Copyright-My Move From Creative Commons To All Rights Reserved

As photographers what rights  should we be attaching to the photographs we share on the web (or anywhere else, for that matter)? Is "Creative Commons" fine or is "All Rights Reserved" the better choice? After a recent potential copyright infringement issue with one of my images I did some research and made a decision that I didn't think I would make. Read on for the rest of the story:

Unauthorized Use Of An Image

Late last year I had an image of mine that appeared to be used for commercial purposes without my permission:


The image appeared in an online version of a major financial publication, attached to an article about "best places to live...". I never received a request to use the image commercially prior to publication. Based on that and the permissions I had attached to the image I felt that the use was improper, at the least. After tossing the question out to the Google+ community it became fairly apparent that it was, in fact, an unauthorized use of my image. My guess is that the use wasn't intentional. I chalk it up to someone under a tight deadline who saw the image with the "Creative Commons" designation and decided it fit what they were looking for. Still, the experience got me to thinking about the process I use and the rights I grant when I publish my images. I spent some time researching the issues surrounding the use of Creative Commons licensing versus using the "Copyright ©-All Rights Reserved" for my photographs and have come to the conclusion that, moving forward, I will attach "All Rights Reserved" to all of my images. Here's how I came to that decision:

My Personal Copyright History

Since I got back into photography a few years ago I have been of the mind that I wanted to share my images with as many people as possible while still retaining ownership of my work. I did some research on the subject and came to the conclusion that I would use Creative Commons licensing. Creative Commons was developed in 2001 as a way to give content creators a way to share their work with certain, but not all, rights attached. There are currently 6 licenses (from least to most restrictive):

1. Attribution (by) 2. Attribution Share Alike (by-sa) 3. Attribution No Derivatives (by-nd) 4. Attribution Non-commercial (by-nc) 5. Attribution Non-commercial Share Alike (by-nc-sa) 6. Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives (by-nc-nd)

Information about each of the licenses can be found here. Up until now I have chosen to license my images with #6 (Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivs) which is the most restrictive of the licenses. It seemed like a good compromise between withholding all rights and giving free reign to my images.

Potential Creative Commons Pitfalls

Creative Commons seemed like a great way to go. I could let others use/share my images but protect myself from unauthorized commercial use. At first glance, it seemed like a good solution. That is, until I dug a little deeper into the Creative Commons licenses and saw this section of text:

License grant. Subject to the terms and conditions of this Public License, the Licensor hereby grants You a worldwide, royalty-free, non-sublicensable, non-exclusive, irrevocable license to exercise the Licensed Rights in the Licensed Material...

What does that mean? Well, it basically means that once an image is used by someone under any of the Creative Commons licenses (by following the terms of the license) the creator can't change the terms of that use at all. That means that I can't really control how my images are used, especially if my objectives/opportunities/desires, etc. change as it relates to my images. Here's a realistic example of how this could play out:

Let's say that in 2014 someone uses one of my images in a way that is 100% compliant with the Creative Commons license that I assigned to the image-in a non-commercial blog post for example. Three years later, I decide that I don't want that image shared anymore. Well, under the terms of the Creative Commons license, I couldn't do anything. Even though I was the creator of the image I had no real control over the image. The more I thought about that the more I became less confident in continuing to use Creative Commons.

Sharing Doesn't Mean Free To Use

Another potential pitfall of Creative Commons is the fact that many people (wrongly) equate the term with "free to use". I think this is what happened in my particular case and I think it stems from how/when Creative Commons came about. Specifically it is the sharing aspect that is promoted across all the licenses that trips people up and helps them assume/justify that they can use or distribute the image however they wish. This is a 100% wrong assumption but I can see how people can make the assumption based on the language in the licenses (if they even bother to read the license).

Based on those two things, as well as some thoughts about where my photography is heading and what the future may hold, I decided to make the switch to All Rights Reserved.

Why All Rights Reserved Makes Sense

After weighing the pros and cons of continuing to use Creative Commons I decided that using the "All Rights Reserved" with my images gives me, as the creator, a much higher level of control over those images. I can assign temporary or permanent terms, define the scope of use, and decide how to charge (or not) for any image in any situation. I can be as open or restrictive as I want with the use  of my images. Does this mean that I will never allow any use of my images? No, absolutely not. I plan on making the use of my images relatively easy as long as people communicate with me about how they plan on using the image and give me credit for the image. That way I can better control things rather than depending on the slightly nebulous language contained in the Creative Commons licenses.

Potential Downsides Of All Rights Reserved

Using "All Rights Reserved" with my images is not a magic bullet by any means. There is still no guarantee that my images won't be used without my permission. If someone wants to "steal" an image of mine they still can. I do think that the language "All Rights Reserved" is a little more clear than "Creative Commons" though. The other issue is that my images might not get as much exposure as they would with a Creative Commons license, especially in blog posts, etc. I considered that but came to the conclusion that by me posting images to Google+ and Flickr (who do not force you to relinquish your rights to the images), the built-in sharing that occurs from those sites will give me enough exposure.

Where I Go From Here

Now that I've made the decision to use All Rights Reserved with my images where do I go from here? Well, first off, I'm not foolish enough to believe that just because I stamp "All Rights Reserved" on my images that there won't be any future unauthorized use of them, especially since I'm posting images on the web. But at least if someone does misuse my image I have some level of recourse. In addition to switching to All Rights Reserved I plan on adding a couple of steps to my workflow:

  • I will start registering my images with the copyright office, something I haven't done to this point. I'm researching the process and will probably do a post/video detailing how to do it so stay tuned...
  • I will also review the size of the images that I upload to make sure that they are big enough to get a decent view of on a screen but not good enough to generate any kind of quality print.
  • I will be more aware of the policies of the sites I use to share my images. The sharing sites provide a way to get my images out to a fairly wide audience but there are differences in each site's terms. Based on my research so far it seems as though Flickr and Google+ do not reduce my rights or take ownership of images I post, while Facebook "might" (more research required here).

I will also NOT be doing one key thing:

  • I do not plan on putting any type of watermarks on my images. I think they detract from the image and for them to be effective they need to cover the entire image, which kind of defeats the whole point of posting an image in the first place. To watermark or not is a big debate in the online photographer community and many photographers use tastefully placed watermarks but I've decided to post my images watermark free.

I know that the direction I am headed goes against the grain to some extent but I think that my reasons are sound. I believe that many photographers are adopting the Creative Commons licensing structure without knowing all of the potential pros and cons. I know I didn't really do as much due diligence as I should have before adopting the Creative Commons model originally. Everyone is different and depending on what you are trying to achieve both Creative Commons or "All Rights Reserved" are valid options. Stay tuned for a followup and update to this. I will let you know how things are going and share with you any resources I discover that might help you make an informed decision about whether or not to use Creative Commons licensing or "All Rights Reserved" with your photographs.

Happy Shooting!

P.S. What copyright do you attach to your images, and why? I'd love to hear what you are doing so go ahead and leave a comment.