Flickr 'Licences' mean Nothing to Flickr

Bob Leggitt | Saturday, 16 February 2013 |

If you’ve joined or ever contemplated joining Flickr, chances are you know all about their range of ‘licences’. It’s great. Each of the different Flickr ‘licences’ affords the photographer a tailored level of copyright, dictating exactly what ‘consumers’ can do with his or her photos. So you, the image creator, always have full control over what happens to your work. At least, that’s what Flickr wants you to believe. The reality is quite different…

In fact, as far as Flickr is concerned, there’s absolutely no difference whatsoever between one Creative Commons licence and the next, or indeed between a Creative Commons licence and a supposedly highly protective All Rights Reserved licence.

Recently, I found my entire Flickr image selection sitting on another site. A scraper site. Nothing unusual about that. It’s a routine part of using Flickr. Needless to say I’m not going to give a parasite publicity by naming the scraper site, but its republication of my All Rights Reserved photos, and everyone else’s, was sufficiently blatant to prompt a response on my part. Taking the obvious step, I reported the site to Flickr for indiscriminately republishing All Rights Reserved photos, against the terms of the licence. Flickr’s licence. The licence they cite as a copyright control measure for users.

The reply?... Well, the scraper is using Flickr’s own API to republish the photos, and is linking back to Flickr, so in Flickr’s eyes it’s fine. Despite the ‘licence’, and despite the song and dance Flickr makes to new users about their photos being “safe with us”. In fact, if I don’t want my All Rights Reserved photos to appear on that scraper site, my only option according to Flickr is to make my photos unsearchable. That will mean the API won’t pick the images up, and they won’t appear on scraper sites which use the Flickr API. Good, isn’t it? Flickr’s advice to those who want the terms of the All Rights Reserved ‘licence’ to be upheld, is: hide all your photos!

So this set me thinking. If Flickr is okay with All Rights Reserved photos being republished on spam and scraper sites (provided those sites link back to Flickr), then what, in practice, is the difference between Flickr’s All Rights Reserved licence, and Flickr’s Creative Commons licences? I thought I’d ask Flickr… Surprise surprise, I’m still waiting for a response. I suspect Flickr have treated my question as rhetorical, and realistically, that’s only to be expected, because as far as Flickr is concerned, there is no difference between one ‘licence’ and the next. In truth, Flickr has two categories for republished content, and two categories only:

1) Republished content that links back to Flickr, and…
2) Republished content that doesn’t link back to Flickr.

Category one is hunky dory, whatever the ‘licence’. Category two is an affront, a serious breach of Flickr’s terms, and woe betide any significant site that thinks it can get away with such a thing.

What I find so infuriating is not just that Flickr’s own API allows any parasite on the Web to republish copyright protected photos, apparently with complete legitimacy, but that photographers are accepting that legitimacy. “Oh, the site’s using the Flickr API?… Oh well that’s fine then.” It’s not f***ing fine!!! With an All Rights Reserved licence, and without the photographer’s prior permission, it’s illegal, as Flickr knows full well. Don't be persuaded that just because someone's using the Flickr API to republish your photos, it somehow circumvents copyright law. It doesn't.

If you’ve ever wondered why so many scraper sites get away with scraping All Rights Reserved photos from Flickr and merrily republishing them to their hearts’ content, it’s because Flickr wants them to do it, and legitimises the activity by actually giving them the tools. Just think of all the thousands, perhaps millions of status-inflating backlinks Flickr gets from a big scraper site, and you instantly realise why the service ain’t gonna listen to photographers who want it to uphold its own copyright conventions.

So sign up to Flickr and post your photos by all means. But never forget that the ‘licences’ are pure hot air to Flickr. They’re there to convince you that your photos are in some way protected, and that you have some sort of control over your work. But there is no protection, and you have no control. Contrary to what they’d have you believe, Flickr condone any and all sites republishing your photos, against the terms of the All Rights Reserved licence – provided those sites link back to Flickr. Flickr even built their own API to accommodate the republication of All Rights Reserved photos, leaving the decision to the actual scrapers as to whether or not they include ARR content on their spam sites. Did Flickr seriously think there’d be one scraper in the entire universe who wouldn’t scrape ARR content when given the tools to do so? Of course not. This is not an unintended consequence. It’s exactly what Flickr set out to achieve. Millions of naïve photographers, all thinking they’re being looked after by Flickr, when the reality is that they’re having the piss taken out of them on a grand scale.

If you want respect from Flickr, set up a useless spam site with the API, republish everyone else’s photos, and furnish Flickr with about six million backlinks. Those content leeches are the people whose rights Flickr really cares about. The rights of the image creator couldn’t matter less.