Yahoo’s Flickr Photo Flap and the Perils of UGC

Last week, Yahoo, which purchased photo-sharing site Flickr 2002, wound up in the center of controversy when its new “individual brand portal” for the Nintendo Wii, was caught using Flickr users’ photographs without permission.

This came as part of a very hard week for both Yahoo and Flickr as a change in Flickr’s login inspired equal amounts of rage among many loyal to the site.

However, as at least one Digg commenter pointed out, Yahoo’s terms of service seems to allow this kind of use. Despite that, Yahoo tried to make things right by offering to alter the portal so that only “appropriately licensed” photos were used (see very bottom of page).

Still, the damage seemed to be done. many users aren’t ready to forgive Yahoo for its transgression and talk about finding alternatives has already started.

This has left many to wonder what happened? And more importantly, what went wrong?

Legally Right, Morally Wrong

There is little doubt that Yahoo was within their legal rights when they created the specialized Wii page. Yahoo’s terms of service, linked above, more than grants enough rights for Yahoo to use the photos.

The use, however, seems to go against the values of the Flickr community. Founded on the principle of liberal content licensing and respect for those licenses, the commercial use of photos that were not intended for such use, even if technically legal, was something of a betrayal.

This may be a sign that Yahoo just doesn’t understand the Flickr community. This is not a surprise considering that they are just now starting to integrate it in with their larger offerings, but it is not an uncommon misstep for sites that rely on user generated content(UGC).

In fact, it’s a potential problem for UGC sites of any size, not just the large ones like Flickr.

The Court Where Lawyers Dare Not Tread

A well-written terms of service can protect you from lawsuits, but that’s about all. It is very important to write your terms of use as broadly as possible to cover against unforeseen situations. No one wants to be sued because they were forced to change hosts, site names or backend software, but it’s important to remember that the terms of use is not the end all of the user/administrator relationship.

What many, including Yahoo, forget is that you have to operate simultaneously in two courts, the court of law and the court of public opinion. Lawyers can help you with the first, only morals, ethics and public relations can help with the second.

Most users are comfortable with loose terms of use that, legally speaking, sign away most of their rights to their own content. However, they expect their administrators to not use their content in any way that violates the spirit of the community.

This can be a problem on nearly any site. If a forum suddenly starts running ads, a photo sharing site starts offering prints or a private community suddenly opens their doors to the rest of the world, the community might become outraged.

Though lawyers will point to the terms of use that grants the site the legal right to do as they please, the community members will do what the Flickr members have been doing, either voting with their feet and walking away or start actively sabotaging the community.

Either way community, and the business around it, suffers. Sometimes, they never recover. In many of these cases, a lawsuit might have been a blessing.

An Almost Impossible Task

The problem with all of this is that it can be almost impossible for administrators, who are rarely active participants in the community, to have a good feel of what the community values are. They can attempt to set values and principles but it is the users at large that sets actual code of conduct.

This makes it important to communicate with community members, both before and after major changes especially when said changes directly affect their content. It’s important to listen to their wishes, especially when they provide their own licensing terms, as with Flickr, and to not use their content in a way you wouldn’t want other sites to do so.

In short, it is about respect and treating your community members as valuable assets and participants, not just users that you can boss around.

It seems simple and obvious, but it is a concept that many sites lose track of as they grow. Users always can, and often do, walk away. If your terms are unfair or your service doesn’t meet their needs, they will go to some place that is a better fit for them.

The old business adage comes to mind, if you don’t take care of your customer, someone else will.


Companies large and small that depend upon UGC need to realize that users tend to be fickle and that the fact they have the legal right to do something does not always make it a good move.

Lawsuits are never good news, but a user revolt can be at least equally as bad.

As frustrating as it may be, the law only provides a base line for companies to go by, ethics and morals go much farther.

Companies have to pay close attention to both. Even if their legal liability stops at the law, their business can still crumble and fade if their ethics are not up to par.

As for Flickr, they will probably survive this flap not much worse for the wear. They seem to have corrected the problem and started to work at patching things back up. They are also large enough and ubiquitous enough to survive, even with a few upset customers.

That being said, the bad taste that the incident has left in many of its users’ mouths will not be soon forgotten. An opening has been created for competitors and it will be interesting to see how they exploit it.

This issue, combined with other recent controversies at Flickr, may hurt the service, and Yahoo at large, more than anyone realizes.


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