Son of DCist Creative Commons Brouhaha: RFC

5 March, 2006

I've been familiar with open-source/GPL/copyleft issues for a decade or so now, mostly because my crowd in college and the years after after was extremely Linuxy and I found the legal/intellectual property questions fascinating. A few weeks ago a buddy from that crowd pointed out that my choice of Creative Commons license options on my Flickr photos was not optimal. I chose a no-derivative-works no-commercial-use option, with my goal being to have someone inform me (via asking permission) when a pic of mine was being used. Buddy pitched for the ShareAlike option with the logic that NonCommercial-NoDerivs diluted the meaning of the CC license.

As I was pondering making this change (I'm very deliberate…or, procrastinatey), a minor fuss erupted over CC license interpretation at DCist. As best as I can tell, it started when DC-area blogger and Flickrite John noticed DCist use a non-commercial-licensed photo, and made a case for DCist being a commercial site and the use therefore violating the license. While not fully accepting that interpretation, DCist agreed to no longer use NonCommercial-tagged stuff except if the photo had a "dcist" tag (which was taken by all as permission granted a priori for any DCist use). OK. Fin, thought everyone.

Now my readership knows that I get very excited when DCist uses a pic of mine. And as I sat down to catch up on my RSS today I got another happy grin when I recognized another shot of mine on there:

Don't Block the Box, 14th and U

Note three things:

— The pic is under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license.
— The pic has no "dcist" tag (I liked the composition enough to post it, but didn't think it worthy — at the time I was using the tag very sparingly and I thought the underexposed building weakened the image).
— Martin cropped the shot from rectangular to near-square, which has artistic impact (the crop makes the image less about the "don't block the box" sign and more about the "U street" sign, for editorial reasons). Also I can't quite tell but the pic may have been lightened (this was taken before I did any postprocessing beyond cropping or I might have done the same, on the building).
The image on DCist:

Seems clear to me that DCist's use is in violation of its license and of their own photo policy. Permission was not obtained by asking me or by my use of the "dcist" tag. So by their own policy they were not permitted to use it since it has a Non-Commercial clause, and while their policy doesn't address the No-Derivs clause, by the same logic that term is violated too.

Was my previous acceptance of their use of my stuff taken as implicit permission? I have to say that in practice, in this case, I don't much mind the use or even the crop. I want the exposure (hah), would have granted permission if asked, and would likely have tagged the photo DCist had I been using tags then as I do now. But that's not the point, is it? Their use altered the artistic intent of the image–both their crop and their mode of reproduction. They appear to use a locally stored low-res copy instead of a link back to flickr, which makes things look crappy (possibly affecting the photographer's reputation) and also removes the accountability/link trail that'd be uncoverable by services like technorati.

I love DCist. I think it's one of the better -ists and I get a lot of value out of my visits/subscription to it. They have played a large role in my development as a photographer–their use of tagged flickr shots taken by Just Folks Around Town was an incentive to get me back behind the camera again and I owe them no small debt for that motivation. And they throw good events and I personally like the DCist-affiliated individuals I've met that way. ๐Ÿ™‚ I am perfectly aware of the volunteer nature of the work they do and that IP issues are not at the forefront of editors' minds as they seek to illustrate posts about life in the District. So I have a strong desire to drop this. But that seems like the wrong thing to do on many levels. So this is a request for your comments. What do you think?

Maybe this will look clearer in the morning. It's been a very long day, longer than any weekend day has a right to be…..


5 Responses to “Son of DCist Creative Commons Brouhaha: RFC”

  1. Kees Cook Says:

    IMHO the goal is bettering society rather than the individual. If you drop “NoDeriv”, you lose the ability to control how your work is used, but you gain in that society has more things to build a culture from. The culture is richer, even if you don’t exactly agree with how something you made was used. The basic key is the “ShareAlike” clause, which makes it the viral system it needs to be to succeed. If you worry about diluting your creations, well, that’s the point of “Attribution”; people can go find your original work to see how you wanted it (and then maybe build on a different part of it for their own work).

    I continue to struggle with the “non-commercial” clause. I need to keep pointing out to myself that no such clause exists in the GPL, and that all the software I’ve written uses the GPL.

  2. John Says:

    1. You’re right, this use is against the CC license you put on the image on several levels.

    2. I can imagine someone at DCist thinking “this is someone who regularly contributes and so is part of the extended DCist ‘family’, therefore it’s fine if we use this image.” But that’d be pretty flawed thinking. If someone regularly puts DCist tags/permission on their images, then it’s all the more reason to assume that them not putting a DCist tag on something was intentional.

    3. It’s stuff like this that really reminds me how misunderstood and devalued visual creative work is. Folks who in a million years wouldn’t take someone else’s written work and edit it without making those edits clear don’t hesitate to do that with visual material. In this same vein, look at how often (always) DCist uses copyrighted images without giving attribution to the original photographer.

    Academia is certainly a bit to blame. Think how often we drill in plagarism in terms of text, but not visual material. I’d expect, with too many dissapointments, that high school students know to quote and attribute material that’s not their own, and to make it very clear when they alter the prose. in even the slightest of ways, that they’re using. The equivalent competency is needed in knowing how to work with visual (and audio, and video) material.

  3. John Says:

    Oh, and I noticed that Martin used the attribution as “Picture snapped by”. I wonder what the equivalent would be of text? “Prose absentmindedly jotted down by” “Text scribbled by”

    Devaluing the effort that can go into taking a good photography is built right into the attribution. That’s just swell. And again, I’m pretty sure it’s just not knowing any better, since clearly Martin likes and values your work enough to be looking at your photostream directly and not just finding material under the DCist tag search.

  4. techne Says:

    Your opinion need not be H Kees, you have plenty of right and experience to speak on this from all sorts of angles. ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s a good point and clarifying to think about in those terms, thank you. My major counterpoint to it (heh) is: if someone will break two terms of a license, why assume they won’t break the third? They attributed me this time, but were I not a DCist visitor I’d never know, and as John says they often use copyrighted work without attribution (from logos to photos). In this context it’s a respect issue, and the question is if the disrespect shown to me/mine is counterbalanced by the public benefit DCist gains by using my image. In the digital era licenses are only as powerful as the honor system as one’s ability to detect their violation is reduced. I wonder if the power of “ShareAlike” isn’t wasted on images as compared to computer programs, where it has used the nature of software to its advantage and worked brilliantly. Images simply don’t depend on previous images like that.

    It’s now clear to me why, when I asked your dad for advice on my photography, the first and most detailed advice he gave me was how to process my images to protect them from being duplicated at high quality. I think I’ll go back and read that email again.

    John, a few things. I wouldn’t assume it’s respect that found that shot of mine. ๐Ÿ™‚ The pic is pretty old and buried, I am certain he searched on a “Ustreet” tag to find it (although it is on page 4 of that tag search so some digging was involved). I also think the disrespect inherent in the alterations/use is less about images and more about digitality/ease of reproduction/online existence. This is a revisiting of the sampling issues of 15-20 years ago in music: is sampling disrespect or respect and how much should expression be limited by artists’ rights?

    Also about the “snapped”: while flip, it looks to be Martin’s standard line–I have noticed all sorts of different attributions there from different DCist writers. I don’t take it too personally but you certainly have a point about the subtext. I have more thoughts on this which I may move to another post.

    You may be the first college professor I’ve heard give undergrads any credit around plagarism issues. ๐Ÿ™‚

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