Creative Commons and Permission

I love Flickr and the Creative Commons license. But lately, there seems to be some confusion about various aspects of the CC license. Perhaps the confusion is on my part, so I’ll let you be the judge.

About: Creative Commons

According to Wikipedia: The Creative Commons website enables copyright holders to grant some of their rights to the public while retaining others through a variety of licensing and contract schemes including dedication to the public domain or open content licensing terms. The intention is to avoid the problems current copyright laws create for the sharing of information.

About: Flickr’s use of Creative Commons

“We allow members to select a default Creative Commons license for all photos they upload and the ability to control licensing on a photo-by-photo basis. This gives people the most flexibility. And I think it does solve a real problem for some people: they want to be able to post their photos on the web and still express their preference as to how their work gets used.” –Flickr’s founder, Stewart Butterfield

Permission: Needed or Not?

Under copyright law, nobody is allowed to copy your work without your permission. But under a Creative Commons license, permission is not required for it has already been granted up front. Every Creative Commons license I can find says you are free “to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work.” You don’t have to ask the owner up front and you don’t even have to inform them that you used their work. So long as you meet the license characteristics, you are good to go.

Attribution: Always Required

Though permission is not needed, all six Creative Commons licenses require attribution, stating “Attribution. You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor.”

If the author states how attribution is to be used up front, then everything is clear. But I can’t find a single Creative Commons image on Flickr that states how attribution should be made. Does this mean you must first ask the author how attribution should be made, or do you just make sure you provide attribution in a clear manner?

I think this is a shortcoming of the Creative Commons license. I share 7,000 personal images and 10,000 Lambda Chi Alpha images on Flickr via the Creative Commons license. I use the CC license because is scales very well for my needs. People are able to use my work without bugging me for permission. I don’t have the time to respond to every permission and attribution request. Neither Creative Commons nor Flickr offer a way to specify up front how attribution should be made.

Attribution: Count thy Ways

There are so many ways to attribute credit to someone’s work. Over at Cross & Crescent, I do so in three ways:


I link the image directly back to the source file residing on Flickr. This gives the author greater exposure and gives users the ability to add comments, tags, or just email the author.

ALT description

I also add a description to the anchor tag that goes something like this: alt=”Courtesy of Jason Pearce”. This message pops up on some browsers when the mouse hovers over the image.

Fine Print

At the bottom of each story, I include some fine print under the heading “Photo Credits in Order of Appearance.” As you might expect, textual credit like “© Courtesy MIT Museum, All Rights Reserved” appears in this section.

Other Methods

But is that enough? Is that what the author wanted? Perhaps not. And since I didn’t ask, I had one author express concern that attribution was not provided for he was expecting to see attribution directly below his photograph instead of at the bottom of the page. Though he was using a Creative Commons license, he didn’t state up front how attribution should be made.

Share Without Asking

I use the CC license because I a) like to share and b) don’t want to be bothered every time someone wants to use an image of mine.

I’ve learned, however, that some users of the CC license expect users to ask for permission before their work is used. If they want to control permission, then maybe a Copyright license would serve them better.

Permission just doesn’t scale well for a permission-is-already-granted project like Creative Commons.

For example, when I write some code or design a theme and release it to the public domain under an open source license, I don’t expect people to ask me for permission before using my work. I don’t even expect them to tell me when they have used my code.

But since Creative Commons is new, it might take some time for all of us to understand how it should be used.

3 replies on “Creative Commons and Permission”

  1. One of the gentlemen I’ve had recent Creative Commons discussions with is Dean Ayres. Dean maintains a blog and an excellent collection of photos.

    When I thanked Dean for letting me use one of his Creative Commons photos (without first asking), he was taken aback. Through a series of emails, he and I had a very useful and professional discussion about Creative Commons, which prompted the above post.

    Thanks Dean for the healthy discussion. And thanks for sharing your photos.

  2. My pleasure, Jason!

    I suspect that a lot of Flickr users are like me; I upload photographs that I’ve taken for pleasure, and attach a Creative Commons licence to them because it seems a noble thing to do. Only when people started making use of my work did I begin to realise the implications of the CC licence.

    I questionned what Jason was doing with my image only because everyone else who had been in touch about using one of my photographs had asked permission first. With Creative Commons, this is not required. Of course, CC is still fairly new. As it becomes better established, we’ll all have a better sense of how it works.

  3. Attribution. You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor.

    I would assume that ‘the manner specified’ is the method they are using on their own site. So if their image has a watermark, then you would need to keep it. If they are using html commenting then so will you, etc.

    Note also that the license requires that the rfd information is kept with the work – and this information is published by flickr in the source code.

    Also, if you’re modifying the work you need to identify it as such:

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