part of the nature of the beast that is the internet, as well as some tact in dealing with it will go a long way. My own personal recommendation would be a politely worded e-mail to let them know that while you're flattered that they chose your photograph, you would really appreciate a credit and linkback to your site. Most people will be receptive to such a request and you never know, you might even get more visits to your own page out of it, such is the nature of the beast, it both gives and takes.

Another thing I do with my own watermarks on my blog-post images is a small signature and byline in the corner. Sure it would be easy to remove but my idea is not to do it in such a way that people would want to remove them, and if they do remove it then obviously they knew they were stealing and I can drop the diplomatic manner when pursuing them. Not that I've ever had anyone use any of my photos without me trying my hardest to get them to use them.

Well I moved on a bit from the topic of creative commons in the end, but hopefully my post will stand as a general introduction to the topic of sharing images online. If you want more information I would suggest you visit the following websites:

Creative Commons

UK Intellectual Property Website

US Copyright Office

Cambridge in Colour - Tutorial on how to protect your work from theft

Tin-Eye, reverse image search to find out where your photos might be being used, a site naming and shaming 'fauxtographers' who have passed off another photographer's work as their own.

Blog Self Portrait
Articles about photography, tips and tricks, insights into the world of commercial photography and the marketing industry from a photographer's perspective, and the occasional humorous rant. Brought to you by Will McAllister, a commercial photographer based in God's own county of Cumbria.