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Copyright trolls, or the last beautiful free souls on this planet?

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By Jonatan Svensson Glad

Preserving the integrity of Creative Commons: a creator's perspective

A copyright troll is like a grumpy copyright monster under the bridge, trying to scare people into paying up for alleged infringements instead of protecting creativity.

In the dynamic world of Wikimedia Commons, where photographers like me share our works with the public under free Creative Commons licenses, one crucial aspect has sparked heated debates: enforcement. As a photographer passionate about fostering collaboration and creativity, I strongly believe that enforcing these licenses with greater diligence is necessary to protect the integrity of our contributions.

Empowering collaboration through free licenses

As creators, our primary goal is to contribute to the collective pool of knowledge and inspire others through our art. By embracing free Creative Commons licenses, we empower fellow creators to build upon our works and foster a culture of open collaboration. The essence of Wikimedia Commons lies in the ability of diverse minds to come together, create, and share freely.

License disregard – a challenging dilemma

Despite our commitment to openness, instances of license violations do occur. When our works are used without proper attribution or without adhering to the license terms we've chosen, it becomes a matter of principle to address such violations. We are not copyright trolls; we are creators who wish to protect the essence of Creative Commons – the idea that sharing and collaboration should go hand in hand with proper recognition and adherence to license requirements.

Enforcing compliance with our chosen licenses is an act of responsibility, not hostility. It is a necessary measure to protect the collaborative environment we cherish. Just as any artist deserves acknowledgment for their masterpieces, we, too, deserve the credit and recognition for our creative efforts.

Preserving fairness and respect for creators

Enforcing the handshake of compliance: Striking the fine balance between copyright enforcement and copyright trolling.

As creators who wholeheartedly contribute to the wealth of knowledge on Wikimedia Commons, we firmly believe that our works should be used according to the licenses we have carefully selected. The decision to license our creations under Creative Commons is a deliberate one, driven by our commitment to openness and collaboration. We willingly embrace the spirit of sharing, hoping to inspire others and contribute to a collective platform that benefits society as a whole.

However, when these licenses are ignored or undermined, it poses a significant challenge to the very foundation of what we stand for as creators. Seeking monetary compensation when our licenses are disregarded is not about adopting a hostile stance or becoming copyright trolls, but rather about preserving fairness and respect for the artistic contributions we have made.

Our chosen Creative Commons licenses are not arbitrary; they are a conscious reflection of how we wish our works to be used and attributed. As photographers, artists, and creators, we invest our time, energy, and passion into crafting meaningful content. We acknowledge that sharing should not come at the cost of eroding the rights and recognition we deserve as authors.

A balanced approach to enforcement is essential, one that upholds the principles of Creative Commons while promoting a culture of respect for creators. We are not seeking punitive measures, but rather a fair acknowledgment that our works are valuable and deserving of recognition. By doing so, we reinforce the credibility of Creative Commons as a powerful framework that fosters creativity and collaboration.

In seeking compliance with our licenses, we are not stifling the spirit of sharing; rather, we are nurturing an environment where mutual respect between creators and users flourishes. Striking this balance enables us to inspire future generations of artists and contributors, confident in the knowledge that their works will be cherished and used responsibly.

It is crucial to remember that enforcing Creative Commons licenses is not about hindering access to knowledge or preventing creativity; on the contrary, it is about preserving the very essence of our shared contributions. Through the fair enforcement of these licenses, we protect the foundation upon which Wikimedia Commons thrives—a place where ideas converge, creativity is celebrated, and knowledge is democratized for the benefit of all.

A desire to enforce the terms of our chosen licenses should not be misconstrued as an antagonistic act but as a means to ensure that the culture of openness and collaboration we hold dear remains intact. By preserving fairness and respect for creators, we are fostering a vibrant and sustainable community that continues to inspire, educate, and shape the world through our collective artistic endeavors. It is through this shared dedication to the principles of Creative Commons that we can uphold the true spirit of Wikimedia Commons and its transformative power in the realm of knowledge and creativity.

My image theft notice

After making the decision to contribute a work to the open commons, one can determine the terms for its re-use by carefully selecting a specific license. Which one that is, is entirely up to the copyright owner.

As a dedicated photographer on Wikimedia Commons, I value transparency in enforcing the licenses for my images. To address image theft concerns, I include a notice on my uploads:

"This image is protected against image theft.
Failure to comply with the license may result in legal or monetary liabilities. I use Pixsy to monitor, find, and fight image theft. Please follow the specified license to avoid infringement.

I do this to provide re-users with a clear warning and to maintain an open and transparent approach in enforcing the terms of the license when they are disregarded.

Counter-arguments against enforcement

While some creators advocate for stricter enforcement of Creative Commons licenses, there are counter-arguments that highlight potential drawbacks to this approach. One concern is that overly aggressive enforcement might be perceived as punitive or profit-seeking, going against the very essence of Creative Commons' principles. Such perceptions could potentially deter users from engaging with the free culture and collaborative spirit that Creative Commons seeks to promote.

Opponents of heightened enforcement also argue that a more lenient approach aligns better with the ethos of openness and accessibility. They argue that the emphasis should be on encouraging sharing and creativity rather than strict compliance. In this view, the value of Creative Commons lies in its ability to offer a flexible framework that allows for a wide range of uses and adaptations, spurring innovation and exploration.

The Creative Commons' perspective

While Creative Commons advocates a more lenient approach to enforcement, my viewpoint diverges, calling for a stronger stance in safeguarding the integrity of our shared works.

Creative Commons itself acknowledges the importance of enforcement as a means to ensure the meaningfulness of its licenses in creating a sharing commons. However, they also emphasize the need for a balanced approach, one that is fair to all parties involved. They caution against enforcement that is perceived as punitive or profit-driven, as it could undermine the collaborative and open culture that Creative Commons aims to foster.

"CC believes that enforcement of its licenses is an important part of ensuring that they are meaningful for creating a sharing commons. But if CC license enforcement is perceived as punitive or profit-seeking rather than fair, the whole community suffers. Creative Commons licenses are designed to make sharing and reusing work easy, in contrast to the litigious, restrictive culture of standard all-rights-reserved copyright. A reasonable approach to enforcement that focuses on carrying out the original intent of the licensor and is fair to all parties is most likely to sustain a healthy commons." — Creative Commons: Statement of Enforcement Principles

According to Creative Commons, a reasonable approach to enforcement should focus on carrying out the original intent of the licensor while being respectful and fair to all stakeholders. The organization recognizes that the success of Creative Commons licenses lies in making sharing and reusing work easy, in contrast to the traditional restrictive nature of all-rights-reserved copyright.

Conclusion: striking the right balance for creative commons' future

In summary, while some creators advocate for stricter enforcement of Creative Commons licenses, there are counter-arguments that highlight potential drawbacks to this approach. Opponents of heightened enforcement argue for a more lenient approach that encourages sharing and creativity. The Creative Commons organization itself emphasizes the need for a balanced and fair enforcement approach that upholds the principles of openness and collaboration.

Creative Commons itself recognizes the significance of enforcement in creating a meaningful sharing commons. However, they rightly emphasize the need for a fair and respectful approach that does not undermine the ethos of openness and collaboration. It is this spirit of balance and equity that we, in my opinion, should also aspire to maintain.

Enforcing compliance with our chosen licenses is in my opinion an act of responsibility, ensuring that our artistic contributions are valued and respected. It is not about stifling creativity or hindering access to knowledge but about preserving the true essence of our shared pool of works.

In conclusion, my unwavering belief is that proper enforcement of Creative Commons licenses is an integral part of nurturing a vibrant and sustainable community. By fostering an environment that values both the rights of creators and the principles of collaboration, we can ensure that Wikimedia Commons remains a powerful platform that fuels creativity, innovation, and the shared pursuit of knowledge. Let us embrace this journey together, upholding the true spirit of Creative Commons for generations to come.

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There have been lawsuits attempting to enforce the Gnu Public License terms on derivative software (see, but when it comes to CC license violations in the reuse of photographs, you're apparently on your own... AnonMoos (talk) 17:46, 15 August 2023 (UTC)[reply]
@AnonMoos, your impression is refuted by reality: there are many cases of lawsuits and legal threats around (actual) CC license violations, often resulting in redressing the misuse (e.g. adding missing attribution), and sometimes involving the paying of a compensatory fee without going through a court of law. A whole spate of such legal threats has just taken place in my native Israel in recent months. Ijon (talk) 16:46, 16 August 2023 (UTC)[reply]
Is there a centrally-organized funded group which undertakes such lawsuits on behalf of photographers? That would be very new, and I'd be interested to hear about it. AnonMoos (talk) 18:04, 16 August 2023 (UTC)[reply]
Well, Pixsy, which I use send demands for payments on my behalf (they take 50% of any settlement), and if they don't pay they may refer the case to one of their legal partners for a proper lawsuit. One such case is Glad v. 1BusinessWorld, Inc. in the works right now (me being "Glad"). But Pixsy has gotten a bad rep' due to some photographers using it to send demands to re-users who has actually tried in good faith to attribute, but failed - one such creator and their images has even been banned from Wikimedia Commons due to this practice. This something undecided on; since they didn't follow the license they offered, why should a creator demand anything less than full adherence - not all users/creators are contributing "to this community" simply to spread libre/free/open ethos around the world, some (think e.g. corporations such as Disney) could begrudgingly "allow" to donate a work under a free license given that any re-users are forced to follow the license specified - and we would not believe anything less than the fact their legal department would stamp on any re-users who would not adhere to the license. Jonatan Svensson Glad (talk) 18:41, 16 August 2023 (UTC)[reply]
@Josve05a: Does the photographer have to individually approve any demands before Pixsy sends them? For some of the cases where people have said they received inappropriate demands from Pixsy (or maybe a similar service), it was not clear to me how involved the photographer was in the demand process, so I would be curious to hear from you about the workflow. —Emufarmers(T/C) 01:20, 19 August 2023 (UTC)[reply]
Yes, the photographer needs to fist review the match (if Pixsy's automatic 'image-finder' has detected an image elsewhere online) and then actively press something to start a case, then it needs to fill out when the photographer first became aware of this infringement, if it is used by a commercial company or not, (and if it is licensed under Creative Commons, the photographer needs to confirm that the re-user did not attempt to attribute at all) and then agree to Pixsy's terms of service before Pixsy can actively start pursuing something. So no, Pixsy cannot and won't act one something without prior go-ahead. But how they pursue or what they send to the re-users is not something I as a photographer knows (more than what amount they feel they should ask for).. Jonatan Svensson Glad (talk) 12:09, 19 August 2023 (UTC)[reply]
@Josve05a: that is somewhat reassuring. To confirm, you get to see exactly where and how the image is used, so that you can see whether it might be non-infringing or only-kind-of-infringing, and you also approve the amount that is demanded, although you don't get to choose your own amount or see the exact form of the demand? —Emufarmers(T/C) 18:56, 22 August 2023 (UTC)[reply]
I get to see the image being used (their site displays my image and their image next to each other so I can see if it is the same image or a false match - if they are I'm prompted to open their website to view and review its usage. I can then either skip the match (mark as "Not my image", "Ignore match", or "Approved usage"), send a DMCA, or I can submit a case to Pixsy (if the domain seems to be in their coverage area - I believe about 14 countries). When submitting a case, I have to confirm (swear) that there isn't an existing commercial license or good faith attribution (in case of Creative Commons) before I can proceed to submit a case. I am the one who submits each case. I can either suggest an amount myself, approve of "Pisxy's pricing", or ""Whichever is highest" (in case I wish to demand a minimum amount). After that, I get updates as follows:
  1. When they reviewed if the case is accepted: organizational use (not personal), in their accepted countries, not fair use etc.
  2. When they start investigating the usage (the spread, the type of usage, etc.)
    1. If they think they can negotiate with the company they'll contact the infringer, and then I find out what amount they will seek.
      1. When they start calling, in case of non-responsiveness
      2. When they send a final notice
      3. When they either decide to give up, or recommend to pursue the legal route
    2. If they do not believe they can negotiate, or if the above has already been tried they will refer to their legal partner
      1. I might get asked if I want to pursue a lawsuit or not.
      2. I haven't done anything further than this...
There has been some cases in the "news" of good-faith Creative Commons re-users who has been "hit", but either the photographer lied when submitting the case that there were no good faith attribution attempt, or the infringers complain because they are under the mistaken understanding that the 4.0 licenses gives them a 30 day notice period to correct their attribution (this only applies if they actually tried to attribute in the first place) and since Pixsy don't go after images licensed under 4.0 due to this, but will go after images licensed under e.g. 2.0, they complain it is just technicalities with license numbers. Jonatan Svensson Glad (talk) 20:15, 22 August 2023 (UTC)[reply]
It's probably worth mentioning that one of the people you refer to is Cory Doctorow (see [1], which is unfortunately paywalled). He describes receiving false Pixsy complaints in cases where he did properly attribute the original material, and hearing of other cases where reusers did make a good-faith attempt to attribute but made "minor" mistakes. Given his involvement with the copyright reform movement, I think it is rather implausible that he would've messed up something as basic as a Creative Commons attribution (and he also says that the complaints against himself were withdrawn when he pushed back). The problem of photographers lying or exaggerating the degree of a violation seems (to me) a rather serious issue. Creative Commons is supposed to be an assurance that I can use an image without having to consult a lawyer, so long as I comply with the conditions. When that breaks down, it undermines trust in the whole system. --NYKevin 22:11, 23 August 2023 (UTC)[reply]
Yeah, but that is really the creator’s wrong-doing lying when submitting a case, more than Pixsy’s “false complaints”. Due diligence should be done on both sides, but it seems like an echo chamber is made when a few “false positives” cause other false positives refer to each other claiming a systemic issue. I sometimes Google reverse image search my images, and in 60-75% of all images there is absolutely ZERO attempts to attribute the CC license. True, there is a few “personal usages” which I don’t care about on blogs etc. but the other ones I despise on some level. I give away a free image, under the premise I get credit (and technically also a link-back) - I deserve at LEAST that much - in other settings I deserve money if I weren’t this generous, donating for free. Cases where individual reusers claim to have attributed in good-faith rarely seems to back that us with Wayback archived versions of their sites, and simply point to other infringers complaints online, inferring some bad faith on the creator’s side…that’s at least my interpretation on most cases. Jonatan Svensson Glad (talk) 22:27, 23 August 2023 (UTC)[reply]

I think it's a question of what the reuse is. If it's a commercial operation, say a Wikipedia mirror, yeah, they better make sure they have their licensing in order and done right, and I have no sympathy for them if they don't. If it's a 14 year old kid who used it as part of a Facebook post, on the other hand—well, at least try asking them to fix it before you sic the lawyers on them. (Also, bit of a nitpick, but always a bit bothersome—infringements are not correctly referred to as theft. Seraphimblade Talk to me 10:57, 17 August 2023 (UTC)[reply]

For me it's a matter of laziness. A few years ago Warner Brothers was making Sully (film) and they liked my photo of a parade on Fifth Avenue as a background for a barroom scene. So, they asked for a license. Go ahead; it's already licensed, I said; see the file in Commons. No, they were going to edit the photo and wanted a specific, signed authority from me. This meant I had to remember how to prepare and activate my printer, sign the form, rummage for my scanner, remember how it works, and send the form. With my secretarial skills it took a couple hours. Had they simply used it without credit, I would have been ahead. Difficult for me to imagine why I would want to spend hours defending my rights in such a matter, big corporation or not. Jim.henderson (talk) 13:52, 17 August 2023 (UTC)[reply]
Creative Commons licences are not free! If it was licensed under CC-BY-SA, then they did need your permission (a new licence), because otherwise they would have needed to attribute it. While most people can (and do) get away with it, everyone knows Warner Brothers have deep pockets, and refilming or digitally altering the scene to remove the image might have been expensive. I know a few Wiki-photographers who habitually chase down unattributed use of their material. Hawkeye7 (discuss) 01:44, 18 August 2023 (UTC)[reply]
Interesting to hear about Pixsy, but it's based on a rather different model than I declared most of the images I created on my own (i.e. not derivative of images by other people) to be Public Domain, since I don't really care who uses them, but some people have asked me for permission anyway. (Of course, none of those images are photographs...) -- AnonMoos (talk) 10:28, 19 August 2023 (UTC)[reply]


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