Moving to Freedom, .Org

Free Culture ‘Take Backsies’ on Flickr

I can’t remember when or how I first found Terry Shuck’s work on Flickr, but I immediately became a fan of his photography. It appears that he uses HDR techniques quite a bit, although I can’t tell what all magic he summons with different lens and filters and whatnot.

'Ice House Ruins in Tyler, Texas', by crowT59, aka Terry Shuck

Ice House ruins in Tyler, Texas
photo by Terry Shuck (crowt59)
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

I liked that he often shared his images under Creative Commons licenses, including the liberal Attribution license which allows for commercial reuse. It was for this reason as much as anything that I subscribed to his photostream. It’s good to find kindred free culture spirits. But then he increasingly released new photos under standard copyright with “All Rights Reserved,” and I soon unsubscribed.

For random things that I stumble across on the Net, “free” has the edge in keeping my attention. When I find good, freely licensed work, I want to share it and spread the word (or the image!). For example, I had used one of Terry’s photos, “Old Ice House Chamber Door” in this post, where I linked to its Flickr home. I recently visited that page, and was surprised to find it now encumbered as “All Rights Reserved” where it had previously been licensed as CC Attribution. And there are no longer larger images available; there’s just the 334 x 500 version you find on the landing page.


I had saved a handful of his photos to my hard drive, and checking another one, it also had been “taken back.” I left a comment on the one photo, pointing out this change in licensing. Terry’s work receives lots of comments on Flickr and this picture was posted almost a year and a half ago, so I didn’t expect much in the way of a response, but he sent me an email thanking me for my comment and saying, “Yes I had to change the rights as I started finding my photography being used without my permission for advertising and other professional media.”

Which is very interesting. Perhaps the photos were being used without attribution, which would be wrong, but it seems as likely that he decided he didn’t like the consequences of free licensing. The CC Attribution license doesn’t call for permission to be granted beyond the permission inherent in the license itself. And it doesn’t forbid commercial use.

Of course Terry is free to choose his terms and take advantage of the existing monopoly available under copyright. It’s disappointing to me, because I’d rather see people choosing freedom. But I can also understand the desire to make money from creative work, and it’s true that restricting sharing may increase revenue opportunities.

It may also hinder those opportunities, by making it harder for people to share the work and attract more attention and fans. Now that all of his work is (apparently) released under standard copyright, and only small images are available, other people may be similarly less-inclined as I am to follow and promote him and his work. This post notwithstanding. And not that I think my meager posts constitute a huge boost to Mr. Shuck’s career.

Free Culture Pedigree

The situation raises questions about the provenance of free culture artifacts. How do we establish the freedom of a work when its source no longer grants the previous liberty? It’s my understanding that Creative Commons licenses are irrevocable. If you receive a work under a free license, you will always have the right to use and share it under the original terms. Without that permanence, free culture wouldn’t be free at all.

But it feels kind of shaky when the original artist has taken away their blessing. How do I prove that I received this work under a free license? I do have larger versions of the photos that are no longer available, but that doesn’t prove anything. Taking screen shots of the earlier page or downloading the HTML source would be not only cumbersome, but even worse proof, given that they could be easily modified/faked.

Think about all the photos available on Flickr. (Millions?) Along with many others, I’ve often mined the Flickr vein for images to accompany my posts, using the advanced search specifically to look for free images. Should Flickr track license choices and make public a “licensing change log” for each photo page? And what about all the other sites out there, including this one? If went dark tomorrow, where would that leave the status of all my priceless free work?