Is Flickr Letting Down its Users?


Flickr LogoA recent post by photographer J.M. Goldstein raised a very interesting question about Flickr and its API, namely whether or not Flickr was policing its API well enough and doing an adequate job protecting the rights of photographers and artists that post to the service.

Goldstein took special issue with a series of recent cases where copyright licenses were being ignored, by users of the Flickr API, the latest of which involved making all Flickr images, regardless of license terms, available for download as cell phone wallpapers on the site Myxer (the article mistakenly reports the images as being for sale, though the download, according to comment 40, was free).

It is very clear that many services and companies that have used the Flickr API have violated copyright holder’s rights, either intentionally or accidentally, and that this is an ongoing issue as new services come online almost every day.

So what can be done to fix this problem? What responsibilities does Flickr have in this? The answers, unfortunately, are neither simple nor easy.

The Power of the API

There is little doubt that Flickr’s API is a very powerful tool. It allows third parties to build services and tools that access Flickr and use the images there in new and exciting ways. It is behind many of my personal favorite tools, including Photodropper.

Also, most applications that use the API do so in a way that is fair to the rights of the artists that use Flickr. It is, fortunately, only a small minority that do not. This is because the API makes it simple to interpret the licensing of the images and Flickr’s terms of service for the API requires developers to respect user intellectual property.

However, some have not and those cases pose a great deal of risk to photographers. Since the infringers are using the API, much like an RSS scraper, they have the ability to take almost everything on the site and do with it as they please. This includes, theoretically, selling the works, creating new, high-resolution galleries and using the works in advertising or promotion.

This has many photographers worried and, judging from the comments on the original article, at least some are abandoning Flickr due to these issues.

Flickr’s Role

Flickr Account SettingsFlickr, for their part, is in a bad position here. Their powerful API is one of the critical reasons that both developers and users enjoy the site as much as they do. Flickr’s ability to interact with other services has been critical to its success and removing functionality from the API could be very costly to them.

Despite that, Flickr does have both a terms of use that forbids developers from abusing user’s rights and the ability to revoke API keys, thus shutting down services that might be infringing.

However, Flickr has been slow to use this tool against developers, especially those that create products with uses that have legitimate uses. This has not stopped Flickr from shutting down some services trying to access the site, such as it did with the image search engine FeelImage (though FeelImage was not using the API, just a tag search, and has since resumed indexing only CC-licensed material), but such cases usually only take place after a user uproar or if the service is clearly abusive in nature.

The simple truth is that that the vast majority of the responsibility is on users to license their photos correctly and developers to respect those licenses.

Flickr, though it is the middle man, has very little it can do in many cases.

What Flickr Should do

This is not to say that the site is immune from all responsibility or criticism in this matter. There are several things the site can and should do to reduce the number of such incidents.

If I were to make suggestions, I would include the following:

  1. Clearer User Licensing Terms: The image above and to the right is what I see when I log into Flickr’s privacy options. The options are confusing and overlapping. “Sharing” a photo, for example, allows users to embed or “blog” a photo, which is yet another option, there is also no clear way to remove an image from the API (Note: You have to disable public searching on “3rd Party Sites”) and it is unclear how any of this meshes with Creative Commons Licensing. If this is confusing to me, I can imagine many users feel overwhelmed.

  2. Quicker Disabling of API Keys: If a developer is infringing on the rights of Flickr users, their API key needs to be disabled, at least until a fix can be made to their system. Though Flickr is understandably uneasy about banning developers for a coding mistake, they could allow such sites 72 hours to correct the problem before disabling them.

  3. Licensing Trumps API Permissions: Under the current system, the API setting in Flickr trump the licensing settings on the photograph, it either should work the other way around or the user should be given the option to decide which is more important. Otherwise, the copyright licensing is fairly meaningless.

As always, I am seeking other suggestions as to what Flickr can do so please feel free to add your ideas in the comments below. Since I am not a heavy Flickr user, I realize my input is limited.


In the end, the responsibility to respect licenses will always fall on the developers. As with any API, the developer will have the ability to disregard both the terms of use and the rule of law, but have a duty to respect both their own agreements and the user wishes.

While there are steps that Flickr can and should take to reduce this problem, the issue of Flickr-based tools ignoring licensing terms falls squarely on the shoulders of the developers that made them.

If developers do not bear responsibility, legally and ethically, for the works they create, then there is absolutely nothing to stop them from abusing the system even more. They, as well as the users who abuse the tools they create (in some cases), need to be held accountable first and foremost.

Though the frustration with Flickr is understandable and certainly is some grounds for it, they are not the ones who abused the system nor are they the ones who made the mistake.

They just paved the road for those who did.

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  1. Great write up Jonathan.
    Two points of clarification…
    1. I do see the core of responsibility falling on Flickr as they can regulate how their API works and more strictly regulate requirements of that API use around set image licensing. The API forbids access to private photos. I see no reason why it can’t for All Rights Reserved. Granted that is extreme, but it proves my point they can do something.
    2. I would argue that Myxer was indeed “selling” Flickr photos. The photos were coming up as results in an e-commerce site. The value of those products were set at $0. They have a mechanism of selling/subscribing and opted to value that work at $0. There is nothing to say that values wouldn’t change at a moments notice. On top of that their system to this date still distributes copyrighted material illegally. Case in point in the realm of photography with this photo of Michael Jordon
    As I posed the question to a commenter of my blog post. What is worse someone selling your photo or giving it away for free? It is the same in my eyes as someone is assigning value to your work who does not have the right to do so and then distributing it.

  2. Glad you liked the write up!

    On the first point. while that would be an option, it would also eliminate a lot of legitimate uses of Flickr content. I think the outright blocking of ARR images would be a bit much. A better solution would be to limit ARR images to thumbnail use only. Generally, the law allows for thumbnails to be displayed under fair use, this coming about since the Google Images ruling, so I think that would be a compromise that would allow some use fo ARR images in the API, but not infringe on copyrights.

    On the second, I don’t disagree that Myxer did something it shouldn’t, but saying that it is for sale is somewhat inaccurate. I personally would refer to it as a “commercial use” since the site admitted they were advertising supported. I have no doubt that there was a profit motive behind the use, with or without the shopping cart, but it still isn’t actually for sale until money something else changes hands.

    Regarding the final question, I agree with you whole-heartedly. The law, however, does make a distinction so I do have to pay attention to such things.

    The law, sadly, does not always understand the spirit of the artist.

  3. Thank you for writing such a clear, well-thought-out response to this issue.

    As both a photographer and a developer who uses Flickr’s API, I haven’t made up my mind as to the best solution. But it was painful and frustrating to read so many comments (on other blogs noted) from folks who either misunderstood the issue or jumped to conclusions about Flickr’s attitude.

    I do believe Flickr needs to make the licensing information clearer to users of the API. For example, the API call that finds the most recently updated photos for a user (ie, their photostream) has an optional parameter that enables the license type to be returned for each photo, along with the usual metadata.

    The fact that (1) this request for license info is optional, and (2) the license info is an obscure code that needs to be looked up with another (one-time) API call, makes it more likely that a developer will remain ignorant of a given photo’s license. If Flickr always returned the license info, and it was in a clearer format, it might encourage those developers to think more carefully about the usage of any given photo fetched via the API.

  4. Thank you for the great input on how to make the API clearer. As a non-developer, I was unaware of exactly how difficult it was to get the licensing information and you are definitely right about that, the fact that it requires two calls makes it that much easier to mess up. This is something Flickr should change just to avoid simple developer mistakes.

    Excellent point, thank you for sharing that!

  5. I’ve written up a (far!) longer response on the technical details of this issue. You can read it at my blog, at:

    How Flickr could make the world a better place for copyright

    An excerpt:

    Flickr has come under fire recently for not enforcing licensing terms on images accessed through their application programmer’s interface (API) and syndication feeds. Flickr could rectify this situation, and reduce the confusion and misinformed reaction, by making a few simple technical changes to its API, and minimally reaching out to its community of photographers, viewers, and developers.

  6. I took a look at the site. Stashy raises its own copyright issues by requiring that users copy images already on the Web rather than uploading their own. However, that was also a huge limitation that makes it rather pointless for me. Why use Stashy when I would already have the images up elsewhere on the Web?

  7. "OMG…wow! What a dumbass!! Holy hell. That is one unhappy individual there and I sure would hate to have to live that! dang. I am baffled as all hell!!! Sounds like that person just likes to stir the pot. I "volunteer" to verballly assault that person if it comes back ever!!!!"Comment received after using Flickr for one week and having concerns about people claiming to be experts who were anything but that.

  8. "OMG…wow! What a dumbass!! Holy hell. That is one unhappy individual there and I sure would hate to have to live that! dang. I am baffled as all hell!!! Sounds like that person just likes to stir the pot. I "volunteer" to verballly assault that person if it comes back ever!!!!"

    Comment received after using Flickr for one week and having concerns about people claiming to be experts who were anything but that.