Flickr’s Big Fail On Creative Common’s Attribution Guidelines

Creative Commons is supposed to be this great way for people to license out their works to others. But it’s annoyed me for ages how lame it is in practice, when it comes to Flickr.

Let’s say I want a picture of a car to use on my commercial blog. Using the Flickr Advanced Search page, I enter “car” and select the “Only search within Creative Commons-licensed content” and tick the “Find content to use commercially” option:

Flickr's Creative Commons Search

In the results, I find this really cool picture of an old Desoto:

Finding Attribution Info On Flickr

Notice the big red arrow pointing to the description. There’s nothing here that tells me how this work is licensed or how to attribute it.

Well, elsewhere on the photo’s page at Flickr is this:

Flickr's CC Attribution Link

Now, I can’t even read those icons, much less know what they’re supposed to mean at a glance. But that’s OK, because it’s fairly obvious that the “Some rights reserved” text is a link that might tell me more. So I click on it, getting this page:

Creative Common's Licenese

Well, kumbaya! Look at that feel-good stamp. “Approved For Free Cultural Works.” I feel so collectively good. This kind soul is saying anyone can use their photo using this license, as long as:

You attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).

Um, so where’s the attribution manner “specified” on that photo? Remember me pointing at the picture description? There was no “manner” of attribution indicated there. Am I supposed to:

  • List the URL where I got the picture from in text (say if I use on a slide)
  • Link to the URL of the photo page (if I use online)
  • Use the photographer’s Flickr name (if I use online or elsewhere)
  • Use the photographer’s real name (assuming I can figure it out; that’s not always easy)
  • Assume since no attribution was specified, no attribution is required?

I’ve seen the first four methods used, and I’m sure there are other variations people have come up with, since many CC licensed pictures under Share Alike fail to specify how they should be attributed (for instance, the first 10 “Share Alike” pictures I found in a car search at Flickr had no attribution info on their photo pages).

Even when you do get attribution, things aren’t always clear. For example, TechCrunch took heat today for using some images without attribution.

Mark Lobo wasn’t happy when TechCrunch used one of his images from here in this story without the specified attribution (Mark Lobo Photography):

Zombies Attribution Request

See how I’ve pointed to his attribution guidelines? Pretty straight-forward, right? Well, did Mark just want that exact text used, or did he also want to have a link to his site with that exact text? Are the rules different if used in an offline manner, where no link could be provided?

After some tweets, a credit was added, which seems to have made Mark happy, even though the attribution doesn’t match what he specified:

Photo Credit At TechCrunch

The TechCrunch link says only “Mark Lobo,” not “Mark Logo Photography,” and it points to the photo page on Flickr, rather than Mark’s photography site of, which he specifiies.

TechCrunch is also a commerical site, and the picture was originally licensed for non-commercial work. But it’s pretty clear from Mark’s tweet that he’s good with the usage now. Still, you can see how things can be confusing.

Here’s another example where even with detailed information, things can still be confusing. Michael Gray called TechCrunch out on another photo used without attribution in this story.

In the picture’s description, it says simply “comcast van.” Underneath it, the first comment is from the photographer, who’s quite detailed and flexible in his attribution request:

I’ve presented it here under a Creative Commons license. You can use it but you need to present a photo credit and shouldn’t go photoshopping it into something else or use it to sell something.

The attribution can simply be a text photo credit that is a hyperlink back here – that’s what Gawker Media sites do for the pictures they use from their flickr pools.

TechCrunch (I guess eventually) went with naming him and a link back to the photo. But the “attribution can be” part of his guidelines implies that attribution could be something else.

Flickr’s a major place where people seek Creative Common images. It shouldn’t be guesswork to figure out where attribution guidelines are (in the description? in the comments?). Both photographers and publishers wanting to use their works need Flickr to help expand what are proper, standard guidelines for attribution.

That brings me to the big uproar over the Obama White House photos that went up on Flickr with a licensing description that caused some people to think they weren’t in the public domain. They always were in the public domain — it was just that Flickr didn’t have the right type of licensing option to show this when they were uploaded. But having the wrong license didn’t somehow pull them out of the public domain. It just gave some people the wrong impression they weren’t public.

That’s all fixed now. Flickr’s got a US Government Works license that now shows up. Meanwhile, over at the White House, they’re using Creative Commons to cover material that the public shares with them. The White House copyright page tells you:

Except where otherwise noted, third-party content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. Visitors to this website agree to grant a non-exclusive, irrevocable, royalty-free license to the rest of the world for their submissions to under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Click on that license, and you’re told:

White House Creative Common's Licenese

Cool! The White House has some specific info on their license that I wish Flickr photos could have. How’d they do that?

Well, hit the Creative Commons site, and you’ll see that if you make a license there, it allows you to embed specific attribution information into your license:

Creative Common Attribution Options

Flickr should tap into this. It should prompt you to add that type of information into a unique license for each photo, perhaps pre-populating the license with information you can fill out once (say your name, your web site and so on).

Still, you can see there are further issues. It’s great that the White House says shared images can be reused with attribution by linking to the White House. But what if you’re using the image offline? Is text enough? I’m guessing so, but it probably should say.


  1. says

    If you’re a commercial site it’s incumbent upon you as a publisher to know the rules and not trample all over people’s copyright. I get that people think copyright is “broken” but that’s no reason or excuse to flat out ignore it. It’s like driving to work everyday and ignoring the posted speed limit because it doesn’t “work” for you. Publishers need to take responsibility for what they publish.

    If you use wordpress try the photodropper plugin, install it choose “commercial only” and it takes care of all the heavy lifting and detail linking for you making sure you are compliant.

  2. says

    Good points all around… It’s also why I specify on my Flickr profile how you should attribute my photos: but I agree that Flickr could do better. The only reason I have that extra bit of text is because I am a licensing geek, and fan of Creative Commons, but it still relies on people clicking on to find it. I always take the effort to see how people want to be attributed if it is not specified, but I’d guess many people do not do that.

  3. stacy says

    Graywolf > The article goes into great length how the author is trying to stay honest to copyright rules, they are not trying to avoid their responsibilities nor are they claiming copying is broken, so your rant comparing it to speeding is irrelevant.

    You are seeing piracy and threats to your revenue when they are not even there.

  4. says

    Graywolf, I agree — copyright shouldn’t be ignored, and I don’t think I was saying that. I am saying that Flickr presents itself as a vast collection of images that can be easily filtered to locate those that are fair game for reuse, but when you dig down, they haven’t really added more support to back that up in a way to protect both content owners and publishers that want to use the images. CC is tossed out more as lipservice than an actual licensing solution. I want that changed.

    I’ll look again at Photodropper, but I don’t see how even it is a perfect solution. If there’s no machine-readable attribution information, then how does it know the way a particular artist wants their work attributed?

  5. Rob says

    “It’s like driving to work everyday and ignoring the posted speed limit because it doesn’t “work” for you.”

    If you’re driving the speed limit, good for you, but … doesn’t the honking bother you?

  6. says

    Interesting viewpoint.

    After reading your comments about the problems I had getting CrunchGear and TechCrunch to comply with my photo’s license and your comment about my own statement about proper photo credits, I have added a more explicit description of my expectations for a photo credit as required by the license I have applied to my photo.

  7. miha says

    Well, CC license for Mark’s photo makes it quite clear:
    If you distribute, publicly display, publicly perform, or publicly digitally perform the Work, You must keep intact all copyright notices for the Work and give the Original Author credit reasonable to the medium or means You are utilizing by conveying the name (or pseudonym if applicable) of the Original Author if supplied; the title of the Work if supplied; and to the extent reasonably practicable, the Uniform Resource Identifier, if any, that Licensor specifies to be associated with the Work, unless such URI does not refer to the copyright notice or licensing information for the Work. Such credit may be implemented in any reasonable manner; provided, however, that in the case of a Collective Work, at a minimum such credit will appear where any other comparable authorship credit appears and in a manner at least as prominent as such other comparable authorship credit.

  8. says

    All this Creative Commons stuff is confusing to me. I just went with the $1 images over at When in doubt, pay a dollar 😀

  9. says

    Great comment on the probs with Flickr. Like you I find it so frustrating when you want to comply with CC copyright, and a sophisticated provider like Flickr makes it hard to do.
    If you dig into the code for the Flickr photo pages, you come up with this fragment:
    Uploaded on October 29, 2004 by The Rocketeer

    Note the part of the A tag, which has the curious attribute: rel=”dc:creator cc:attributionURL”>. Digging around through some searches, it looks like this is, indeed, the attribution URL as specified by Creative Commons. (Though why is it a relative url?) So I guess you would use the person’s Flickr name linked through this URL. Though as your case study suggests, this might not satisfy some individuals, I would think you would be legally covered to some extent. Obviously this applies more to parsing these pages automatically, but it is a hint as to what should be done manually as well. Thanks for the post.

  10. says

    Interesting article. We have our own way of doing it at Fotopedia through widgets which have the attribution, license and link issues dealt with. I’d be interested to know what you think about it: fotopedia

  11. says

    It is frustrating in some ways. I thought that linking back from the image to the Flickr page is enough. Even last time I thought if I searched for images that can be used for commercial purposes, you didn’t even need a link back.

    So the question remains, is linking back to the photo flickr page enough or you really have to credit the photographer’s name on the posts with links etc?

  12. says

    Creative Commons says the Attribution license (which is on all CC photos): “You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work — and derivative works based upon it — but only if they give credit the way you request.”
    The usual way to do this is by adding the name of the photographer and a link to where the photo is from. The issue on Flickr is to decide if you use the user’s name or username which aren’t always the same though users sometimes speciy which to use on their profile page and where to linkback.

  13. says

    Yes yes yes!! I’ve gone through these EXACT SAME STEPS and been frustrated every time for the exact same reasons. Thanks for taking the time to spell it out.

    The first case you describe (no attribution info spec’d) is by far the most common.

    I’m frequently looking for CC photos I can use in the sites I build — it’s a win-win. I get unique works, and the creators get more exposure. It shouldn’t be hard to do the right thing.

  14. Fred says

    The Creative Commons links from most Flickr photos says:

    “If you are publishing on the Internet, it is nice to link the name or title directly to the original work”

    Nice, not required. So a hyperlink is NOT required, but the name of the author is. Is that right?

  15. says

    I have a question for you. What happens if I download creative commons images from Flickr and later find out that the flickr user had actually uploaded copyrighted images picked up from the web.

    So now who gets the blame ?

  16. says

    I see this is an old article, but I was searching trying to figure out how to credit someone for an icon I found on an icon database site. Was listed as CC Attribution, but no info on how to give the credit. Only a link to a deviant art profile with no information there either.

    This article was a great read and pretty much explains my thoughts right now, but sadly I’m still lost as to how to credit this person.

    Also, another question came upon me while sitting here thinking, maybe you could help as you have much more experience than I. If the icon I’m going to use is a variation of a Trademarked icon (ie. Spotify), can someone even claim any sort of copyright over a manifestation of a different companies trademarked logo?

  17. Ben says

    Hi Danny, This is true! they explain it bad. Great post, thank you.
    I have a question, maybe you can help.
    I wanted to know where can i place the credit for the image creator.
    I don’t want in near the image, can i place it in the bottom of the webpage? do you know anything about the attribution placement?
    Find a lot of question about it, but no clear answer.
    Hope you know something about it, Thanks, Ben.