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Making money with free photos

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By Sage Ross

Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons are home to a number of expert photographers who contribute professional-quality freely licensed photos (see the 2009 Picture of the Year candidates on Commons, for example). But while free licenses make it easy for Wikipedia and other projects to use, distribute and modify these photos, they still allow the original authors to derive income from their work. Copyleft licenses—in particular, the GFDL and the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike licenses—have significant requirements that come with the right to freely use licensed works, and many people and organizations are unable or unwilling to meet these requirements. This is where entrepreneurial Wikimedian photographers step in, licensing their work in other ways—for a fee.

I spoke with two such Wikimedians to learn more about what it's like trying to make money through photography while contributing to Wikipedia. Diliff and Muhammad are both prolific contributors of Featured Pictures on the English Wikipedia, and have similar perspectives on the financial issues surrounding free photography.

David Iliff, User:Diliff, is a regular at featured picture candidates (FPC) who has contributed many outstanding panoramas.
Muhammad Mahdi Karim, who signs his posts Muhammad, is another familiar name at FPC. He specializes in macro (close-up) photography.

Commercial opportunities and limits

For both artists, the commercial limits of Wikimedia photography are readily apparent. Neither considers himself a professional photographer in the strict sense, and photography revenue makes up only a small portion of their income.

Both Diliff and Muhammad receive occasional inquiries about licensing through Wikipedia and Commons, mainly through placement in articles or searches on Commons rather than Main Page exposure for Featured Pictures. However, stock photography sites provide a more reliable source of income for each. According to Diliff, "most people actually find my work elsewhere (mainly stock sites) in terms of sales, although it would be fair to say that I earn more on a per-sale basis from Wikipedia, as I am able to negotiate a better price than I get from stock photography sites,... anything from £25 to £200 [$40 to $300] depending on what the images is, who is interested, and what their use/requirements are." Muhammad averages around $100 per sale through a stock photography site.

Increased visibility through Wikipedia is probably a net benefit commercially, these photographers estimate, but not enough to be the primary reason they contribute. "I'm grateful that Wikipedia gives my photography commercial visibility," says Diliff, "but I see it is a two-way street. Wikipedia/the public benefit from higher quality images than they might otherwise have had, and I receive commercial interest from people who might have otherwised used stock photography sites to find what they wanted, so I don't feel like either Wikipedia or myself is being exploited." He adds, "I'd almost certainly still be uploading my photos if they weren't attracting any commercial interest." For Muhammad, "there are few better feelings than sharing with others the great sights one has seen".

Concerns about exploitation

Compared with other kinds of contributors, photographers often have different attitudes toward Wikimedia's requirements for free licenses, which include the freedom to use contributions commercially. Diliff explains:

I have always been loathe to allow big-shot corporate, commercial entities to take advantage of what Wikipedia offers to the public, so when I get enquiries about whether the intended use of one of my images would be okay with me, I do remind them that they must provide attribution and refer to the license text (ideally with a hotlink or URL); but if they are gracious enough to do that, I am happy to let them use the image without paying for it. I will happily remind them, though, that if they want me to waive these conditions, they would have to pay for the privilege.

Text contributions can be mirrored and served with ads, printed and sold, or adapted and built on for commercial projects, but the copyleft provision of Wikipedia's license prevents most commercial uses that contributors would view as exploitative. Perhaps more significantly, commercial use of Wikipedia articles remains relatively insignificant; it's hard to make money by inserting ads next to the same articles Wikipedia provides clean, without major investment to build something better from them. Photography is a different matter: individual photographs are easily deployed in commercial contexts, from advertisements to illustrations accompanying non-free text to magazine and book covers to commercial artwork. The reuse of pictures from Wikipedia and the Commons is widespread—sometimes in accordance with the relevant license, but more often not.

Muhammad reports that the "Illegal use of my pictures is quite vast. There are those who only partly follow the license and others who completely ignore everything and consider the images public domain." Diliff is similarly concerned that "most people seem to think that Wikipedia = free to do whatever you want with the content", but he is "not actually sure how big the issue is, as I think what we're aware of is only the tip of the iceberg." Some Wikimedians use the reverse image search service TinEye to monitor unattributed use of their images, although its incomplete web index reveals only a slightly larger piece of the proverbial iceberg. Contacting offenders is usually effective in either getting them to follow license requirements properly or removing images. Some Wikimedian photographers also report converting cases of infringement into opportunities to charge for usage rights, although neither Diliff nor Muhammad pursue that strategy.

License issues

One strategy some Wikimedian photographers use to gain more control over print use (Muhammad does this, Diliff does not) is to release photos only under the GFDL Version 1.2, which is very similar in spirit to the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license, but requires that the full license text be printed along with licensed works in media where a hyperlink to the license text is not possible. Effectively, this acts as an "online-only" license, creating more opportunity for directly selling licenses for print publication. The GFDL lets Muhammad decide on a case-by-case basis whether to charge for print use:

I do not mind my pictures being used by those who cannot afford to buy them. What I despise is rich organizations who can afford to buy pictures being cheap and using them.

A preferred option for many Wikimedian photographers, including both Diliff and Muhammad, would be a non-commercial license such as the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial license. Fir0002, an aspiring photographer who retired from Wikimedia projects in 2009 to focus on commercial photography, cited the lack of a non-commercial license option as a major factor in his retirement. Wikipedians have also noted that some professional photographers would allow their work to be used on Wikipedia if they could disallow commercial uses.

For more on the perspective of these photographers, read the full interviews with Diliff and with Muhammad.
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I think we should expand into NC images. This would allow use to use all the images at Radiopedia and would draw greater contributors. We would allow us to provide a greater service for the general public.Doc James (talk · contribs · email) 22:38, 1 June 2010 (UTC)[reply]

Agreed. Commercial applications of Wiki-content are, in the grand scheme of things, a very small part of the Wikimedia mission in any case. Allowing NC would, as mentioned, make Commons a more attractive venue, as well as allowing us to import many, many so-licensed images on Flickr and elsewhere that would otherwise be aiding our articles. Der Wohltemperierte Fuchs(talk) 22:57, 1 June 2010 (UTC)[reply]
I agree as well. A lot of public institutions seem to be opening up to CC for their collections, but only under a non-commercial license. I recently took dozens of photos at one such institution, but I can't use any here unless I can make a case under fair use, as they only allow NC licensing of photos of their collection. And I did try approaching the institution, but they were unwilling to relax their licensing requirements. Similarly they release images of their own on flickr, many of which would be great, but once again only for NC.
That said, I gather there is no chance of the rules changing, at least based on my reading of the last debate, due to incompatibilities with the current GFDL. So it is probably impossible - Bilby (talk) 02:00, 2 June 2010 (UTC)[reply]
Not only will it not be changed, but it should not be. Wikimedia projects are free content projects, and free content means freedom to use for any purpose, including commercial purposes, without royalty or permission required and without restriction on derivative works (at most, attribution and sharing alike may be a requirement). If that doesn't work for someone, they are welcome to go somewhere that allows nonfree work, such as Flickr. What they cannot do is pretend it's free while it really is not, and hosting "no commercial use" works on Wikimedia would be doing just that. Seraphimblade Talk to me 02:15, 2 June 2010 (UTC)[reply]
(e/c) Vehemently disagree (with earlier sentiments). Non-commercial is fundamentally incompatible with our free content mission. Discrimination against any particular field of endeavor is not compatible with free content. If it's not free for anyone to use anywhere for any purpose, then it's not free. Gigs (talk) 02:20, 2 June 2010 (UTC)[reply]
I understand your points, and I have no problems releasing the majority of my photos under full CC. That said, it's a matter of priorities: we would have better quality content if we allowed some NC works, at the cost of containing material which isn't free. If ensuring that all content is free is important enough to override the quality concerns, as it appears it does, then so be it. But that's the call that is being made. It's a valid approach, and I happily acknowledge that it won't (and perhaps shouldn't) be changed, but I also acknowledge that it comes at a cost. - Bilby (talk) 02:46, 2 June 2010 (UTC)[reply]
See commons:Commons:Licensing/Justifications for why restricting commercial use is a bad, bad idea. Dcoetzee 02:35, 2 June 2010 (UTC)[reply]

Here is the March 2009 discussion about the (failed) proposal by Muhammad, Fir0002 and Diliff to allow prohibition of commercial reusage: Wikipedia:Village_pump_(policy)/Archive_62#Proposal_for_introduction_of_NC_licensed_photos_on_Wikipedia.

Exploiting the unfree nature of the GFDL (which was a major reason for the 2009 license migration to CC-BY-SA) by licensing images GFDL 1.2 only is highly controversial in Wikimedia projects. For example, the German Wikipedia rejected 1.2 only uploads in a 90-22 vote in 2008.

Regards, HaeB (talk) 08:24, 2 June 2010 (UTC)[reply]

Thanks, HaeB. I wasn't aware of either of those things you linked. I set out to write this about the financial side, with the license issue as just incidental. But looking over it now, with the comments mostly focused on the license issue, I realize I probably should have given more voice to other viewpoints.--ragesoss (talk) 13:57, 2 June 2010 (UTC)[reply]

In this link, Mike Godwin states Wikipedia can't legally host NC images, although I'm not sure if the licence migration has changed any of that. My 2 cents: Allowing NC images will help further Wikimedia's goal of providing the best content to everyone in the world. That should be our primary focus. (talk) 16:29, 2 June 2010 (UTC)[reply]

Allowing contributors to upload works only available under non-free licenses to Wikimedia projects would be a fundamental mistake. Wikipedia etc. are not about providing content, they're about providing FREE content, with everything that entails. Those that are not willing to license their works under an appropriate copyleft license are not required to contribute. -- Schneelocke (talk) 19:20, 2 June 2010 (UTC)[reply]

  • Regardless of the legal etc. issues, I get the impression that not using non-commercial images doesn't substantially deprive us of images. Only a small proportion of the images on sites like Flickr are free for Wikipedia, but this still makes a ton of photos, more than we can scour through. There also are public domain photos, such as those of the US government. —innotata 20:16, 2 June 2010 (UTC)[reply]
  • I've contributed over 1,000 images and what I'm experiencing is the lack of respect from Commons gnomes for that contribution especially when it comes to attribution in that a vocal group on Commons is driving a shift from a personalise license templates that explains in clear and simple language the exact attritbution requiremnts. To get specific photographs for the featured article Banksia cuneata I made two trips over 600km each time, for the article Outback it was an 800km round trip and there are many more occassions where Ive driven 200-300kms. Not all my photowalks for WP have been of great distance some are quite close like for the FP Banksia telmatiaea which cost me a pair boots after one was lost while crossing a flooded drainage ditch. To get photographs anything within 500km of Perth is possible but it does involve considerable cost, but when Commons cant be trusted to respect attribution how can we expect the wider community to respect licensing. As a professional photographer and a long term contributor to Wikipedia I'd like to see a return to being able to upload images to Wikipedia because there is greater licensing diversification and the community that uses the photographs understands what it takes to get them and values that contribution. Gnangarra 01:58, 6 June 2010 (UTC)[reply]


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