Why Flickr Licensing Fails


Flickr LogoWhen it comes to matters of licensing, I have a litmus test that I use. If I struggle with how to license something, I am forced to assume that most users will have it much worse. After all, I read, review and suggest licensing strategies almost every day for myself and my clients, I can only imagine how those who rarely encounter such issues feel when faced with questions about how they want their work used.

However, Flickr, as I pointed out in my previous article, manages to confuse and befuddle with its licensing terms to the point that mistakes seem inevitable. Looking through Flickr’s dizzying array of poorly-worded options, it is easy to see how photographers and artists make simple mistakes and end up losing rights to their work.

So what exactly is wrong and how can it be fixed? That is what we’re taking a look at today.

The Options

Flickr Licensing OptionsWhen you pull up your privacy settings, you get a list that looks a great deal like the one to the right, it contains a series of questions about the rights you want to reserve in your work and the options you have set for them.

To save time, we’re going to take a look at them one at a time.

  1. Who can download your stuff: Allows users to download larger sizes of your image. Users can still download smaller ones though Flickr uses a transparent overlay to try and make that more difficult. Does not disable all downloading via the API.
  2. Who can share your photos or videos: Turns off and on the “Share This” button in the upper right hand corner of the image page. The button allows users to email, link, embed or blog the photo. However, all of those options can be done either directly or by turning on other options.
  3. Who can print your photos: Does not actually disable printing of photos, just the ability for users to order prints via the Flickr partnership with Qoop. Users can still print the images themselves, especially if they can download the full-sized images. On the other hand, it is still much better than Photobucket.
  4. Who can blog your stuff: Turns off the “blog this” button at the top of your image. Bloggers can still link to the image and, in some cases, embed it directly.
  5. Hide your EXIF Data: Hides metadata embedded into the image automatically upon creation and saving. (Not a licensing option)
  6. Hide your stuff from public searches: Displays two options, see more information below.
  7. Hide your profile from public searches: Same as above.
  8. What license will your content have: Allows you to choose either all rights reserved or a Creative Commons License for your image. Only functions as the default and can be changed on a per-image basis later. (Not pictured)

However, there are still more options to look at, when you click either the “Hide your stuff” or “Hide your profile” links, you are presented with still more licensing and rights options.

That page, which is the same no matter which link you click, offers you three options:

  1. Hide your photostream from site-wide searches on flickr.com: Removes your images from local Flickr searches, making your photos private. See comments below for correction on this issue.
  2. Hide your photostream from searches on 3rd party sites that use the API: Removes your images from the API so that sites using it can not locate your images or use them.
  3. Hide me from searches: Removes your actual profile from Flickr searches so you can not be found by name or email address.

The end result is ten different options that control how and when users of Flickr can access your images. However, as we’ll see in just a minute, many of those options are completely useless or hopelessly redundant.

The Problem

The problem with Flickr licensing becomes clear almost immediately. Of the eight initial options above, only four do what they say they do. Of the four that do what they say, three require you to select further options on a second page.

This leaves only one option that works “out of the box”, the EXIF data feature, which is not even a licensing tool.

Worse still, the first four options overlap one another in many places. For example, the feature to disable blogging clearly overlaps with the feature to “share” images since sharing allows blogging. However, even if both are disabled, users can still blog images in many cases, especially if the API is still turned on.

Likewise, turning off the ability to print an image does not actually disable printing, to do that you also have to disable high resolution image, otherwise users can just save and print clear images, but that involves the “download your stuff” option.

Quickly, compare this to how Creative Commons handles licensingbyzucsvcycrsuefabsbadudvxey. You’ll see how beautiful and simple content licensing can be. Though Flickr has more options to worry about than CC, it is clear that licensing can be a beautiful thing, if done correctly.

However, looking at CC also reminds you of exactly how out of order Flickr’s current system is.

Fixing the Issue

Creative Commons LogoSince Flickr has integrated CC so deeply into the site and CC has such a great handle on these issues, it seems to be a good place to start when looking to fix the problem.

Currently, when you set up a new account, all of your photos default to all rights reserved, the API is turned on, as is all public searching, and downloads/sharing are both enabled.

This makes almost no sense. A photo that is all right reserved would have very little usefulness in the API, at least legally, and would be limited in its usefulness for embedding.

Rather than assuming what the user wants, new users should be walked through a short licensing questionnaire, one that would closely resemble the one CC uses, and would only ask basic questions. From there, Flickr could suggest a default licensing scheme tailored to what the user selected.

For example, a photo that is all rights reserved could be removed from the API, or only included in thumbnail format, and have downloading disabled with blogging and embedding only available to the owner. A CC-licensed work available for commercial use could have the API turned on, embedding and downloading fully available and commercial printing turned on.

These options could be set by the user him or herself, but the defaults would be based upon the user licensing.

Speaking of those options, I would recommend that the Flickr licensing be reduced to the following options:

  1. Allow embedding of your images: Since there is no way to actually prevent emailing or linking to an image (without turning on privacy), it makes sense to focus only on embedding.
  2. Allow image downloads: Turns on the “All sizes” feature and removes the psuedo-DRM Flickr uses when this is disabled.
  3. Enable Privacy: Would have sub-options to hide your profile, your images or both. Would prevent linking or emailing any images if images are private.
  4. Enable 3rd Party Access: This option needs to be front and center, not buried. This would disable the API access to the photo. Also, ideally would have granular choices to allow third party access to certain types of images, such as thumbnails only or certain sets, but not others.
  5. Select License: Same as today, the option to choose a CC license.

The option that was eliminated was the one to allow “printing” of an image. This is a confusing option and it makes more sense to base printing upon the license the photo is under than whether this is ticked.

In the end, I was able to condense Flickr’s option list just five with sub-options. This prevents option overlap and confusion about how to convert option settings into real-life results.


Licensing is hard. I know that well. I also know that my system is far from perfect and does not actually reduce that many options, just organizes them in a manner that is less confusing. I also know that there is much room for improvement and, most likely, some technical challenges associated with simplifying the licensing.

However, it is clear reading Flickr’s licensing system that they have literally built it piece by piece over the years. As they added new features, they added new licensing options with little thought to how they interacted with previous ones.

It is past time for Flickr to do some spring cleaning on its licensing and help both its current users and its new ones understand the wide array of features Flickr supports.

Fortunately, through their heavy use of Creative Commons, they have something of a head start in helping to explain licensing. Now it is just a matter of taking what they’ve done well and meshing it with the other features they provide.

It is easier said than done, but far from impossible.

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  1. Jonathan, I thought I was pretty savvy about copyright issues and licensing. I’m one of the few people who actually reads licensing agreements and terms of service. I don’t Flickr for the reasons you’ve cited. However, I have learned so much from reading your blog. You articulately translate complex information into easily assimilated facts. Thank you. Well done. Joan Reeves

  2. I have very little doubt that you ARE indeed very savvy with these issues. As someone who reads licensing agreements and pays attention to these types of issues, you are already in the 99% percentile of all users. Even I’ll admit that there are some sites, especially those where I’m not putting up my content, where I don’t thoroughly read the TOS. It is, however, a bad habit and I do admit that.

    However, I am glad that the site has been able to help you and has been useful. Thank you very much for the encouragement. If there are any issues you’d like me to address, please let me know!

  3. Whoa, hold on here. There are lots of permissible uses of all-rights-reserved content via an API – RSS and machine-tag harvesting (à la Adactio) come to mind. You’re American; don’t make me remind you of fair use.

    I don’t know what you mean by “embedding,” and you probably don’t, either. Images are presented on Web pages using IMG elements (or, if you really insist, OBJECT, but that won’t work in the real world). As such images are not part of a Web page, but are called from elsewhere, like elsewhere in the same server directory or from another site, and assembled together with the HTML, CSS, and JS output to render the page. Your blog may have a sidebar with all your recent Flickr photos, and that sidebar might even be animated, but if so it’s some kind of iframe and/or JavaScript and/or Flash application; in that last case you could view the Flash application as a movie and use the (non-HTML) EMBED tag to put it on the page.

    But there is no way, via Flickr or otherwise, to “embed” a photograph on a Web page like the Sword in the Stone. It doesn’t happen.

    Additionally, your suggestion to walk Flickr users through a menu of options after the manner of Creative Commons is merely a way to induce people to erroneously license their photos under Creative Commons without full intention and consent. It would be cynical of me to view this as another example of “scratch a copyright activist, find someone who wants copyright abolished and replaced with Creative Commons.” All rights reserved *is* the default for a copyrightable work and should stay that way *unless* you really know what you’re doing and want some other licence.

  4. There’s no need to remind me of fair use. I based the idea of using thumbnails only in the API on ARR images in the Google images ruling, which put that type of use deep into the safe category. However, it is very likely that someone who chooses ARR will not want their content in the API. If I am wrong and most of the people who do choose ARR do want their content in the API, then that should be changed. It was just an example and a best guess at intentions. I admit that.

    However, it is interesting that you mention tag harvesting and RSS feeds as those are things that do not necessarily require the republication of the image.

    Regarding embedding, I am using the term in the exact same context as Flickr does. That is precisely to avoid confusion. Technically correct or not, it is the common term for the process of grabbing HTML code to place an element hosted on another domain and/or site and display it on yours. If you look at Flickr, you’ll find they use the term “embed it” to describe the process of copying the HTML code and that is a commonly understood term.

    Finally, I fail to see your last point but perhaps I didn’t make it clear what I was proposing here. I didn’t mean that they should use the actual CC code, but use that style where you ask reality-based questions that are easy to understand and have direct answers. If the process was written and designed well, it would default to ARR the same as now and make it clear the consequences of selecting another license.

    You are right that ARR is the default license, as it should be, but the other default settings enable and encourage uses that are often incompatible with the wishes. The goal of Flickr right now should be to mesh the licensing terms with how the image is actually used.

    On that note, if the most conservative license setting, ARR, is the default, then shouldn’t the most conservative API setting, meaning disabled, be the default as well? It would seem to be the most fair as turning that on also means giving up rights to your work via an implied license.

    Just to be clear though, I certainly don’t think copyright should be replaces by Creative Commons. First off, that would be impossible since CC was a system built upon copyright law, meaning that it relies upon the current legal setup to work, and second I feel artists should have the choice. However, I feel those choices should be made as simple and as clear as possible.

    Going back to the original point. If I get confused trying to license my images via Flickr, what chance do most others have?

  5. I think most people who choose ARR are perfectly OK when their photos are accessed through the API by tools which respect Flickr’s Terms of Service. Having something as “all rights reserved” doesn’t necessarily mean people don’t want it to appear in third party sites. Same goes for the embedding and/or sharing.

    One correction in your overview of the options – hiding your photostream from site-wide searches on flickr.com does not make your photos private, they are still accessible by everyone who visits your photostream or through the group pools in which the photo is posted (or by typing the URL of the photo directly in the browser). A “private image” on Flickr means an image accessible only by its owner, when logged in.

    I agree the account pages are quite overloaded with options that seem to overlap each other and you are right that many of them were introduced piece by piece but I’m not quite sure it would be a good idea to reduce and organize them in the way you suggest

    Also, the “Print” option for me is clear enough because I am aware it’s about using a service, not my own printer. It is useful and it also appears in photo set pages, where you are able to order books, albums, etc. It is not meant as a link to your own printer because hopefully most people know how to print a photo this way.

    Of course, I’ve been using Flickr for a lot of time and there is a chance my experience skews my judgment about how clear those guidelines are but for me they are clear enough.

    The only thing I find really misleading is the option list for choosing a license where ARR is explained as “No license” (probably they mean “No CC License”). This is absolutely misleading. Most of my images have a CC license attached but on some of the few which are ARR I’ve received comments from users like “Put a license to this photo if you don’t want it to be stolen by someone.”

  6. Though I agree with you that many of the people who select ARR on their Flickr images are comfortable with use of the images through the API, I submit that it may be another flaw with the licensing system as many, if not most, of those people might be better served by a CC license. I can’t speak for those who I have not met, but I suspect that they use ARR in many cases because it is the default, not because they have thoroughly thought out their licensing.

    Thanks for the correction on the use of private images. I can see where I was mistaken and will correct this article shortly.

    I admit to being a bit simple with the print option, but I was thinking more of people like my mother, who is considering posting some of her paintings and images of her crafts on the Web. The option may be clear to Flickr users but to outsiders and newcomers who aren’t familiar with the system, the term “print” has a different meaning. It might be nitpicky, but I felt it worth mentioning.

    I hadn’t thought about the use of the term “No License” when selecting the license for your image, you are right that it is VERY confusing and I can understand why you get those comments. I agree that “No CC License” or just simply saying “All Rights Reserved” would be better. “No License” is about the WORST thing one can say there.

    In the end, what’s important to me is not that my solution is the best, but that these issues get addressed and quick. I’ll admit that my system has flaws, especially since it came from someone familiar with licensing, but I hope that it was a step in the right direction.

    I hope that others, such as yourself, can take it even farther, that’s why I put it out there…

  7. Yeah. Licensing online is so hard but some people use it as marketing tool. Place a signature on the original image and voila! You will be known if more and more people download it.

    • The only problem with the signature idea is that many do not wish to clutter their images with one. I agree it is the most effective means of protection but it is a tradeoff between security and beauty.

  8. The only problem with the signature idea is that many do not wish to clutter their images with one. I agree it is the most effective means of protection but it is a tradeoff between security and beauty.