Photo sharing site 500px recently joined the ranks of Flickr in the addition of Creative Commons licensing to its site. Users can pick from a variety of Creative Commons licenses that allow for free use (including adaptation and commercial use in some cases) in print and on the web. I personally am a big fan of CC– I share all my work under an Attribution ShareAlike license and most photos on this site are licensed under Creative Commons.
Creative Commons deliberately makes its licenses simple and easy to read, but image creators and users alike don’t always get the terms right. In this post I will debunk some of the most prevalent and serious Creative Commons fallacies.
1. IMAGE USERS: I can do whatever I want with Creative Commons photos.
See here for a list of Creative Commons licenses and the permissions granted with them. Regardless of the CC license the image author has granted, you must always:
- Visibly credit the author and identify the license (a link back to the photo page is fine for Flickr images).
- Obtain a model release for people in the photo.
Creative Commons isn’t a free lunch. You must always credit the author and note the license when using a Creative Commons work. Commercial users should be very careful about publicity rights– just because a photo is licensed for commercial use does not make it ok to use in the promotion of a product or service. You must obtain a model release for anyone in the photo other than the author for commercial use (editorial use is generally ok). A Creative Commons license does not affect the moral rights of anyone in the photo other than the author.
2. PHOTOGRAPHERS: I can withdraw a Creative Commons license at any time.
Yes and no. You do have the right to modify or terminate a Creative Commons license at any time, but you cannot revoke the right of current users under the license. Say, for instance, you’re an avid PETA activist and you’re angry that the NRA has used one of your CC-licensed wildlife pictures on its website. As long as they followed the license terms there is nothing you can do about it. The license terms apply to everyone equally.
3. PHOTOGRAPHERS: I can’t register a copyright for my Creative Commons photos or sell them to others.
A Creative Commons license has no impact on other licenses, copyright law or fair use. Feel free to register your CC-licensed content with the copyright office or sell it on stock photo sites. For example, you might choose to offer small sizes of your work under Creative Commons but only upload high resolution versions to stock agencies. I register all my CC-licensed work with the U.S. Copyright Office for maximum protection.
4. IMAGE USERS: My use isn’t commercial.
“I’m not making any money with this photo” is a common excuse for copyright infringement. Because the line for commercial use is often grey, it’s better to stay on the safe side. As a rule of thumb, do not use a non-commercial image on any site that earns revenue of any kind. This includes non-profits seeking donations. A washer repair man, for example, might include a picture of a CC laundromat picture for non-commercial use only on his website and assume it’s ok because he isn’t selling it. But because the picture helps advertise his service, it counts as commercial use, even if he can’t directly attribute new leads to it.
Even including a photo on a page with AdSense advertising could count as commercial use. Consider that the bounce rate for pages with pictures is generally lower. A high quality photo keeps people on a website longer, increasing the odds they might click an ad.
5. IMAGE USERS and PHOTOGRAPHERS: Creative Commons is a substitute for stock photography.
Not all photographers are happy about Creative Commons, feeling that it takes away from stock photography sales. It is true that many news outlets and profit-generating blogs use Creative Commons exclusively. As Dan Heller points out, however, most image users still rely on stock agencies.
Why? Besides the legal issues that can occur (the lack of model releases, for example), I’d wager to guess that the typical stock photo is of higher quality and easier to find than an average Creative Commons photo. Although Frugal Pixel uses tools such as Flickr and CompFight to find CC photos, it usually takes at least 5 minutes to find an acceptable photo. Whereas commercial photo sites have strict quality guidelines, most Creative Commons photos contain technical flaws or other imperfections that make them unsuitable for wide use. Many simply aren’t relevant to many commercial uses.
If I were making big bucks or paying someone big bucks to write for a company, forking over a few dollars per post for a stock photo would likely be more cost effective than wading through the masses of CC photos for a passable freebie. That’s not to say there aren’t some spectacular Creative Commons photos on Flickr and 500px. There certainly are. However, it is much faster to find high-quality, relevant work on stock sites. This might change in the future, but for now I don’t think CC is taking much food from the table.