Flickr now sells your CC-licensed photos

Supposedly Flickr is now selling-off your work that you licensed under the respective creative commons model. Many have argued that they are legally allowed to do so, however this does not change the fact that this is wrong and stupid on so many levels.

Many photographers have been protesting against flickr’s move while some others have been arguing that this is because flickr does not provide a cut to the photographers. The latter however frankly speaking makes little sense. Sure, there will be some that want a cut, however keep in mind that if the photographers initial intention would have been to sell the photos, he or she might not have purposely opted for a CC-license: the default license is an ‘all rights reserved’-license. So to understand the uproar  a bit better one needs to understand why on earth a photographer might give some of his work away for free, even for commercial use. I will speak very broadly here with some generalizations that might not apply to all cases. Often the work of a photographer can be separated into two broad types: commercial work and private/personal projects. While the rights for commercial work are often not with the photographer but with the company or entity that hired him or her (which is why you rarely see commercial work on e.g., blogs or even online portfolios) this is different for private/personal projects. Usually the former category is what brings in the money and the latter one is the one that nurtures the creativity in the photographer. We will be mostly talking about the second category of work which is what this discussion is mostly about.

So why would a photographer choose to license his work under a CC-license even permitting commercial use. What most photographers have in mind with commercial use is their pictures used by a small business (without sufficient economics) on their homepage or for the products etc. What most photographers are shocked with now, is that a huge company—granted Yahoo has peaked years ago and Marissa M. failed to turn things around—sells their work that they gave away for free. In the intended case the photos etc. where a mere business accelerator and facilitator, now in the flickr interpretation they suddenly become the business themselves. That is where the issue comes from…

You can read a bit more about the background here and here.


Why is what flickr is doing a very bad idea. So why do I think what flickr is doing is one of the worst possible moves. For this one has to understand a bit more about a whole new type of business that slowly but surely manifests itself. These are businesses that deal with data. One of the key things people are obsessed with those days is the value of information, and this is not a meta-physical discussion. We are talking real $-value of a customer, user, post, photo, etc and companies try to put a value on their data to bump up valuations. This however, immediately brings us back to my question from last time: which data is an asset and which data is a consumption commodity. The former retains a certain fundamental value and might even appreciate over time (e.g., gold), the latter has essentially value zero, once it has been consumed (e.g., oil). Now digital media data such as photos, videos, music, etc. is of the consumption commodity type so that their value is essentially very transient and fleeting. This is different for example for data collected by facebook and google, as this data allows to be reused in millions and millions of cases for determining ad-positioning and targeting marketing measures. This data is really an asset and in fact appreciates as a consequence of the network effect. An easy way to differentiate between the two is to ask yourself, how often you would reuse something and whether it becomes worth disproportionately more if you would have more of it: you rarely watch a movie twice – the consumption type. However the more customer data the better: more data allows for better calibrations of machine learning models etc. and as a stupid rule of thumb doubling the amount of data gives you four times better models (really just as a rule of thumb for the sake of argument) – the network asset type.

Now flickr tried to capitalize on media data (photos). This has two immediate consequences. 1) they will need a constant stream of incoming photos to counteract the consumption effect 2) yet at the same time more and more photographers will change their licenses to a non-CC one. Moreover, it will alienate people leading to a higher attrition of the flickr user base further reducing value. Here it is important to know that the majority of the value of flickr is derived from very few users. This is what is called the Pareto-effect, and arguably, in times of the internet one should probably talk about the accelerated Pareto-effect: 1% of the user base creates 99% of the value. Another side effect that is probably irrelevant for flickr but relevant for the photographers is that they have to make a choice, whether they want to support small businesses etc and have flickr exploit this behavior or opt for an “all rights reserved” license essentially not allowing small businesses to use the work without explicit prior permission.

All these things are not new or secret knowledge and sometimes I really wonder whether Marissa M. has been sent to Yahoo! to provide the final blow of death… I understand it becomes harder and harder to commercialize a user base and turn a revenue. In fact many start-ups are facing this challenge. Most companies that I know of that managed to have a stable revenue stream usually provided a significant value to the user.


What can you do about it? As a first step that buys you some time to think about your position, go to flickr and change the license for all your photos to “all rights reserved”. You can do this by going to “organize photos”, “select all”, and then “change permissions”. This not only protects your work but it is also a signaling mechanism to let flickr know that you are not fine with this type of use. While this might not change the fact that in priciple flickr can still use your work in case it was CC (allowing commercial use) before as they might simple have “copied” all those photos while they were still under CC and now the change of the license might only affect future use.


Regarding the general issue of working for free etc., the following video provides an interesting position (in favor of not working for free)

Let me know your thoughts — TSJ.

2 thoughts on “Flickr now sells your CC-licensed photos

  1. I was beginning to find my work on some commercial sites and converted my Flickr portfolio in its entirety to “all rights reserved” a couple fo months ago. Tin Eye and Google image search can still find plenty on Blogs and I have no issue with that. I have put words to that effect, requesting people seek my permission to use for blogs and a link back when they used them. I have now gone one step further and now loading as low resolution files and blocking downloads. If Flickr approached me on specific shots and gave me a reasonable cut I would happily discuss terms with them, but to take without informing (do they let you know, I wonder) will really upset plenty of their members. I shall follow this with interest :0)

    • I have been wondering about this low-res thing for a while. In fact one could argue that maybe the reason why they increased the storage is to encourage people to upload high-res to then capitalize on it… But that is really just a guess… Really curious to hear what other people think about the issue!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s