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Wiring up Creative Commons – hey, can you make money from this?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Recently, Wired magazine has announced that all of its published images by staff photographers are released under Creative Commons, specifically the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Unported 3.0 Licence.  It’s a bold move, with a swirl of reactions in the science-news, tech and photography communities.

My own illustrations and painting are largely released under Creative Commons, although a different licence (CC BY-NC-ND), and I had a lot of questions about this move, which the Wired Rawfile article by Evan Hansen goes a long way to answer.

  • Is this good for science communicators?
  • If Wired’s policy was widely adopted, is it good for photographers, illustrators and other image-makers?
  • Can you make money from this?

Before giving my answers to these questions, let’s take a quick look at what Creative Commons Licences are and how they affect bloggers and creators.

When an illustrator or photographer (for brevity, I’m going to use illustrator) creates an image, they are automatically granted copyright over that image under the Berne Convention. They don’t have to register or trademark it (those have benefits, but aren’t necessary for copyright) and they also cannot claim copyright over an idea: copyright is granted automatically for completed works.

So if an illustrator like myself posts an image I have made on my blog, I own the copyright control of it, and no one else can use it without permission. This is where Creative Commons comes in.

Creative Commons is a donation-reliant, charitable corporation that simplifies ways to outline use of images online and the permissions granted to people who want to re-use them.  They’ve set-up some legal framework and simple symbols and pages linking to each of their 6 licences. The 6 licenses run the gamut from the openness of “lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially” to the relatively restrictive, “allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially”. In every case, the licences state the original copyright-holding creator must be attributed with the image. That’s pretty key.

Perhaps creators should adopt a 7th licence I've designed here, also known as the "No Attribution - Kick Your Blog So Hard In the ISP - It Bleeds Comments For a Month" licence. I'm still working on the wording.

Yes, yes, we all know anyone can steal an image – omg! – as soon as its posted online by right-clicking or a screenshot. But Creative Commons gives everyone at least a common framework for understanding and respecting what the creator would prefer. Adding a caption to an image with a link on the creator’s name, and a link to the correct licence should be easy enough for any blogger.

What Wired has done, is allow everyone online to make mash-ups, re-post or otherwise use their images online so long as they aren’t making a profit from the image, and they must attribute the photographer and the original link to the article where the image was found. This last bit is the sort of tacked-on extra not normally covered by Creative Commons that has raised some of the scrutiny by bloggers.

Is this good for science communicators?
Shortly, yes.  What Wired has done is release a lot of images for use to a lot of people.  They’re a huge magazine with a popular online presence so there’s no way this isn’t good for bloggers.  As I said above, linking the photographer’s name to the article and a link to the CC licence is easy enough for a blogger to do. Easier than paying or commissioning an image, at any rate.  And Wired has put its images in a Flickr stream to make them easier to find.

If Wired’s policy was widely adopted, is it good for photographers, illustrators and other image-makers?
Sort of. There’s a couple of snags.

My SciAm bloggy peep Alex Wild of Compound Eye has stated before why he doesn’t use Creative Commons – simply put, just because a creator offer Creative Commons doesn’t mean users are going to respect it or even understand it.  Some bloggers see “Creative Commons” and assume it’s a free-for-all, without even linking back to the creator at all (remember: attribution is required from all Creative Commons Licences). Wired is even guilty of this, as Alex points out in his post.  Online news and communication outlets adopting the policy doesn’t guarantee anything.

On the flipside of that, I disagree with Alex on that.  Not providing any guidelines for bloggers tells everyone to back off.  The violators will still violate, and everyone else will shy away from images.  I want people to share my Creative Commons images – properly – because its a form of promotion, and hopefully makes the net more interesting.

The other Big Problem I see with Wired’s condition of “Photos must be properly attributed to the photographer and Wired.com, and, if used online, we ask for a link back to the original story where the photo first appeared,”  is that it leaves the actual photographer partially in the cold. I don’t know what kind of contracts or agreements the photographers have with Wired, but for an image-maker, an even better agreement would link back to the creator’s portfolio or site. instead, by linking to the article, it’s a step removed from the person who took the photo in the first place. I noticed when I clicked on this photo of a Deadpool cosplayer, it’s attributed to Jon Snyder, with no link to Snyder’s own site. Sometimes, some of us are more interested in the imagery in a post than the post itself.

Can you make money from this?
Wired certainly can, indirectly, if more people follow the attributions back and click on an ad.  Creative Commons themselves are excited over this, though for different reasons.

I must say although I agree with much of what Christopher Mims over at Technology Review has to say,  I dislike his term “money-making scheme” for Wired’s little addition, the bit about linking back to their articles.  It’s quite innovative, even though it doesn’t go as far to give real attribution to the photographers themselves. Z

Mims speculates, “it’s brilliant. What’s more, in an era in which the price of a photo is rapidly approaching zero, thanks to ultra-cheap stock photo sites and the tons of great images already available on Flickr under a Creative Commons license, Wired may have just found a way to justify paying photographers fair wages for full rights to their work.”

For people outside the illustrations field, full rights may require a bit of an explanation.

Typically when granting use of an image under copyright, as I have done when painting blog banners for science bloggers in the past, the agreement we usually sign states that I still own full copyright to the image.  They can use it in certain circumstances (on their blog, Twitter and associated online presences, or negotiate for more ways to use the image later (like say, selling t-shirts with their hopefully now-iconic blog banner image on them).  ”Full rights” means relinquishing ALL control of the image to the client, such that the creator can never use it again for anything.

Mims is speculating on whether the  increased revenue coming to Wired from advertisers due to their higher traffic, due to almost-free sharing of images will somehow trickle back to photographers getting higher pay for images they sell to Wired. It’s an interesting idea and I could see it having a possible impact if it was widely adopted. The race-to-the-bottom for illustrators and photographers fees may slow a bit.

Over all, I think Wired has the right idea. It’s good for communicators, organizations and bloggers and a little bit better for illustrators and photographers if this gets widely adopted. But how to give the increasingly in-demand and increasingly educated science-artists fair wage to match their talent and knowledge-base remains elusive.

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Glendon Mellow About the Author: Glendon Mellow is a fine artist, illustrator and tattoo designer working in oil and digital media based in Toronto, Canada. He tweets @FlyingTrilobite. You can see Glendon's work-in-progress at The Flying Trilobite blog and portfolio at www.glendonmellow.com. Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





Rights & Permissions

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  1. 1. holden 8:51 pm 11/22/2011

    I remember it being pointed out (most recently by Alex Wild) that many websites that use CC non-commercial images do in fact support advertisements. Is this a violation of the license, or does the commercial use have to use the image directly (say in an actual advertisement)? Has CC (the organization) stated anything explicitly?

    Link to this
  2. 2. Desert Navy 8:48 am 11/23/2011

    If someone takes an image of a stonewall (or building or automobile, etc., etc.) I do not understand how they can claim (and be given) copyright protection and privileges. If a second photographer came along moments later and took (a statistically improbable but theoretically possible) identical image would they both have copyright protection?

    But more to the issue, what about the owner of the stonewall? What about the architect that planned the walls location, its structure, the stone to be used, its setting in relation to the movement of the sun and a hundred other variables? What about the stonemason who toiled for days fitting, cutting and arraigning the stones in an aesthetically pleasing grouping?

    All these people have much more invested in and a greater contribution to the existance of the wall than anybody with a camera could ever have. The photographer contributes pretty much nothing to the scene he is photographing, what he is seeing and inspired by is the hours of work of those who came before him, yet the photographer is the only one that profits from the shutter click?

    Link to this
  3. 3. Glendon Mellow 6:48 am 11/24/2011

    holden, – Creative Commons has almost gone out of its way (see here)
    to dodge the issue of what constitutes commercial and non-commercial use.

    There is a difference between posting art on a site with ads (like here on Scientific American) and taking the art and selling t-shirts with the image.

    Here on Symbiartic, Kalliopi and I have tried to stay clear on our respect for creator’s rights, and ask permission on any NC Creative Commons licences before we post. We’re creators too.

    In fact, the only thing I’ve posted without asking permission was the collection of science-street art. In that case, I linked back to sources as best I could.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Glendon Mellow 7:10 am 11/24/2011

    Desert Navy, those are good thought-provoking questions.

    First though, I’d like to note that just because these seem at first to be fuzzy areas, doesn’t mean copyright shouldn’t exist at all. The main gist behind copyright law is to protect the creator’s ability to make money from their finished creative projects for a limited time, and to protect their intent to use it in certain way.

    For your examples: yes, two virtually identical pictures of a stone wall could be made, each with copyright to its photographer. I imagine if one took the other to court for infringement, it would be dismissed since it can be shown how easy it is to take the simple, overcast daylight photo of the stone wall. There may not be enough of that nebulous thing called “artistic quality” for anyone to really claim copyright on the standard image.

    There’s been a similar fight going on about comments paleo-illustrator Greg Paul said claiming copyright on a style of depicting fossils (which you can’t do: you can’t copyright a style. You can trademark one…). If a configuration of fossils is taken to be The Standard by paleontologists, can the artist who drew it claim total copyright on someone else showing those bones? Must everyone view the real fossils? (See here and here for that issue.)

    To return to the copyright of the stone wall itself, yes, there can be copyright on architectural designs. However, they fall under somewhat different rules that explicitly state that the copyright holder cannot, among other things, stop people from taking and publishing photos of the building.

    I see your point about the amount of work by the architects and masons versus the photographer. But copyright is about the final artistic project, not ownership of the wall. The photographer can’t claim to own the wall, just the photo of it.

    Link to this

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