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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Creative Commons Effect on Photo Licensing

Julie Bernstein asked me the following question: "I am curious if your views on Creative Commons have changed since the four articles you published on this topic in '08."

Julie is referring to these articles (part1, p2, p3, p4) where I describe the CC as a great licensing method for almost all media types except photography.

In summary, what the CC has done is create a legally legitimate infrastructure for those who freely share copyrighted works. Before CC, such activity was technically an infringement, because the the publication of creative works requires consent of copyright holders. CC clears up that technicality, which is great. But it has inadvertently given people the impression that it has affected the licensing industry's pricing structures.

CC has not affected the greater licensing market (or prices), largely because of risk: CC has no centralized authority to assure that content is either submitted properly or used properly. Because it's so easy to game the system on either side of the photo (the supplier or the user can sue the other by luring them with a legally misleading scenario), the financial liability for anyone with a lot to lose is simply too high, especially given that traditional license fees are so minimal. So, the majority of image buyers simply stay away from CC.

Now, this is not to suggest there's something wrong with the CC model in principle. I'm a big advocate for it in all other contexts. Indeed, it was born out of the "free software" meme that was popular in the 1980s and 90s, when Gnu Public License (GPL) and other models were the precursors to the "open-source" model we still enjoy today. These are great innovations in licensing because they allow intellectual property to be used for the greater good, while also allowing for commercial use of those innovations.

But CC in the world of engineering is entirely different from photography. Engineering takes a considerable amount of time, resources and (usually) teamwork to produce anything of value that those in the open-source community would use. As such, the kind of content there is proportionally minimal, and each work is substantial and recognizable, making infringements quite easy to spot.

None of this is true in photography -- trillions of images are produced daily, it's impossible to track any given photo, or whether it is "legitimate" (either by the owner or the user).

So, sure, in a world of honest people that want to freely share their content in a peaceful corner of the image licensing market, CC is great. The CC market is growing, but the perception is only as a measurement of itself, not the total licensing market. An article on that topic can be found here:

Lastly, it's natural to ask, "If CC is so easy to game, why haven't we seen it?" The answer is because the market is so negligible. Economists often use crime data as a reality check on the economic activity they think they're aware of. The higher the crime rate, the more economic activity there is, and there's usually parity between that activity and the presumed size of a commodity's market. If there's little crime, the market size isn't big enough to warrant the effort. If CC were to genuinely gain momentum, it would attract those who would game the system for profit, which itself would have a cooling effect, bringing its popularity back down.

For the record, I've proposed that the best way to assuage people's risk concerns about CC is to use the "copyright registration" system. The CC foundation should have a submission system where those who want to submit images for CC licensing would bulk register those images to the copyright office. This gives them the right to file claims on behalf of the copyright owner, which is how major stock agencies like Getty work. Registered images are eligible for higher level of copyright protection, and there are federal penalties for fraudulent use. This means that users of CC images can be protected from invalid claims by those trying to game the system because this is built into the copyright act's provisions. Similarly, authors can be assured of CC compliance because non-compliant users could be subject to an infringement claim. Yes, you can sue someone for copyright infringement, even if the license fee were zero, because the infringement is another form of "breach of contract." Here, the user of a CC image agreed to the terms of CC by (for example) citing copyright ownership. Failing to do so is an infringement of that contract, and is therefore subject to the statutes provided by copyright law.

This would not only allow CC to have actual teeth, but the trust would go up as the risk comes down.

But such an infrastructure would be quite expensive to operate. That'd be a tall order just to create a system that brings the license fee for a commodity down only a few dollars, even if it is only to zero.

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