How do I use non-commercial licenses on Flickr?

Creative Commons

I’ve had a recent set-to on Flickr over Creative Commons licenses, with particular regard to the non-commercial licenses that specifies that photos licensed for use, as long as you do not use it ‘for commercial purposes’.

This is a notoriously nebulous definition that seems designed to create confusion, and it’s currently slated to be replaced.

The main bone of contention concerns what constitutes a ‘commercial purpose’. Clearly selling prints of that photo does, or using the image in an advert.

As I understand it, users on Flickr have discovered their images being used in precisely these ways.

Where it becomes a little more ambiguous is where images are used on websites that also contain adverts. Clearly websites such as these are run for profit, so arguably using an image on one of these sites is using someone else’s work for a commercial purpose.

This is where I come in.

I’ve used several images CC images from Flickr on MotorTorque, always under a CC license. Some of these have been under non-commercial licenses, where I always sought the permission of the photographer.

In all of these cases I received replies from the photographers indicating that they were happy for me to use the image. They’re always used in context and in a way that complements the text.

It’s difficult, when editing a website, to receive approval for an image in a timely manner, so after a while, as no-one had ever indicated that they considered my specific use of the images a breach of the license, I stopped asking approval for such images and provided a link to the page where the image was used.

I’d make it clear that if they objected to the use I’d take it down, and the image was always properly attributed with a link to the relevant page on the photographer’s Flickr account and another link to the CC license.

Recently a third party objected to my use of someone else’s image, and before I knew it a three-way row erupted on the image page. Another guy took my side, but the accuser was so incensed by what I’d done that he basically accused me of copyright theft.

It was all rather overblown, especially considering the copyright holder didn’t get involved at any point, but it raises some difficult questions about the CC license.

No doubt that license is open to abuse, and unlike me anyone genuinely stealing images from Flickr is unlikely to provide a link to the site where they’re ripping off someone else’s work.

The license, as it stands, is an absolute minefield that probably does not meet the intent of the copyright holder or explain sufficiently to potential users whether they can use it or not.

So, how do you use a non-commercial license? Until a new license comes into effect later this year, the only way to play it down the line is to seek approval.

Even though I’ve not used CC licenses for any of my images on Flickr, because they’re such a shambles, I’ve allowed everyone who’s approached me to use them if they’ve asked.

As for copyright holders, the only sensible approach seems to be to make them unavailable for any use if you’re likely to object to someone accidentally using your work in a way that does not fit your idea of what the licence means.

• If you have the stamina there’s a discussion here on the new license.

• Image by Giuli-o via Creative Commons

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