Free-riding and copyleft in cultural commons like Flickr

Flickr recently started selling prints of Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike photos without sharing any of the revenue with the original photographers. When people were surprised, Flickr said “if you don’t want commercial use, switch the photo to CC non-commercial”.

This seems to have mostly caused two reactions:

  1. This is horrible! Creative Commons is horrible!”
  2. “Commercial reuse is explicitly part of the license; I don’t understand the anger.”

I think it makes sense to examine some of the assumptions those users (and many license authors) may have had, and what that tells us about license choice and design going forward.

Free ride!!, by
Free ride!!, by Dhinakaran Gajavarathan, under CC BY 2.0

Free riding is why we share-alike…

As I’ve explained before here, a major reason why people choose copyleft/share-alike licenses is to prevent free rider problems: they are OK with you using their thing, but they want the license to nudge (or push) you in the direction of sharing back/collaborating with them in the future. To quote Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel for her research on how commons are managed in the wild, “[i]n all recorded, long surviving, self-organized resource governance regimes, participants invest resources in monitoring the actions of each other so as to reduce the probability of free riding.” (emphasis added)

… but share-alike is not always enough

Copyleft is one of our mechanisms for this in our commons, but it isn’t enough. I think experience in free/open/libre software shows that free rider problems are best prevented when three conditions are present:

  • The work being created is genuinely collaborative — i.e., many authors who contribute similarly to the work. This reduces the cost of free riding to any one author. It also makes it more understandable/tolerable when a re-user fails to compensate specific authors, since there is so much practical difficulty for even a good-faith reuser to evaluate who should get paid and contact them.
  • There is a long-term cost to not contributing back to the parent project. In the case of Linux and many large software projects, this long-term cost is about maintenance and security: if you’re not working with upstream, you’re not going to get the benefit of new fixes, and will pay a cost in backporting security fixes.
  • The license triggers share-alike obligations for common use cases. The copyleft doesn’t need to perfectly capture all use cases. But if at least some high-profile use cases require sharing back, that helps discipline other users by making them think more carefully about their obligations (both legal and social/organizational).

Alternately, you may be able to avoid damage from free rider problems by taking the Apache/BSD approach: genuinely, deeply educating contributors, before they contribute, that they should only contribute if they are OK with a high level of free riding. It is hard to see how this can work in a situation like Flickr’s, because contributors don’t have extensive community contact.1

The most important takeaway from this list is that if you want to prevent free riding in a community-production project, the license can’t do all the work itself — other frictions that somewhat slow reuse should be present. (In fact, my first draft of this list didn’t mention the license at all — just the first two points.)

Flickr is practically designed for free riding

Flickr fails on all the points I’ve listed above — it has no frictions that might discourage free riding.

  • The community doesn’t collaborate on the works. This makes the selling a deeply personal, “expensive” thing for any author who sees their photo for sale. It is very easy for each of them to find their specific materials being reused, and see a specific price being charged by Yahoo that they’d like to see a slice of.
  • There is no cost to re-users who don’t contribute back to the author—the photo will never develop security problems, or get less useful with time.
  • The share-alike doesn’t kick in for virtually any reuses, encouraging Yahoo to look at the relationship as a purely legal one, and encouraging them to forget about the other relationships they have with Flickr users.
  • There is no community education about the expectations for commercial use, so many people don’t fully understand the licenses they’re using.

So what does this mean?

This has already gone on too long, but a quick thought: what this suggests is that if you have a community dedicated to creating a cultural commons, it needs some features that discourage free riding — and critically, mere copyleft licensing might not be good enough, because of the nature of most production of commons of cultural works. In Flickr’s case, maybe this should simply have included not doing this, or making some sort of financial arrangement despite what was legally permissible; for other communities and other circumstances other solutions to the free-rider problem may make sense too.

And I think this argues for consideration of non-commercial licenses in some circumstances as well. This doesn’t make non-commercial licenses more palatable, but since commercial free riding is typically people’s biggest concern, and other tools may not be available, it is entirely possible it should be considered more seriously than free and open source software dogma might have you believe.

  1. It is open to discussion, I think, whether this works in Wikimedia Commons, and how it can be scaled as Commons grows. []