A Case for Changing the Default License (to not include a NC clause)

License terms are ‘irrevocable’, at least according to the text in them (I’m not getting into the legality of it), thus content is always licensed at whatever the most open license that has ever been applied to it.

Basically, you can always decide to apply a more open license, but you may not (at least it has no standing on the use of content) apply a more restrictive one.

For clarity purposes, this relates to use of the content before you change. After you change it, new uses after that time is supposed to be under the terms of the new license. Who the burden of proof is on to prove what license applied at the time of use is an issue.

But once a user/site whatever takes content under a license, no change you make applies to them, they are free to continue using it under the old license.

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In theory, yes, but in practice, there can be benefits to the user to apply a more restrictive one.

In practice, if there is no record of the work being released under an earlier license, and the user changes it, no one would be able to use it under the earlier license. Even if there is a record of it, if the record is hard to find or access, it is highly unlikely anyone would ever use it under the earlier license.

I think for an overwhelming majority of iNaturalist photos, there is going to be no record of earlier licenses (unless iNaturalist records and then displays a history of changes on the page, which I recommend it does not) unless the work is taken by another site, such as GBIF, but even there, unless it’s presented in an easy-to-search format it’s unlikely anyone would find it.

Perhaps if later, sites cropped up that were cloning the iNaturalist photo base in an easy-to-search format, then it would be more of an issue, but for now, I haven’t seen anything quite like this.

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The question asked above is what happens after the content has already been used, for instance by GBIF.

I think this is highly unlikely, as users we have no idea what data or changelogs are stored by the site, nor does it take into consideration the almost certain existence of database backups etc.

Each time iNat creates an export for GBIF, it send over every observation that meets the requirements, i.e. Research Grade and a license that allows sharing with GBIF. If you change your license to one that doesn’t allow sharing with GBIF, at the next export, iNat will no longer share the observation with GBIF (just like when a RG observation gets moved to Needs ID or Casual it’s also removed from the GBIF export).


Do we actually know this to be the case?

We do know the change log sent to them captures observations where the license is changed. But do we know it captures changes to photo licenses if the observation data license is unchanged?

Organizations can of course choose to honour your license change, but they have no legal requirement to so, not do you have any legal means to force them to do so

I’m glad to see that the original point on default licenses that @cazort raised is being discussed as well as various other related issues.

The following information lists the proportion of licenses used by each observer may give us some additional background.

CC0 0.13%
CC-BY 0.23%
CC-BY-SA 0.07%
CC-BY-NC 46.72%
CC-BY-ND 0.02%
CC-BY-NC-SA 0.14%
CC-BY-NC-ND 0.12%
All rights reserved 52.56%

These figures are from a snapshot taken today and show little change from the October 2019 results used on a poster produced by @andrawaag. From this, it is clear that very few (0.71%) observers have chosen a license beyond the initial binary choice offered for their images (All rights reserved or CC-BY-NC).

The good news for me in all this is that while less than one half of one percent of all users have selected a Wikimedia compatible license, they are over-represented when measured by the number of their observations, comprising 6.6% of all observations. This in turn represents a not insubstantial 3.6 million observations. Plenty of material still to go through for those wishing to help Wikimedia projects. More relevant to me perhaps would be to calculate the number of species (taxa really) that currently lack images on Wikimedia Commons, but only exist on iNaturalist from observations without an shareable license. There are over 310k species (more probably taxa) represented on iNaturalist but only between 90,156 (the number of species from observations labelled as CC-BY) to 208,048 (CC0, CC-BY, and CC-BY-SA combined) available for use. As these categories overlap, it is probably closer to 100k that are shareable, with another 200k species that are not shareable under their current license.

Although I have contacted several users to request they change their licence for specific images and many (most) have agreed, as noted above this is a time consuming business that is further complicated by explaining the license changing procedure and the difference between the image licence and the observation license. Straying even further from the topic at hand, I have started a list of taxa that only have non-free images available on iNaturalist and posted the list to an iNat wiki page here. If anyone has images on this list that they wish to change the license on, please annotate the list and I can upload them to Wikipedia.


This is interesting, thanks much for bringing in this info. The breakdown by user is very different from what I expected, given my experience looking through images, where, as you note, the more permissive licenses are much better-represented on a per-image basis.

This reinforces the importance of offering more license choices during signup and/or prompting users to change the license later. I might prefer both.

This is where an official iNaturalist page that sums up the different licenses well, and that explains how and why certain licenses are more useful to certain ends, would be helpful. This way, when reaching out to people to ask them if they would like to change the license on one or more photos, we could simply refer them to the page.

Not only would this save time, but I think it would come across as more authoritative to users (i.e. if the iNaturalist staff had approved the page and it reflected a consensus of users in terms of accurately presenting the various licenses and their pros and cons, something I’m not presently satisfied with and I think would need some additional modifications if I were to support this) and would also avoid the subjectivity of a user interjecting their own biases about the licenses into the request.

Currently there is this page, but I find that page neither particularly accessible nor particularly impartial or comprehensive. I think we could make a much more useful page by going through and listing the licenses one-by-one, and giving potential pros and cons for each one.

I would want to make sure that the cons listed for the NC licenses reference the fact that the vagueness of the NC clause has a strong discouraging effect on numerous uses that would probably fall within the intent of most users to share them, as conscientious webmasters, authors, artists, and researchers tend to err on the side of caution when respecting copyright.

If people wouldn’t object, perhaps I could come up with a summary and then people could critique it and we could build a consensus around wording?

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I vote for keeping the recommended license CC-BY-NC. It seems the most appropriate license for users wanting to share images on iNat and allowing for researchers to use the images for their work. I don’t think many would want their images redistributed as part of another project without explicit permissions.

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The CC-BY-NC license allows images to be redistributed quite broadly, without explicit permission. It only prohibits “commercial” use, which is a bit ill-defined.

Although I have argued here primarily that this vagueness limits or restricts the usage of material for research, educational, and other “public good” uses, I think the vagueness of the clauses could also lead less-scrupulous users to push boundaries in the other direction. This is where I strongly prefer licenses that have less ambiguity (like CC-BY-SA.)

Before you advocate for NC because you think it is more restrictive, make sure you understand what CC-BY-NC involves. Under this license a wide variety of things could be allowed, including:

  • Use in educational materials, especially if those materials are not sold. But even if they were sold, there is a strong case to be made that such use would be legal so long as the person were selling them only to recoup costs and fairly compensate workers, and not to generate profit or financial gain. People who avoid such use do so not because it is strictly illegal, but because they wish to err on the side of caution and steer away from gray area.
  • Use for specific advocacy that serves some other ends, such as political advocacy (including causes the original copyright holder might not agree with), hobby or recreation, art, random self-expression (such as a blog or personal website, or similar print materials)
  • Use by for-profit corporations, but not to generate profit. So, for example, a corporation could still include the images on an informational webpage, or use it in internal materials for all sorts of purposes like safety, education, etc. Just not selling it or using it in direct commercial functions like sales.
  • Posting them to social media (unless the TOS requires the release of rights not allowed under the license as Facebook does, although in practice people don’t tend to research such things as much) so long as the use on social media is non-commercial, so using them for a promotion would not be allowed, but a personal account would probably be able to use them for a wide variety of purposes so long as the account wasn’t trying to monetize whatever engagement they were getting.

So the CC-BY-NC license is already quite permissive. If you read it, or even its summary, it doesn’t prohibit people using the work in ways that generate income or revenue, it merely prohibits uses whose primary purpose is to generate revenue. This is where it vague, and thus problematic.

It broadly discourages use by conscientious users, who will always err on the side of caution out of the interest of respecting copyright, while it invites abuse by less conscientious users, who will be pushing the envelope wherever things are vague.

And here is where I think this license is so problematic.

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The more I think about this, the more I feel that people aren’t fully processing my main concerns here. I think the concerns here about what a hypothetical average user would want are kind of irrelevant.

If I had to summarize my point it would be: NC licenses deceive users into thinking their works are contributing to the public good more than they actually are. And as such, they are best used only if presented with extensive explanation…and especially inappropriate for a default license.

Perhaps adding some externally sourced material would help.

Here is a 2011 study, specifically: Creative Commons licenses and the non-commercial condition: Implications for the re-use of biodiversity information. It is about exactly what is at stake here, the reuse of information in citizen science, in the study of biodiversity. It was published in Zookeys, a peer-reviewed open-access journal of taxonomy, phylogeny, biogeography and evolution.

Here is a quote from the summary / conclusion of this article:

…the NC licenses are also deceptive. The phrases “creative commons” and “non-commercial”, together with the strong tendency in colloquial language to (incorrectly) identify “commercial” with “profit” and “non-commercial” with “non-profit”, may suggest that releasing works under this license contributes to a “non-commercial commons” that is easily re-usable for all non-profit-minded entities. This, however, is not the case. NC licenses come at a high societal cost: they provide a broad protection for the copyright owner, but strongly limit the potential for re-use, collaboration and sharing in ways unexpected by many users:

And later on:

NC licenses should no longer be presented as an obvious or easy choice.

The article goes on to argue that the licenses be renamed.

I think, in the end, if I had one big point that I wanted to get across in this discussion, it is that the NC licenses are misleading; they’re misleading both in their name, and in their summary. This becomes even more true, given how iNaturalist has presented them. iNaturalist providing better options on signup could partially mitigate these problems, but I still see these licenses as inherently highly problematic, especially the combination of how they are named and summarized even on the CC site themselves, contrasting with the actual effect they have in the real world.

This is why I feel very uncomfortable with iNaturalist doing anything that comes across as promoting their use.

If I were in charge, I wouldn’t even allow users to select a NC license. But at a bare minimum it seems problematic for them to be the only allowed option other than all rights reserved, let alone the default choice.

And, while others have been bringing up concerns about theoretically alienating users by advocating other licenses, this choice already is alienating me, alienating in the sense that it makes me question whether iNaturalist is committed to the goals it supposedly says it is.

I remember, when I signed up and saw how heavily iNaturalist was pushing the NC license, how it was the default choice, explicitly recommended, and how it was much harder to change the license to something I considered better, all of this came together to make me think: “The people who run this site don’t seem to know what they’re doing.” and it started making me feel skeptical about whether the site was really committed to the goals it claimed to, the goals of creating a sort of public commons of biodiversity information. If iNaturalist is really committed to these goals, why would it push a deceptive license that undermines these goals while allowing users to feel like they are promoting these goals?

I understand people are human and make errors. And I can forgive this. But what I cannot do is support people digging in their heels in defense of such a deceptive license. I can respect and even defer to people’s advocacy to push things in the other direction, such as defaulting things to All Rights Reserved, and then presenting some sort of after-the-fact prompt encouraging users to open up their licensing to make their materials more useful to research and education. But I cannot see ongoing support of the NC license as anything other than misled. I understand that people have valid reasons for wanting these licenses, but I think that the people who are still advocating for them, don’t really understand their implications, particularly, the way they lead people to falsely believe that their works are available in some sort of open commons for the purpose of the public good, when in reality they are poor or limited at achieving that goal.


I’m not going to say you’re not processing what I was saying but I will try to clarify my position.

from the same 2011 study- “NC licenses therefore are an important instrument to contribute a work to causes in which a third party’s gain does not diminish the revenue of the copyright holder. Contributing marketable works under an NC license is a laudable act.”

Contributing works to the “creative commons” is not the goal. Sharing the image on iNat is to allow ID, share with the community, and may possibly be of use to researchers. Yes, the name of the license is problematic. I just think the problem is at the other end, CC-BY-NC.

If someone wants my photo for a field guide or identification guide and finds the NC license to be incompatible with their goals, I would claim the license is working as designed. Sure, my photos can be used in close-to-commercial settings. But there is a risk of litigation. I think reusers will steer clear of CC-BY-NC without seeking additional permissions.


Just an addendum to this thread: several people here said something like “just approach the user for permission to reuse their photo”. This is my experience, after several years of approaching iNaturalist people as part of my Wikipedia support of our “Critter of the Week” radio show in New Zealand, highlighting overlooked native species.

Back in July, I was helping a Massey University entomology class write Wikipedia articles on NZ insects. Of course most had no usable photos, so I went to iNaturalist and messaged six people, asking politely if they’d release one of their photos for the students under an open license. I always give a clear explanation of how licensing works, how they can change the licence for a single photo or retrospectively for all, and why sharing these photos more widely is a social good.

Six weeks later, just one of the six replied. Far too late for the students, but at least I could make their photo the official Wikidata image that illustrates the Wikipedia article in six languages.

Five months after I’d asked, another person replied apologetically, and said they’d changed the licence for me. Except, no, I checked and they haven’t. This is pretty common: people thinking they’ve changed the licence and failing, even when they have PhDs and I’ve sent them clear step-by-step instructions. I let them know; hoping they don’t take five months to check their mail again.

You often hear people say “just ask the user for permission to use their photo”. It doesn’t work. People don’t reply. iNaturalist doesn’t send alerts or allow you to just email a user. So clear open Creative Commons licensing that pre-approves reuse is really important!


I’m not sure you recognize how condescending this sounds, but as one of said people, it is. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m well aware of the implications. You may disagree with my opinion, but that’s quite different.

particularly, the way they lead people to falsely believe that their works are available in some sort of open commons for the purpose of the public good, when in reality they are poor or limited at achieving that goal.

I don’t think people do believe this in general. I certainly don’t, nor do those who chose an NC license on other sites where it’s one among many. It’s simply a way to not require people to ask for use of them.

My photos cost a lot of money to take. Travel, camera equipment, identification skills, and the biggest thing, time. I don’t want someone else making money off of them without paying me for the use of them. If they’re not making money from it, then I don’t care. Having seen several friends and colleagues have to abandon being professional photographers due to massive plagiarism, I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

Does that mean some uses that I would approve of are technically prohibited due to legalistic interpretation of the license? Very likely, but unless you can get CC to rewrite the license to allow those while still prohibiting people from selling prints or including them in textbooks, they can ask.


But by asking money from your picture to compensate your costs, you are making money from other peoples contributions. After all, confirmation from a knowledge community like this adds economic value to your picture. I also believe that the sense of protection the NC gives is false. How do you litigate if someone breaches that license in a global context? You’ll need expensive legal advice/support. Far more expensive than you ever earn on a sold license.
To be honest if you want to be compensated for your travels and material, don’t share them on iNaturalist at all, but use commercial sales platforms.

I am not saying that you should change your license from CC-BY-NC. That is everybody’s free choice. I am only arguing that CC-BY-NC does not protect your from other’s making money on your pictures, nor does it protect against you making money from other peoples knowledge.


Sorry , and this is coming from a supporter and contributor to of Wikimedia’s goals, but this has two false premises. Firstly it assumes the photographer does not know what it is to start with. Secondly, the identity of the photo subject does not change because a third party identifies it. If the photographer does not know the identity, then perhaps it makes it easier to find and reuse, but if the user wishes their content not be used or taken without permission this really is a philosophical point.

The point about how do you take action against someone who does steal it is roughly equivalent to saying why bother putting a lock in your door ( or even having a door) since people are going to steal your stuff regardless.


I’m really not understanding this assumption by some that photos that are posted on iNat as part of submitted records should be made easily available to other people for other purposes on the web, whether non-commercial or commercial. I don’t recall seeing anywhere on the website that iNat should be, or may be viewed as, a one-stop shopping location for people to gather nature photos for other purposes beyond iNat. If this is the case, maybe I’ll start stamping all my photos with my name or a watermark, rendering them less desirable for reuse but still functional as a voucher photo for an iNat record.


I think the argument is that a default of full copyright and subsequent mechanism for informed deviations from that is preferable to the current status quo which has ramifications that are different from what they appear to be.

It is not, “make all your pictures available to me.”


Agreed, but I sense that some users are annoyed that using photos taken by others might involve a little more effort than just pulling them off the web.


Fair, though this is effort that could be avoided with a more restrictive default. Then a third party wouldn’t need to consider that particular picture and could spend their efforts elsewhere.

At the end of the day it’s probably going to be gbif who dictates what default license we use here. Maybe a mixture of cc-by for observations and no license for media would be a good compromise.


I’m an amateur, both as a naturalist and a photographer. When I joined iNat this year, choosing the CC-BY-NC license sounded logical to me. If someone is going to profit from my photo, of course I’d like a share of the proceeds! I never stopped to consider how utterly unlikely it was that one of my cellphone photos of wildflowers, or insects, or fungi would suddenly become the center of some highly lucrative marketing campaign. Possibly one might get included in a textbook or a field guide, and the author might collect some modest royalties from that, but how much would really be my share for one little photo? Particularly if alternative photos would almost certainly be available, should I draw a hard line in negotiating?

Until I read this forum thread, I was not aware of the problem CC-BY-NC presented for usage on Wikipedia or of the other jurisdictional problems. So, I’m in favor of changing the language used to describe the different license choices. If it’s possible, as mentioned earlier in this thread, to raise the subject for review once a user reaches a certain threshold of observations, that would avoid bothering the large number of casual users with this complicated discussion.

For my part, about a week ago I changed the licensing terms for all of my observations and photos to CC-BY. And this morning, I received a message from @Loopy30 that one of my photos has been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons and is now featured on English Wikipedia at Helicogloea.

Made my day! :grinning: