This was mostly written as a post on my own blog about a decision to put all of my flickr photos into the public domain under a CC0 license.

Note: This is 100% personal opinion and, while I am currently on contract for this project with Creative Commons, I am in no way speaking for the organization. But I do see much of the energy in teaching about CC is focused on avoiding copyright violations and knowing the differences between licenses. I try to explain to many people outside out field who ask, “Why should I give away my work?” I would prefer we also expand on the value and idea of a commons.


Never say never. Never say never multiple times. Never blog about saying never. Never. Ever.

I have tried on almost ever flavor of Creative Commons on my flickr photos, standing now as 51,000 photos of varying quality going back to 2004.

On December 19, 2006 I blogged about first putting a CC-BY license on my flickr photos. Then on September 7, 2010 I shared some reasons to try on CC-BY-NC. From feedback on that post, I quickly flipped to CC-BY-SA and a week later I was back to CC-BY, with these fatal words:

And this is the LAST time I will switch my flickr license.

Until today.

Today I casually looked at a link Brett Gaylor tweeted:

The Mozilla Maker party suggested uploading something to flickr with a CC0 license. Well, why not? I decided I could contribute to this by changing the license on an album I keep in flickr of my favorite photos.

But then I started thinking… why not put all my photos in the public domain? Why not do the most friction free license? The main difference, as I can see, is that I am not licensing with an expectation of attribution. Frankly, even with a CC-BY license, often people do not attribute (those catfishing scammers using my photos for their fake profiles NEVER give me credit).

To me the way we explain, teach about public domain aka CC0 is technically correct but sets the bar very low.

Usually people explain Public Domain / CC0 like:

You can re-use it without having to give attribution.

Free pass!

CC0 license pixabay photo by Rossanddave

CC0 license pixabay photo by by Rossanddave https://pixabay.com/en/beer-minimum-chips-closeup-1043028/

This is minimum compliance. And is compliance the spirit of a commons of sharing? Is that the best we can do? Comply? Aiming for a “C” grade is… Average. Meet the minimum. Congrats on that. Go for mediocrity. Yay.

I went though a similar spin when I gave up in trying to be an attribution cop.

In practice, when we comply and skip giving attribution for reused media, what does this signal to a reader? What are they learning about sharing, by seeing great pictures in your blog posts, presentations, learning materials that give no credit?

They are reinforcing the common folklore that any media you can find in a Google search is free to grab and use. They are not learning about fueling a circle of gratitude to flow back to a person who openly shared their work. They are denying that person a small amount of pride and joy to know their creation has been reused.

Frankly, compliance here is almost stingy.

My strategy is aim higher than just to comply. I aim to attribute everything, even if I do not have to. I use many images from Pixabay which are all licensed CC0. And I give credit.

When I use my own images, I don’t have to get permission, right? But how does your reader know? So I still attribute my own media. Boy, am I silly. That takes me like an extra 30 seconds to do.

Being part of sharing commons is not about following rules; it is setting an example for others, it is expressing a small amount of appreciation. Giving acknowledgement.

When you comply with a license that is interpreted as “skipping giving credit” you are also cutting people off from access to “more.” Let’s say I love an image you used, I like the style. What if I want to see more from the same artist, photographer? Without a credit / link, your image looks nice, but is a dead pathway on the web.

What about this idea of value of digital content.

I’m talking about this other myth people carry around:

SOMEONE WILL STEAL MY STUFF AND MAKE A MILLION DOLLARS OFF OF IT.

or

How can I make a living if I give everything away?

I know someone will send me an example of how something of theirs was re-used by an evil greedy company of profit. But statistically how often does that happen?

Firstly, I don’t advocate giving everything you own / do away. The mere act it would take a lot of time 😉 But the idea of something than can be copied infinitely as having economic value is a bit of a contradiction. So I have shared 50,000 photos in flickr, because (a) it’s easy to do and (b) I have no interest or even an idea how I can make money from them. I do not take/share photographs to make money from the photos; I do it because I love photography. I enjoy the act of seeing the world through my camera lens, editing, and sharing. It’s how I express myself.

So if someone can make a boat load of money from any of my photos, I encourage them to do so. I congratulate them. I cannot consider it stealing or a loss if I never intended / desired to make money from my photos.

I also give away on my blog and places like GitHub my computer code and methods of programming. I get hired by organizations and clients to provide a technical service, despite the fact people can use my stuff for free. You make a living from providing services, consulting, ideas, not from digital stuff you produce and cannot control the distribution.

If I was a pro photographer, I would hope to make money from the service, not the products. I would get more clients if they can find examples of my work in the world. But do not take my word, take in Jonathan Worth’s story of his awakening to the flaw in hs model of professional photography:

I know people will not agree with me. That’s good. I like to be told I am wrong. It helps me learn (hence all the previous flip flops in my flickr licensing). I do not expect people to follow my way. I am just trying to find it.

I did have a wee bit of trouble, as I found out the flickr’s server timed out on my attempt to change the license on almost 51,000 photos.

But they were able to help, thanks flickr!

I better not change my mind again.

I am never quite done. Someone on twitter reminded me that the license could be embedded as EXIF metadata in the photos. I have been doing that with my photo managing processes since 2008. And I am not about to go modify all those images. So you might download an image from my flickr collection now, where the license is CC0, and the image itself might have meta data saying it is CC-BY (or even CC-BY-SA from a few years ago).

And it’s a case again, where what happens in the world is a lot more messy than picking a license off a chart.

The licenses are important, but they are not everything.


Top / Featured Image: A bit of play with the Creative Commons icon. The font was pretty close, if not exactly, Arial Black, so in photoshop I inserted an “L” in place of the “C”. It’s a remix, guess the license 😉

Profile Picture for Alan Levine
Technologist, open web advocate, attributes nearly everything, wordpresser, photographer, dog lover, blogging since 2003 at cogdogblog.com. My role on this project is technology development, outward communications, and occasional silly video.