PLoS and Creative Commons

This morning I had to deny a scientist permission to use my photos of her ants in a paper headed for PLoS Biology.  I hate doing that.  Especially when I took those photos in part to help her to promote her research.

The problem is that PLoS content is managed under a Creative Commons (=CC) licensing scheme.  I don’t do CC.  Overall it’s not a bad licensing scheme, but for one sticking point: CC allows users to re-distribute an image to external parties.

In an ideal world, non-profit users would faithfully tack on the CC license and the attribution to the photographer, as required by the CC license, and then the downstream users of those projects would faithfully continue to do the same.

But this is the real world. Somewhere along the line, some weak link drops the required attribution.  Yet the photos keep going, spreading out into the public domain. There they may get picked up by for-profit entities that start to make money off the work.  Once that happens, the copyright is infringed.  Both the unwitting company and the original user may be liable for damages.  Not good.  That’s why reputable companies still conduct business the old-fashioned way, with legal contracts that spell out what sort of image uses are and are not allowed.  And that’s why few professional photographers distribute their images using CC.  CC does not offer sufficient security for either the photographer or for the client.  It’s not all that professional.

I know how frequently infringement happens.  I often find my images plastered across the home pages of pest control companies that just went ahead and lifted photos off my web page, or off someone else’s web page.  I even get a few particularly brazen companies that ask for free use of images because they will be “educating” people about the services that their company provides (yes, and I also enjoy those nice educational segments about car insurance and light beer I see on the television).  That mindset applied to the vagueness about educational use in a CC license is a recipe for trouble.

Most of the good things about Creative Commons- the open distribution of content among students and researchers- simply aren’t necessary.  That’s because the “fair use” provisions of existing copyright laws already protect non-profit educational use without the need for permission.  Creative Commons does not, for example, help you to show a figure from a scientific paper in your classroom.  You are already allowed to do that anyway.

What particularly bugs me about this is how licensing policy distorts my symbiotic relationships with scientists.  Scientists let me in on their cutting-edge research, I get nice shots of marketable bugs, and they are able to use the images in their talks, on their web pages, and hopefully in their technical papers.  I can only help with the papers, though, when the publisher approaches images with a professional mindset.  PLoS doesn’t have it. (Neither, in my experience, does PNAS, but for precisely the opposite reason.)  And the shame of it is, I’m more than happy to contribute images for free to these scientific endeavors.  For free.  I only ask that the user not redistribute the image to others without my say so.  You’d think that would be reasonable.

I do not mean to sound overwhelmingly negative on CC.  I think Creative Commons may be the ideal licensing scheme for some types of content, especially for content created with taxpayer support.  The public funds research, and the public should be able to see and share the result.  But my content isn’t funded externally.  The taxpayers didn’t buy my camera and they don’t pay my web-hosting fees.  I have to cover those costs myself, and in order to do that I need to maintain control over where my photos go.  Otherwise, there’s no

4 thoughts on “PLoS and Creative Commons”

  1. We at PLoS use the Creative Commons Attribution License because we want to encourage reuse of research publications, including commercial reuse for that matter. We try to hammer home the point that no permission is required (, but it’s amazing how many people still ask! The only obligation is for the user to indicate the author and source of the work that is reused. We prefer to make all content available under this license so that there’s never any doubt about reuse rights associated with the content on our websites. I can certainly appreciate, however, why that wouldn’t work so well for a professional photographer.

  2. Thanks for your comment Mark. I understand your position. It’s just one of those areas where the interests of PLoS and my interests diverge.

    CC works well with scientific papers, I think, for several reasons. First, authors are funded externally of the publishing process, so they don’t depend on a paper to generate revenue. Second, tradition in the scientific community is to meticulously cite sources, so there isn’t cultural pressure to strip the attribution off papers and figures from papers.

    Neither of these conditions apply to photographs, though, which is why I don’t think CC is the most appropriate licensing structure.

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