The Creative Commons Avoid a Tragedy on Flickr

SmugMug, the current owners of the photo-sharing platform Flickr, are changing the platform’s model, but says it will maintain its support for Creative Commons. Not every company that has relied on the license in the past can say that.

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Nov 7 2018, 4:00pm

Image: shutterstock

Flickr’s major business model change may lead to a lot of photos getting deleted in the coming months, but it won't make a victim of the Creative Commons.

The company announced Wednesday that it would maintain the roughly 400 million pictures that rely on variants of the popular license, a “copyleft” agreement that ensures creators keep ownership of the content but allows others to use, redistribute, or remix the content, based on the type of license used. Many media outlets large and small, including Motherboard, use Creative Commons photography.

In a blog post, the owners of the longtime photo-sharing platform—which was purchased from Oath by the owners of fellow photo-sharing platform SmugMug earlier this year—characterized the decision as protecting an important part of what made Flickr an attractive acquisition in the first place.

“Those photos, and your ability to share them, are important to us. That hasn’t changed,” the company wrote in a post titled “The Commons: The Past 100% Part of Our Future.”

But while the company will continue to maintain all photos shared with a Creative Commons license prior to last week’s announcement, most of the changes affecting its free users will still apply: The company will limit non-paying users to just 1,000 photos, a sharp decrease from its former 1 terabyte limit, and push users to its $49.99 per year professional offering. And Flickr would still require those users who have shared CC photos in the past to pay for a subscription if they wanted to expand their collection further—it just won’t delete their old photos, as it plans to on accounts that use a more traditional license.

The company also clarified that the company would continue to offer free access to the platform for nonprofits, and would also maintain its relationships with archival and governmental bodies that share freely licensed images through the tool.

For a few days, at least, the question of what would happen to the Flickr Commons was up in the air. During the decade-plus that Flickr was operated by Oath’s predecessor, Yahoo, the service became the single largest repository of Creative Commons photos online, helping to broaden the use of the license—in a way that allowed the original photographer to keep ownership, but let users share, redistribute, or even remix the photos to their heart’s content.

It became a defining feature of one Web 2.0’s leading lights (and even created some unwitting Creative Commons celebrities of sorts, such as political photographer Gage Skidmore), but it also created a situation where commercial realities put into focus by the shift in ownership required a soft touch.

Don MacAskill, the CEO of both SmugMug and Flickr, told me in an email that the Flickr Commons added value to the product, and that its mission was compatible with the company’s broader mission to support photography.

“We believe the Flickr Commons benefits the human race at large,” MacAskill said. “The cost is non-trivial, but we believe it is worth the investment.”

Beyond Commercial Value

The Flickr saga highlights an interesting situation that is destined to become more common as the years go on: As companies that built their value on Creative Commons content mature, get sold, and their missions change, what responsibility do they have to keep these repositories going, considering their value generally goes beyond the commercial, into the realm of public resource?

Ryan Merkley, the CEO of Creative Commons, explained in an email interview that situations like that of Flickr, where broader business decisions have impacts on Creative Commons repositories, have become somewhat common.

“One benefit of CC licenses is that the works can be copied, archived, and re-hosted without permission,” Merkley explained. “The bigger challenge is when platforms’ business goals come into conflict with those of the communities who choose to share, and we lose those works.”

In fact, Flickr’s situation isn’t even the first of its kind this year—and the other prominent case highlights what can happen when a company isn’t as invested in the Creative Commons as an idea. The photo-sharing site 500px, after a change in ownership, actively barred users from sharing Creative Commons photos and deleted its repository of such photos, which totaled more than 1 million. (The photos were eventually saved through the efforts of the Archive Team, a group of digital preservationists, who made a last-minute move to protect the resource.)

Other challenges to the safety of the Commons may come as a result of strategic decisions that are in the spirit of the license while moving away from it: Last year, Unsplash decided to stop licensing photos under the extremely permissive Creative Commons Zero license in favor of its own, proprietary license, which bars the redistribution of Unsplash photos on competing services, but claims to keep the spirit of the Creative Commons license intact.

“That’s frustrating for users who want their works to continue to be a public benefit into perpetuity,” Merkley said. “And it’s disappointing for us, because we invested a lot in promoting those platforms and helping them grow their businesses.”

Investments in Creative Commons by companies are often in the the form of distribution, rather than financial support: While the nonprofit has received donations in the past from corporations that assist in the distribution of Creative Commons content, such as Google, financial support for the organization’s mission has been relatively small compared to the nonprofit’s size.

The organization is willing to take steps to protect content in these cases when necessary—as it’s planning to do with WFMU’s Free Music Archive, which recently lost its funding. But such a situation is more difficult when barriers to protecting the content are raised. Merkley says that companies that grow on the back of CC licenses “have an obligation to respect the works and the intent to share.”

The difference in Flickr’s case, at least, appears to be a desire to follow that intent. Merkley notes that there’s a lot of good to be taken from Flickr’s decision to move away from what was effectively a “loss leader” model that relied on aggressive data acquisition, and highlights the challenges of maturing platforms that give away too much of the farm. “This is a problem of the Internet’s business model, not just the commons,” he said.

Meanwhile, SmugMug’s MacAskill notes that there’s a basic compatibility between his company’s role and that of Creative Commons. “We believe in and support the mission of Creative Commons and intend to continue to support them in any way we can,” he said.

But, of course, not every company is willing to make that commitment, and that raises some long-term questions about viability. When I posed the question as to whether companies might be the right venue for large Creative Commons repositories, Merkley stated that while nonprofits such as Wikimedia and the Internet Archive “are incredible partners and collaborators for CC,” there was still a place for for-profits.

“What’s powerful about CC licenses is that they create a permissive space for copying, re-use, and archiving that allows for both ideas to exist together,” he said. “That’s good for creators who share, because their works get used, and it’s good for the commons, because it is more resilient.”