Creative Commons Licences: Make Sure You Understand The Implications

Creative CommonsIs it wrong to download an image made available under a Creative Commons Licence and put it on a t-shirt or poster to sell? I have photographer friends who absolutely insist that it is wrong. Why should someone else profit from their hard work. They don’t really mind if the occasional blogger uses their work in posts. But when it comes to a company taking those images and using them to make money, it’s a different story.

But, if images are released under a Creative Commons licence that permits commercial use, the company using the image to turn a tidy profit is legally in the clear: they owe nothing to the photographer.

Photographers make images available with CC licences for a variety of reasons. Some do it for altruistic reasons, especially those who are not professional photographers – they simply aren’t interested in making money from their work. Others do it for promotional reasons — getting work on blogs and websites with attribution and a link can be a valuable way to increase awareness of a photographer’s work. What many photographers don’t have in mind is that someone else will be able to make money by selling their work.

When Flickr started selling products using CC images a few years ago, the backlash was immediate:

“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 public,” Nelson Lourenço told the Wall Street Journal. “(But Flickr) selling my work and getting the full money out of it came as a surprise.”

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The terms of the Creative Commons licence in question allow for almost any use of images including modification, copying, and commercial use. Yahoo is not in a privileged position in this regard. Any company or individual can make money selling images with this licence. So long as the user includes correct attribution, which Yahoo is with a small signature on each print, they are complying with the terms of the licence.

For some photographers (and writers) commercial re-use is not something that worries them. But for others, it’s more of a problem. If their images sell, they’d like to be doing the selling and reaping the financial benefit.

Photographers should be careful when using CC licenses to allow re-use on websites and blogs that they aren’t giving away more than they intended. There are licences that explicitly prohibit commercial re-use while allowing the sort of use that many photographers would be happy with.

I use Creative Commons images all the time – the image at the top of this blog post is licensed to allow commercial re-use. I love that I can choose from hundreds of thousands of images and use them freely, and I think that if many photographers understood clearly the terms that they were agreeing too, they’d be more than happy to continue releasing images with CC licences, but it’s important that they are very clear about what each of the available CC licences allows before releasing images, or they may be in for a surprise.

Matthew Davis is a technical writer and Linux geek for Future Hosting.

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