Flickr announced on Monday that it was adding CC-Zero and Public Domain licensing options. Users who want to share their images freely with the public now have the option to release their work with no strings attached.
The site has offered CC licensing since 2004, but for all the nuances built into the Creative Commons license it simply doesn't cover all situations. For example, photos taken by the US government are automatically in the public domain, and the same applies when a member scans and uploads a century old photograph.
What's more, lately Flickr has been asked by their users to provide more options for uploading new images and releasing them without restriction. For example, last week SpaceX, Elon Musk's private space flight company, uploaded hundreds of photos last week but had to use a CC-By license because that was the least restrictive option.
Today those photos are labeled public domain. They're free for anyone to use, without no restrictions (moral rights excepted).
Or at least that is what SpaceX and Flickr intend; I'm not sure that the legal status of a preemptively declared PD work will stick.
As in most countries, the US has automatic copyright protection. Make a work and boom, it's under copyright. But what the US lacks is any way to formally release a work from copyright. This in part inspired first Creative Commons licensing and later CC-Zero.
Under a CC-Zero license, someone still owns the copyright, and they're granting permission for all to use the work willy-nilly. This differs from the public domain, where no one and everyone owns the copyright.
If someone releases a work under a CC-Zero license they still have the option of changing the license at a later time, but a work released into the public domain would theoretically be free until the end of time.
That is how it's supposed to work, but here in the US we have courts which have repeatedly yanked works out of the public domain and placed them back under copyright. What's more, the US copyright law also has termination clauses which would enable someone to terminate existing licenses after 35 years (TechDirt discussed this issue in depth in January).
That means that a work released into the public domain could be returned to copyright 35 years later - perhaps by a creator's heirs. The heirs would then sue to regain control, and they'd probably win.
I could easily see that scenario happening with a work which had been preemptively declared public domain, can't you?
image by Alexandre Dulaunoy