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 licensing. 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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