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Where Yahoo went wrong when they decided to sell prints of CC-Licensed Flickr images

378148264_9c53d85213_m[1]WSJ reported last week that Yahoo’s latest move to increase its revenues was pissing off Flickr users:

More than 300 million publicly shared Flickr images use Creative Commons licenses, making it the largest content partner. Yahoo last week said it would begin selling prints of 50 million Creative Commons-licensed images as well as an unspecified number of other photos handpicked from Flickr.

For the handpicked photos, the company will give 51% of sales to their creators. For the Creative Commons images, Yahoo will keep all of the revenue.

Just to be clear, Yahoo is only selling prints of works licensed under the CC clause which allows for commercial use, so they what they are doing is completely legal. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t ruffling feathers.

For some time now I’ve believed that the Creative Commons license needed more variations of the commercial use clause, and now it would appear that some creators feel the same way.  The WSJ found several creators (six out of 14 contacted) who apparently wouldn’t mind my using their images in a blog post, but are not happy that Yahoo is going to sell prints.

That includes Nelson Lourenço, a photographer based in Lisbon, who told the ESJ that "When I accepted the Creative Commons license, I understood that my images could be used for things like showing up in articles or other works where they could be showed to public". He’s not so happy about Yahoo selling prints, adding that "selling my work and getting the full money out of it came as a surprise".

And he’s not the only one who is viewing this move askance. Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield said that the move was "a little shortsighted". He added, "It’s hard to imagine the revenue from selling the prints will cover the cost of lost goodwill."

He’s not wrong in calling this move shortsighted; by annoying users Yahoo is poisoning the well. At least some of those users will stop uploading photos which Yahoo can use, and even if they continue to use Flickr those users might simply switch to a non-commercial CC license. That would stick Flickr with all of the cost of hosting the images with no chance to generate revenue, something I would describe as the worst possible outcome (for Yahoo, at least).

I think this move was particularly boneheaded not just because of the loss of goodwill but also because I can see how it would not have been hard for Yahoo to turn this to their advantage. How?

By paying a royalty on each print sold. While Yahoo is going to pay a select group of photographers, most are going to be left out in the cold.

That royalty is not required under US law but it would still be a good idea.  It would mollify most of Yahoo’s critics, and what’s more it could potentially have been used to turn all those creators into salespersons. They could direct requests for prints to Yahoo, generating more revenues all around.

It’s a shame Yahoo didn’t think of that before stepping in this mess.

This isn’t the first time that Yahoo has tried to generate revenue from Flickr since acquiring it in 2005. The photo hosting service offers a Pro service level, and in researching this post I found hints that Flickr was somehow using the uploaded photos commercially as far back as 2007 (I can’t find any specifics on that, though).

image by Dave Ward Photography

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derdide December 1, 2014 um 3:29 am

Flickr default license is "All rights reserved". All these people did actively change their license to a "free for commercial use" one, and there are quite lots of literature on what the various licenses mean and such cases are explicitly described.

In other words, all the people who are complaining consider that anybody can make money with their pictures, except Yahoo – specifically the one providing their Flickr service for free. Or more precisely: anybody can make money without giving a penny back to them, but the business that actually provides a valuable service to them for free should also give a payback? This is a weird logic…

Timothy Wilhoit December 1, 2014 um 5:53 am

There are a lot of people who are paying for the service…Flickr Pro costs $24.95 per year. My stepdaughter has used Pro for a couple of years; that may have been a mistake.

derdide December 1, 2014 um 7:48 am

I know, I’m still a Pro member but the new business model makes the Pro license nearly useless…
But this doesn’t change what I said: a "free for commercial use" license grants any company the right to print and resell the images, without any restriction and any money paid back to the photographer – and the only one who would be forbidden to do so is the one who’s providing the service (nearly) for free. I’d say the best news with this is that people realize what a liberal license really means…

Doug December 1, 2014 um 6:51 pm

I’ll be watching for the legal meltdown. The Creative Commons license is a feel-good thing for the provider, but it’s badly flawed for the user. Section 5 of the CC license explicitly disclaims that the provider has any/all rights to make the work available. It’s up to the user to determine who all — other than the provider — might claim rights.

The good news for Yahoo is that in most jurisdictions, the simple sale of prints doesn’t require model releases and property releases. It’s not like the images are being used for advertising purposes. So their big worry probably is going to be images that were "borrowed".

Another problem the user has: proving that at the time, the work was licensed under CC. It only takes a click to remove the CC license, leaving users with no evidence that their usage is legitimate. Also, users don’t get any notification that they can no longer continue to use the work under CC. But since Yahoo is running the Flickr site, those probably aren’t big problems for them.

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