Yahoo!, owners of the photo sharing site Flickr, recently caused a storm of controversy by announcing plans to sell prints of photos that users had uploaded. Yahoo!’s plans included sharing 51% of revenue with users who had retained copyright on their photos. For those who voluntarily selected a Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY) for their works, no compensation was offered. Despite the fact that Yahoo! was explicitly following the terms of the license, and doing exactly what the license was designed to promote, users were up in arms over seeing a large corporation taking advantage of their labors. This is just the latest example of content creators failing to understand what they’re signing up for with CC BY.
The CC BY license states:
This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.
CC BY was specifically created to help drive reuse of creative works. As Tom Lee puts it, “Open licensing is about giving up control so that other people can benefit.” The default license on Flickr is full copyright, all rights reserved. The only photos carrying a CC BY license are those where the creator has deliberately made the choice to apply it. But Flickr’s users seem to disagree with the actual intent of the CC BY license, and want to draw a line in the sand about who should be able to reuse their content and who shouldn’t:
I want people to use my photos. That’s why I take them. I want that usage to be unencumbered. That’s why I chose a Creative Commons license. Some of the publications and businesses that use my photos make no money at all. Others make a little something. I don’t care either way. That’s why I chose a Commercial Attribution license. The license makes my work available to all publications and products, whether commercial or non-commercial. Fine with me.
But Yahoo selling the stuff? Cheesy, desperate, and not at all fine with me.
There’s a sudden realization that “unencumbered” is actually a word with a definition that means something. Part of what it means is that you don’t get to choose who does what with your work. Much of the outrage is fueled by anti-corporate sentiment:
If the only option for preventing corporate abuse is to lock everything behind non-commercial-use licenses, the whole purpose of Creative Commons is weakened…In the spirit of the time, people used CC-licenses to say “here, I made something. You want to make something too? You can use my thing when making your thing. Let’s share.”…The idea: let’s break the chains that giant corporations wrapped around everything, and create a new world that doesn’t have the toxic culture of greed and profiteering which locked-up so much of humanity’s creative landscape in the 20th century.
This represents a failure to recognize the now long-standing corporate support behind much of the “free culture” movement. Digital companies make enormous profits from free online content. The more free stuff you can get online, the more iPhones Apple will sell. The more free stuff you can look at online, the more ads Google can sell to run alongside it.
The CC BY license should not be seen as anti-corporate, nor anti-profit, it merely shifts the profits away from the content companies and creators and into the bank accounts of other companies with business models built around exploiting free access to that content. The RCUK open access policy, for example, includes the use of a CC BY license used to help foster economic development. That’s perfectly in keeping with the role of government–more business means more jobs and more tax revenue. But there’s nothing in their policy that limits that economic development only to individuals or small companies made up of really nice people.
There seems to be a serious disconnect with, “the intent of what users thought they were signing up for,” and the reality of the CC BY license. While it has been argued that the only reason academics don’t license all of their works under CC BY is a lack of understanding of the license, these sorts of real world experiences have shown us that perhaps the opposite is true. The problem doesn’t seem to be that authors fail to understand the restrictions of copyright, it’s that they fail to realize that releasing all rights means that anything goes, whether you like it or not. Just as academics went ballistic when they found their CC BY licensed papers being resold by a less than reputable publisher, Flickr’s users have similarly revolted against the very thing they volunteered to support.
CC BY is a blunt instrument, and it is deliberately blunt. The notion is that we can’t predict future uses that might be important, so we have to remove all limits on reuse, just in case. That means accepting all reuses, whether you like what’s being done or not.
This would seem to be in conflict, at least tangentially, with the reputation-based career structure of academia. How far you rise depends on what people think of you and your work, and that’s why, when given the choice, most academic authors choose more restrictive licenses for their papers. There’s a desire to exert as much control as possible over the public use of one’s name, work and reputation. Authors want to be asked before their name is associated with some effort. Non-Commercial licenses don’t necessarily prevent commercial reuse, it just means that permission must be granted by the copyright holder. That’s inconvenient in the case of a company like Yahoo! which is looking to exploit user content on a large scale. If they have to ask each and every creator for permission, that’s a big time and cost sink and may discourage commercial development.
In the end, what this suggests is that more education is needed (both pro- and con-) toward CC licenses, and that more nuanced licensing terms may provide a better answer in the long run. There is a balance to be found between driving corporate profit (and societal benefit through employment and tax revenue) and respecting the wishes of content creators. What should creators be asked to give up in order to make things more convenient for those seeking profit? As always, caveat venditor, or perhaps in this case, caveat donator.