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

I can tell you that the issue is confusing to me. I was actually surprised when I found out that Wikipedia could not use CC-BY-NC images since it is nominally a non-commercial venture. So, okay, if I make all my iNaturalist images CC-BY-SA, then they can be used on Wikipedia - great. But GBIF has different requirements, so making that change would remove all my images from GBIF, which I also don’t want. It seems that CC-BY is the only license that will allow my images to be included on both Wikipedia and GBIF while still retaining the attribution requirement. Do I have that right? I would argue that changing the default copyright option to accommodate Wikipedia usage at the expense of GBIF does not seem like a good solution even if it makes life easier for Wikipedia editors. Anyway, it may be worthwhile to at least note in the signup text that “anyone can use your image” explicitly does not apply to Wikipedia, because it is not obvious that Wikipedia would count as “commercial” in this context.


This makes complete sense, and I actually share this sentiment myself. But…here’s where CC-BY-SA comes in. Because that license requires you to release the work and and derivative work for free if you distribute them (including by sale), this puts a natural cap on how a peron can make money off them.

You can’t realistically make money off something without adding value. For example, if I see a print for sale in a store, and it notes that it has a CC-BY-SA license and can be downloaded for free online at a specific URL, and it’s priced reasonably to compensate a person for the act of formatting and printing it and the convenience of it being for sale, I might buy it. If it’s too expensive, I’ll just go to the URL and download it and go to a print shop and pay them to print it.

In practice, I almost never see things for sale that have CC-BY-SA licenses. The license’s requirement that the work and any derivative works be freely available naturally limits the ability for people to make money off it.

But it does so without any of the other shortcomings I brought up in this thread. There is no ambiguity about what constitutes “commercial” or not. There is no restriction or incompatibility with major copyleft licenses, which would preclude inclusion in Wikipedia or copyleft textbooks.

Basically, the way I see it it does everything that NC “tries” to do, and does it better, yet while being less restrictive.


This seems extremely unlikely given that users are already given a (somewhat honest) description of CC-BY-NC and a huge portion of them choose that license.

I suspect an overwhelming majority of users would choose a more permissive license if they thought it would be more beneficial to research, educational, and conservation purposes, because it’s unlikely that many of them would ever make any money off their photographs, and I bet nearly all of them care about advancing these other goals.

Nowadays, with good camera equipment being cheap, the professional photography sphere is pretty competitive and you have to be both really good as a photographer, and have considerable skill / effort in marketing yourself, in order to make money off selling photographs you already take. Among the professional photographers I’ve known, they almost exclusively make money off commissions, things like portraits, weddings, or photography of commercial buildings. People buying existing work for sale on stock photography sites is an uncommon source of income for most photographers because it’s so competitive, there is so much supply. And for nature photography that is focusing on identifying and documenting a species and its habitat, rather than on aethetics, which is what iNaturalist is all about, this is even less true. Few people are going to want to buy a picture of a caterpillar or oak tree that is carefully taken to show key ID characteristics.

This is why this whole conversation seems a bit ridiculous to me. Through this whole conversation I haven’t seen a compelling point that we’re doing anything other than splitting hairs.

I get the concerns in theory, but on a pragmatic level I’m just not seeing it. I see real downsides to the NC licenses, and I can understand why people object to the SA clause (even if I don’t share this objection), but I’m really struggling to understand why people seem to feel so strongly about the hypothetical of users getting upset by a well-presented choice of a more permissive license.

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I completely agree with this.

And the status quo surprises users in this way. It says that the presented license, CC-BY-NC is most useful to researchers, when it’s not.

This is all I want here…I want iNaturalist to stop pushing a license on users as a default license, using a misleading explanation that leads users to think it is more permissive or useful or less problematic than it actually is.

I am all about letting people make their own decisions. And I trust them. I trust that an overwhelming majority of users, if presented with a more honest choice of licenses, would pick a more permissive license like CC-BY or CC-BY-SA or perhaps leave it as public domain. Instead…they’re not given that option on signup, and instead they’re told that the CC-BY-NC license is the “best” choice for research, and of course, if they’re told that, few of them are going to ever revisit it.

And, if presented with honest information and not nudged towards CC-BY-NC, if users chose that, then that’s fine, I can just ignore those photos or records or whatever if I’m wanting to work with CC-BY-SA works.

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If you check the full thread above you’ll find I posted screenshots of the signup process over web. It may be different if creating an account from within an app.

But…currently, it does ask. And it only gives the option of retaining copyright or using CC-BY-NC, and it presents CC-BY-NC in a way that I think is misleading.

If this were true, then why is Flickr’s default license all rights reserved? Or a closer parallel why is ebird’s default license a non redistributive one ?

Or are you also approaching those and other sites to also change their defaults?

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Flickr is a very different site. It covers all types of photography and it caters to photographers who want to highlight their work, to gain more visibility in order to market themselves. This is one of the primary functions of the site, one of the main reasons people sign up for it and upload photos to it, so it makes sense that users would select all rights reserved and that the site would set this as the default license.

I can’t say about eBird. But one thing I’ve noticed, eBird doesn’t have a lot of photos on it, and a large portion of the photos are of exceptional quality. I notice this when I upload my crappy-quality photos to it. A lot of the photos I see there are taken by professional-level photographers who would probably not have much trouble making money off their photography if they wanted.

But…I also want to make clear that I think I would be a lot more comfortable with iNaturalist having a default of retaining copyright. I see compelling reasons to make that choice. I agree with the numerous people in this discussion who said that best practice is to default to the most restrictive licensing and then make people actively choose to release more rights.

What I do not see are compelling reasons to maintain the status quo of defaulting to CC-BY-NC, especially with it being presented as the “best” choice for researchers and presented without acknowledging its downsides, and not being given any other license choices on signup.

I think that the status quo is really bad because it leads users to think they are doing the most possible good in the world, and they are completely ignorant of the downsides or problematic aspects of the NC license. It also makes it much harder (i.e. you have to go in after the fact and change the setting rather than having it presented to you at signup) to select more permissive licensing.

If the default were All Rights Reserved, I think it would be clearer to users that their works are not able to be used by others without asking permisison (i.e. not by wikipedia, etc.) People might be more likely to look over or review the license settings, and in doing so more people might choose the more permissive licenses. And if these licenses were presented at signup, I think far more people would choose them. At least that’s my intuition. I don’t know. Whatever people choose though, I’d be more comfortable wtih the results than I am with the current setup. The whole reason I brought this up is that I think people are unaware of these issues and as such are not selecting the licenses they would actually want.


As many others here have surmised, the default license for data, photos, and sounds is CC-BY-NC because that’s the least restrictive license that still prevents one’s content from being used commercially without their approval - an assumption I think most people have when they sign up for iNat. Personally I like it that way - I’m happy for anyone to use my photos (and I spend a good amount of money on photo equipment and have sold some photos commercially) for non-commercial purposes, but I wouldn’t want them to be used for commercial purposes without my knowledge and approval. I should also note that at least one Flickr image of mine was used commercially without my approval (and was even misidentified by the user…grrr…). I’m bummed my CC-BY-NC license means my photos can’t be easily used on Wikipedia, but for me CC-BY-NC is the best fit.

I’m not sure how many people have taught others how to use iNaturalist, but even getting a class of people to download the app, sign up for an account and start observing presents numerous hurdles and can take much, much, longer than you’d think it would. I would not be for a dense explication of licensing options for three separate types of content when a user signs up for iNaturalist. The idea is to get people out and observing, and I think onboarding should be focused on using the app/site correctly.

I do like @trh_blue’s suggestion of some sort of outreach after a user has posted 100 observations or a similar number and they have the hang of iNat basics. This will reach an audience of more informed users who understand iNat better and can make a more informed decision.


Ugh, yeah, this stuff is frustrating. I haven’t had it happen with photos, but I have had whole articles plagiarized. One was published in a newspaper in another (English-speaking) country and it was frustrating that there were ads placed on the page. I was cited, but the use was not legal and not with permission.

Still, such use is kind of a separate issue. People can steal anything, regardless of the license it is released under.

I’m not sure I agree fully with this. Particularly, I don’t know if people assume the prohibition against commercial use of the content, if they sign up. Nowadays nearly all the major social media sites require users to grant royalty-free licenses for the (for-profit) corporations to use their images however they’d like. Yet millions of people still create accounts and sign up for these sites.

“Commercial use” would include all sorts of things that non-profits do, for example, using user’s images in a fundraising appeal.

In fact, I think a point is to be made that, by asking for money at the top of a page, iNaturalist is already, to an extent, using users’ images for commercial purposes. For example, here’s a screenshot of my homepage currently; note the largest image in the left column:

This image is actually copyrighted, see this observation: the user in this case chose to retain copyright.

And more broadly, I would argue that as the images are one of the main things that draws people into the site, the fact that the site is successful enough to be able to do fundraising via a banner like that, is building off the contributions of those users. And, according to the NC clause in those licenses, such use is commercial use.

Now, in practice, this is a moot point because it is probably covered by iNaturalist’s terms of use:

“By submitting Content to iNaturalist for inclusion on the Website, You grant iNaturalist a world-wide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, modify, adapt, and publish the Content solely for the purpose of displaying, distributing, and promoting Your observations and journal via iNaturalist. We might also use the Content for other purposes not subject to known legal restrictions, such as training machine learning models.”

and even if not covered under this, it might also be allowed under fair use because you could argue that the thumbnail appears as a link to the observation and full image, on which it is noted that it is copyrighted, and there is no fundraising banner on that page. This is solid legal ground to stand on, as there are court cases to this effect.

But…to me it does seem to be getting, at least slightly, into that gray area, the gray area that could possibly offend some users.

And here’s where I start to get frustrated. Here we are, with people vigorously arguing “users wouldn’t want their work to be used commercially”, but I see something that looks like it’s at least skirting up against that, and no one is fussing about that. In practice, I would be completely comfortable with iNaturalist having that fundraising banner up there, even on my pages with images. I can’t say about other users. But my point in bringing this up is that I’m not convinced by your argument that most users make this assumption of non-commerciality when signing up for iNaturalist. Rather, I suspect a lot of users nowadays would expect it, at least, possible use by iNaturalist (not necessarily by others.)

Okay, and this is fine. But is it too much to ask for you to then refrain from presenting NC licensing on signup in a way that is misleading?

What bothers me here is that NC licensing is the default, and it’s presented in a way that is overtly misleading, saying it is the “best” choice for researchers, and written in a way that implies that all non-commercial use is allowed under these licenses. What would be more honest is to say that it is a highly restrictive license that in practice discourages a lot of non-commercial use because of the vagueness of the non-commercial clause, and that it’s incompatible with copyleft works such as Wikipedia. And as such, if people knew this, many of them would probably select a more permissive license if they really didn’t care about retaining the copyright and cared more about maximizing their positive impact on the world.

I like this solution. However, I also would strongly prefer that something is also done to remove the bias in the wording on signup towards the NC licensing.

In fact, I think I would even prefer, following me being convinced by some other arguments in this discussion, for the default to be set to All Rights Reserved, and then, you can later prompt people to open up, and at the time of doing this, at least give them the option of other licensing.

If I were in charge, I wouldn’t even allow new users to select NC licensing. The license is so problematic, in my opinion, that I think it’s no good for a person to select it unless they really understand its ramifications.

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I hope someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe GBIF’s prohibition on CC-BY-SA applies just to observation data, not images/sounds, which are not transferred to or hosted by GBIF. So if you use CC-BY-NC for your data and CC-BY-SA for your media files, both GBIF and Wikimedia can use your contributions. (I use CC-BY for all three options, which is another way to share broadly but keep attribution credit.)

I’d be fine for this for photos/sounds, but please let’s ensure observation data remains open :)


Perhaps, but I strongly suspect that if they didn’t have that option and instead had to choose between CC-BY (allowing commercial reuse) and all rights reserved, the large majority would pick the latter.

I can see your argument against the NC license – especially that it’s presented in an arguably misleading way as "best for researchers – but fundamentally you’re arguing for the open model that Wikipedia uses. And there’s a reason most people deliberately don’t put their work out under that, including on other platforms that use different language.

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I feel that this conversation is going in circles. I know it’s a long thread, but please make sure you’re not just rehashing the same point over and over.
And also, remember, we are discussing the default settings which would affect the large majority of new users, not your personal preferences.


I agree that this discussion is going in circles. I think the problem may be that there are so many different things we are discussing. Maybe we could start separate threads to discuss some of these individually. I am going to try to summarize things with the hope of separating them.

When I made this post, I did not anticipate that there would be so much resistance to my suggestions. I had (presumptuously? incorrectly?) assumed that most people would see the concerns I raised as serious, and conclude that the NC license was problematic, and then we could focus the discussion on what the best way to resolve the remaining questions, such as which default license would be better. I still would like to have this discussion, if people are willing to have it.

I’m not seeing such a consensus though, even if there might be a majority view that the NC clause is problematic. (Correct me if I’m wrong but it seems to me a majority do agree that the NC clause is problematic, although I wouldn’t call it a consensus.)

As such I think this conversation has become tricky because there are a lot of different points being discussed. These include:

  • Whether or not the NC clause is problematic enough to support a general move away from the license, i.e. not wanting iNaturalist to encourage or promote the license, independently of what people decide to use as the default.
  • Whether or not users would object to “commercial” use of their photos, that would violate the NC clause, and who would select this by default. I.e. whether or not it is an actual problem to default to a more permissive license, and make users specifically select a more restrictive one (whether NC, or All Rights Reserved, or perhaps CC-BY-SA as, at least for some users like me, this addresses our concerns) and whether this concern is major enough that it is worth addressing in the choice of default license.
  • If we assume users are concerned about commercial use, whether NC licenses are the best way to do this, vs. SA licenses, or vs. defaulting to All Rights Reserved. I personally think SA licenses are better at protecting against commercial use while having fewer downsides, but not everyone agrees with me. I also would strongly prefer a default of All Rights Reserved and I have seen others voice this view too.
  • Weighing potential benefits vs. harm in the case that we go with a license that allows commercial use. This is where I am not convinced anyone has responded to any of my points that the harm or loss associated with NC licenses is real, whereas the objections are theoretical and unlikely (because most professional-level photographers already select "All Rights Reserved). I would like to have this discussion separately if people are willing to.
  • Whether it would be beneficial to allow a three-way or more choice of license on signup, and if so, how it would be presented. This is a more complex and open-ended discussion because there are nearly endless options of how to approach this. Again, I’d like to have this discussion too if people are willing.

It does seem though that there is a pretty strong consensus on several points though, including:

  • That it would be a good idea to prompt active users (perhaps at 50 or 100 photos / observations or some other cutoff) to review their license settings, and at that point inform them in more depth about the implications of their choices, in the hope that some of them might select licenses more compatible with copyleft and/or useful for research / education / other public service uses.
  • That we need some sort of change in the wording on signup, particularly in how the NC license is presented as “best” for research purposes.

If people agree with this summary, even partly, I’d be eager to delve into separate discussions, and try to keep strictly on-topic on those.

I apologize if I’ve gotten off-topic in this discussion. I really had no idea, going into this discussion, how complex it was going to become, and how many different ways in which people would disagree with some of the points I was making or object to some of the goals I had. But…I guess that’s what life is like, people are diverse in their ways of thinking, and decision-making involving people is a tricky thing, especially if you are trying to build consensus!


I disagree. I think, especially if CC-BY was selected as default, especially if it was presented by iNaturalist as being the best option for researchers of for availability of your work, that most people would select it.

I know, if the site made a strong case for me picking CC0 or CC-BY over CC-BY-SA (which I have currently selected) I could be convinced to change my selection, and I think my reasons for selecting CC-BY-SA are similar to the reasons why some users might select CC-BY-NC.

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FWIW, I’d like to conjecture a series of very well-intentioned steps that led to the current defaults. I think that may help us avoid imputing incorrect intentions to those defaults. If I’m wrong on these steps, I hope that more knowledgeable folks will correct me.

  1. GBIF founders select the CC-BY-NC license for contribution data based on perceived alignment with general scientific practice along the lines of “Anyone should be able to reuse these data so long as they give credit to the contributors and don’t make a profit on them”. Note that images (and sounds) are not within GBIF’s scope, and so the problems inherent in the NC terms would be much less apparent for GBIF.

  2. iNat works with GBIF on a data exchange agreement, part of which ensures that only acceptably licensed data are synced from iNat to GBIF.

  3. iNat puts in place a license selection dialog with various choices. CC-BY-NC is presented as the default and described as “best for researchers” specifically because it’s the least permissive license that allows data to be exchanged with GBIF.

  4. iNat users say they don’t want to have the same personal default settings for data, images and sounds, and advocate for discrete licensing choices. iNat implements that by splitting the original single default license per user into separate settings for data, images and sounds. CC-BY-NC remains the default for all three and the guidance about this being “best for researchers” is unchanged.

If that’s broadly accurate, there really has never been a point where anyone determined that CC-BY-NC was a good default for images or sounds. That license is the default for all types of content just because it was the least permissive license that allowed iNat to share observation data with GBIF.

And if that’s accurate, then it’s reasonable to review the issue of a default media license and decide whether CC-BY-SA or All Rights Reserved might be a better default than CC-BY-NC. Finally, if iNat does take another look at licensing, I agree that there are two other issues that should be part of that discussion:

  • Most observation data (as opposed to images or recorded sounds) do not meet the creative threshold for copyright. It would be good to make clear to users that their license selection for observation data likely applies only to the text of notes and comments beyond fair use limits.

  • There’s an issue if users are allowed to change the license on existing content to a more restrictive one, especially if others have already used that content. iNat has a checkbox that allows users to apply a new license selection to content they already uploaded. It’s good to have this so that a user who comes across the licensing options after making their first 100 observations can decide to release their existing content under a more permissive license. But probably this should be limited so it’s only available if a user moves to a less restrictive license.


I haven’t read everything in this discussion thread, but it did prompt me to look at my account settings including licensing, which were set at the default of CC-BY-NC for observations, photos, and sounds.

Because I’m still a little suspicious about how my photos might be used without consulting me first, I changed my licensing for photos to No License (all rights reserved) and applied to all my submissions but left the other two as is (I don’t have many sound submissions). I might or might not leave the settings there, but my question is: how does my changing the setting for photos but not for observations change how GBIF can incorporate or use my records, both existing and future? What happens with GBIF use if a user changes their licensing settings multiple times, just because they can?

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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.