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Flickr copyright problems and the shadows of trivialisation

July 28, 2007

Flickr users seem to be upset with issues of copyright again. It was not long ago that one of the most popular Flickr photogs from Iceland found out that a company in UK was selling her pics in expensive canvas without her having any idea or any british pounds of course. Now, another user, from the States this time, found out that his photograph of his 15 years old young sister was part of a Virgin Mobile campaign in Australia… again without him having a clue or an australian dollar for it!… Well, at least Virgin attributed the pic to his flickr knickname…

I doubt, however, that the corporation is legally worried at the moment. They actually used a picture licensed by the photographer under Flickr’s Creative Commons Atribution Only license, which simply allows them to use for commercial purposes such released photos as long they credit the name of the photographer. Moral issues regarding the rights of the photographer to be informed, or of the involved model -who was after all a minor and had not provided a model release, might indeed complicate this case.

But overall, it becomes clear that many Flickr users have not fully realised yet what means to participate in the innovative licenses offered by Flickr. Neither do they really seem to suspect that even a rich big business might take something seemingly trivial (as long as it has an adequate for enlargement resolution), such as a casual snapshot of your little sister and her friend in the backyard, substantially crop it and manipulate it if needed (as in this case) and then happily include it to their national campaign with a specific message on it. “Happily”with emphasis for their advertising department’s budget of course.

Billboard_by Christos Stavrou

Billboard (with or without Flickr’s help?) © 2007 Christos Stavrou

Someone might argue that the Creative Commons lisenses are not so bad especially because the photographer’s name and url are advertised. And yes, these relaxed licences could promote creativity and co-operation. However, personally I don’t particularly like Flickr. One of the reasons is exactly the pragmatic result of the current situation. I’m not fond of such ‘sweet’ and free opportunities that it provides for corporations and other bussinesses, usually at the expense of the photographer.

By the way, I would advice everyone ready to upload photos online to be sceptical and clear about understanding the consequences and differences between an ‘all rights reserved’ and ‘some rights reserved’ release. Also to check the resolution/size of their photo, as well as the policies of different websites. For example, I would never upload/post a photo of mine in the BBC website, because that media corporation has a policy to gain automatic copyright upon anything posted there. If you think this is a small issue, consider that from the moment someone else has the copyright of your image then it might be quite problematic for you to use again your own… ‘not-any-more’ picture.

No idea australian bus by Christos Stavrou

Leaving behind the No Idea bus in the borders of Queensland © Christos Stavrou

One further implication that I feel is lurking somewhere between these issues is the fear of trivialisation. In two different ways: First, I feel that there is a tendency, in what we have analysed so far, for the weakening of the role and value of the photographer in general. For example, in our case, the photographer was not informed, neither had any control and participation in the process of his photo’s commodification. Of course this is not so new, but is not desirable or unavoidable either.

Setting apart all the increase in expressive means offered by Flickr, as such websites keep growing from a pool of visual artifacts to a flood of available photos, the particular author or creator is not necessarily more, but maybe less important; the creative unique force rather tends to be surpressed under immerse productivity. Over-productivity does not necessarily mean higher creativity, originality and artistic investment. In fact, it’s rather that the commercial interests have been fast to gain benefit from the new conditions, and although some new talent will be expected to try to differentiate itself, the issue of who really makes the image (and what is this image) risks to become increasingly burried under a use-capacity, especially the business-oriented functionality of a photograph.

Watch this continuous production of available images, the numbing waves of imagery, by clicking at the picture below, which will transfer you to FlickrVision website.


And here I might touch the surface of another little fear, the second facet of a perceived trivialisation. This is a fear which is not new to our times, it has been addressed again and again, every time that technological advances have made photography accessible to a bigger mass of people. The fear relates to a perception that photography itself loses its value, under the strain of overproduction and nonetheless overconsumption. The questions and balances are subtle. In brief, we may ask, is this another moral panic, springing from the ubiquitous clicking of digital cameras around us, or a realistic threat of losing the really creative aspect of photography; and maybe even more, the opportunity to stop, watch and meaningfully interact, thus of losing the ‘traditional’ creative viewer as well?

A smile every time © 2007 Adam Horgan

‘A smile every time’ by Adam Horgan © 2007

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