Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Flickr, Blogmobs, and a Seriously Fascinating Lesson on Content Licensing

Myflickr
One of my jacked Flickr photos, which
is now licensed under Creative Commons.
Share-Alike people!

This weekend, I received an interesting email from someone I had never met before regarding some photos I’d posted to my Flickr pool:

"...some slimeball was stealing pics from Flickr and representing them as his own professional work on his website (which has since been taken down)...I've got print screens of the two pictures I know he stole from your Flickr, if you want them. Just thought you would want to know."

Flickr allows users to upload their works and organize them with tags, and while it is possible to make your photos available only to certain viewers and protect them with a copyright, Flickr encourages its users to make their images freely available to everyone via one of six Creative Commons licenses, which outline various definitions of free fair use.

Licenses such as these, no matter how forward-thinking and brilliant they may be, rely on the central tenet that people will actually obey them. Until this whole saga began to unfold, I was seriously doubting that anyone anywhere would ever be able to adequately police licensed content (especially semi-small-time thefts such as these) on the Internet. In this case, my photos weren't even licensed with Creative Commons—they were filed under the traditional and uber-restrictive "all rights reserved" copyright, which allows for no usage of my photos anywhere without my specific permission. Clearly, even this did nothing to deter the plagiarist in question. So what did put the kibosh on this guy's cyber thievery? The rapid mobilization and deployment of a force I hadn’t even considered: the blogmob

It just so happens that a number of the Flickr users who were stolen from also had blogs (duh), so naturally, Googling the name of the thief soon displayed nothing but blog posts referencing his plagiarism. After the story broke on digg.com, Flickr became a veritable hive of citizen-policemen. Soon the thief's possible home address and phone number were made available (pretty scary), as well as the locations around the net of other photos published under his name. His Web site, Flickr account, and MySpace page were all either taken down or locked, all in a matter of hours. And sure enough, someone using the name of the thief eventually posted an apology.

A lot of people were riled up about this whole thing, but I couldn't help but be anything but fascinated by the immense power of a closely networked community being demonstrated before my eyes. The blogmob has spoken and I will never doubt its power again. —John Mahoney

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