Steal this Image – Creative Commons at its Best for Photographers


Photography: lovelypetal (CC-licensed of course)

For any photographer who wants to make money from their images, Creative Commons (CC) must look like the ultimate evil.

With almost 60 million — yes, 60 million — images available under one or other Creative Commons license on Flickr, why would any company bother paying even the dollar or so charged by a microstock company, let alone the larger sums that can be charged through direct negotiations?

It’s a question that lots of photographers are asking, especially when they see big companies with budgets that could pay their bills helping themselves to public images for free.

The answer is that while there are lots of CC-licensed images available, few are any good. Those good ones are hard to find, meaning that it’s often easier for a buyer to turn to a reliable image source, such as a stock company or a familiar photographer, than browse through reams of Flickr pages to find images that are suitable, professional quality and correctly licensed.

In fact, the difficulty of finding all of those things together creates an opportunity for smart photographers who want to use Creative Commons licenses to earn income by giving away a few samples for free.

Do You Know Your CC Licenses?
That starts with understanding the difference between the various Creative Commons licenses available. Although Creative Commons was created to enable copyrighted works to be made available for free public use, different licenses restrict the image user in different ways and not all of those restrictions are clear. That’s particularly true of the most popular CC license used by Flickr members, one that requires attribution but disallows derivatives or commercial use.

As Gordon Haff of CNET points out, what some people consider commercial use, others consider fair use, a situation we encountered when researching our post on The Economist’s use of CC-licensed images on the newspaper’s blogs. Anders Bell, one of the photographers whose images were used by The Economist told us:

I just found out about the Economist’s use of my image (which has a non-commercial CC license) and I am a little put out by: a) the lack of contact on their part; b) the indirect link to the flickr photo original; and c) the use
of the image on a commercial site when my license specifies non-commercial use only.

I would probably have waived the CC restrictions had they contacted me, but that is beside the point.

Despite that lack of clarity, it’s still a good idea to use a non-commercial license, if only to make some potential buyers think twice. Media outlets and ad-supported Web pages might be grey areas but ads and book covers aren’t.

You also want to make sure that at the very least, you always get attribution and if the use is online, a link back to your portfolio so that other buyers can see who you are and know where to turn if they want more.

Using CC as Bait for Better Images
So a CC license can act as free advertising for a photographer. That should be its biggest strength. But that give-away is only going to lead to sales if what you’re selling is more valuable than what you’re giving away.

A software company might offer a free trial, for example, but it will often keep the most useful features blanked out until the user has stumped up some cash.

Photographers can apply the same principle. Offer some images for free under non-commercial CC licenses to tempt users with small budgets and to spread your images and your name around. But make it clear that better images are available for a fee.

On Flickr, you could do that in the photo description. Just add a line to each CC-licensed image noting the usage restrictions and linking to the higher quality images in your portfolio. On those photos, you could write that the images are available for licensing and encourage buyers to contact you for details.

That would enable you to gain the true value of your best photos while making a commercial use of the images that you might otherwise have deleted. (Of course, even the free photos should be good enough to be interesting even if you don’t think they’re good enough to sell.)

So if you had shot a sequence of images of deer in a wood, for example, you could keep the best images of the animals’ faces fully copyrighted while placing CC licenses on middle distance shots of lower quality. A buyer who sees one of those photos could contact you to find out if you have any other, better images available.

Like much that’s new in photography today, Creative Commons licenses are both a threat and an opportunity. How these licenses affect you depends entirely on the use you make of them.

Read about Creative Commons here and tell us what you think

[tags] creative commons [/tags]

7 comments for this post.

  1. Jason Said:

    It doesn't look like CC registers your "free license" with any legal institution, so I don't know what real authority it has. Seems like a good idea, but I would rather get a true, lawyer-appointed copyright.

  2. Mandy - The Photographer Blog Said:

    I'm new to all these copyright laws and need to get up to speed on all the different forms.

    This post is a good starting point and also a good marketing tip! Thanks

  3. Dave Said:

    In the U.S. one does not need to "register" their copyrighted work. Images, for example, enjoy full copyright protection the moment your camera spits them onto a flash card.

    CC licenses aren't so bad, and generalizations like this:

    "The answer is that while there are lots of CC-licensed images available, few are any good."

    ...are meaningless and really don't add anything to the discussion. If "most" flickr images are so bad, why is it even an issue? Can't have it both ways.

  4. Ellis Vener Said:

    "enjoy full copyright protection the moment your camera spits them onto a flash card."

    Well you get to claim copyright and then if it comes to it and you find that someone has infringed on your rights, you'll the nhave to prove a>0 the value of your photogrpahs based o nprevious sales --and that is all that the infringer will have to pay.

    Regsteringyour copyight provides you with some substantial real world legal teeth to back up your bark.

    How difficulrt is it to register yor copyright?

    Not very.

    How expensive is it. Wel lyou can register one iamge for the $40.00 fee -- or you can register an entire DVD-R full of 600x900 pixel level 8 ccompressed JPEGS for the same $40.00

    Arguing against registering is arguing for laziness.

    Arguing against copyright is the same as saying "I think worthless, so please treat me as if you do too."

    People bring up the "Sargument about the innocent 12 year old not knowing what he's doping. That is just a strawman argument .I'm not worried about 12 year olds: I'm worried about corporate theft.

  5. Eric Hamilton Said:

    Jason, Ellis,

    CC is not an *alternative* to Copyright registration. It's just a standard, widely-recognized way of saying, "hey, I own the Copyright for this image, but I'm granting you some rights to use it in the following ways..."

    It is very convenient.

  6. bobinson Said:

    I must say that this article is giving wrong information about creative commons licenses. As the article says there are multiple creative commons licenses available and we can restrict commercial use and at the same time enable fair use for non profit purposes.

    As far as creative commons is concerned, free means freedom than free of cost. And creative commons gives legal protection to the creator.

    Creative commons licenses has legal validity in majority of the countries where there is a copy right law exists.

    As an example, creative commons licenses modified as per Indian copy right law can be found here

    I hope this clarifies things a little bit.

  7. vicky89 Said:

    since almost all cc license give permission to distribute the image. i am going to set up a download site that gives these pictures for download in a RAR file or ZIP file format.

    how should i attribute those images.should i provide a text file inside those archives stating the attribute, or should i just say CC licensed on top of the site.

    ????Questions Questions.

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