If you want people to ask permission before using your photos, DON'T apply a CC license!

It’s come to my attention that a large number of iNat users are confused about how Creative Commons (CC) licenses work. I think iNat may have been a bit over-enthusiastic in recent years about pushing CC to users, without educating them quite enough on it.

Importantly: The whole point of a CC license, which many iNat users have applied en masse to their observation photos, is that it allows others to use your photos without your permission. It’s not an invitation to contact you for permission - they can do that anyway. Requiring people to contact you for permission is called “All rights reserved”. A CC license is a legal document explicitly granting permission for others to use your photo without contacting you, as long as they abide by the terms described in the license document (which might include crediting you, only using it for non-commercial purposes, etc. depending on which specific CC license you choose).

A thread recently blew up over a number of iNat users’ photos being used in a guide book “without permission”. It does look like the book in question cited the photographers very sloppily and probably broke some of the terms of the photographers’ CC licenses - particularly by not specifying the name of the license - and maybe used some photos that weren’t licensed for commercial use at all.

BUT…many replies to the thread made it clear that iNat users expected to be contacted for permission to use their photos despite having posted them to iNat or other websites under CC licenses that explicitly allow them to be used without permission, even for commercial purposes.

CC licenses are cool precisely because they provide a way to give mass permission to the world to use your photos, while putting some conditions on that use. But if you want to always be contacted first, then CC is not for you. CC licenses are exactly the opposite of that.


It’s called being polite, people still contact me for the use of my content, plus CC doesn’t mean you can just use things without permission, especially if it’s one that bans using for commercial purposes which is what many of uses are.


I think THIS point, moreso than courtesy, is the crux of the issue in the other thread, @barbetsmith. People had CC-BY-NC applied to their photos, yet found those photos in a commercial work (Audubon may be a non-profit, but the field guides are commercial works).


“It’s called being polite, people still contact me for the use of my content”

“Central to our licenses is the grant of a standard set of permissions in advance, without requiring users to ask for permission or seek clarification before using the work. This encourages sharing and facilitates reuse, since everyone knows what to expect and the burden of negotiating permissions on a case by case basis is eliminated.”

According to Creative Commons, part of its core purpose is to eliminate the very thing you expect. I consider it impolite for anyone to bother me with redundant questions I’ve already clearly answered in advance. If you feel differently that’s fine, but as barbetsmith said, “if you want to always be contacted first, then CC is not for you”.

“plus CC doesn’t mean you can just use things without permission, especially if it’s one that bans using for commercial purposes which is what many of uses are.”

This was already addressed in the original post: “as long as they abide by the terms described in the license document (which might include crediting you, only using it for non-commercial purposes)”.


I’m not sure where you took that we expect something? People just do it and we don’t need to ask them for that.
CC licences are not opposite of the will of contact, in spite of OP is stating, so

has no weight in when it also says

which is exactly what was the mentioned thread was discussing, you can’t use photos for commercial purpose without asking author who didn’t allow it.
I’m not sure what is to argue here about, why is that bad that we think it’s cool to know where your photos are used?


[quote=“Marina_Gorbunova, post:2, topic:41080”]CC doesn’t mean you can just use things without permission

Yes, it does. That’s literally the whole point of CC. If it didn’t mean that, what would it even exist for? People can ask for your permission no matter what license you do or don’t specify for your work.

They can do that if they want, but in my experience it’s usually because they didn’t see/understand/believe the terms of the CC license, and like jameskdouch, I personally prefer they don’t waste my time asking redundant questions. And the polite thing for you to do is to stand by the promise you made when you assigned the license, which is that anyone is welcome to use it without seeking any additional permission, as long as the abide by the terms.

Yes, this is different - because they’re violating the terms that you gave as a condition for your promise to let them use it without permission.

Correct. What I’m emphasizing here is not a direct refutation to that thread, which is why I started a new thread for it. You’re absolutely right that they aren’t entitled to use it for commercial purposes without the author’s permission, if it was licensed under CC BY-NC. But many people in the thread seemed to think the same rules apply to CC BY-SA and CC BY (or not be aware enough to considered the difference), which I want them to know - for their own good - is very much not the case.


Certainly - I agree that that was the central topic of the thread. But as the conversation continued, it also became clear that many people didn’t understand how CC licenses work in the first place, and it also turned out that most (possibly all?) of the examples given were of photos that actually had been shared without the “NC” term, either on iNat or on other websites.


It also bears repeating that the license you apply to your observations, and the license you apply to your photos and sounds, are different. Please put a license on your observations that allows the data to be used for science (by GBIF). There are vast numbers of observations that are not being included in global datasets because people choose overly restrictive observation licenses, for which there is no clear rationale.


M, I behave myself politely with whoever uses those photos, if you don’t want to spend your time, don’t spend it, but don’t talk for everybody else who wants it “spent” in conversations with people, and no, they understand how things work.

No, it’s not, you can only do it within rules of particular CC licence, you can’t use photos for most of uses without direct permission, unless you use the very opened version.


“Observations” meaning only the information surrounding the photos (notes, location, time and date, etc.), correct? I don’t think this distinction comes across very clearly, which is probably the main reason where there are so many that aren’t licensed freely.


I guess we’re just describing this from different directions? As jameskdouch quoted above from the Creative Commons website itself, “Central to our licenses is the grant of a standard set of permissions in advance, without requiring users to ask for permission or seek clarification before using the work.” That is what I think many iNat users don’t understand.

But yes, if someone wants to use it in other ways not allowed by the terms of the license, then acquiring additional permission would be only way to legally do that.

The “very opened” versions, CC BY and CC BY-SA, are very common: They are actually the least open versions allowed by Wikipedia, and they are commonly used by iNat contributors as well. Most of the iNat photos “lifted” for the book as discussed in the other thread were actually licensed under those versions, not under the noncommercial one.

The fact that many users (not you) were still dismayed that the CC BY-SA ones were used without permission appears to show that those users do not understand how CC works. And even for the CC BY-NC (non-commercial) license, people absolutely don’t need your permission if they’re using it for truly non-commercial purposes.


Agreed, it does not seem to be clear. See these threads, for example:




There is an argument that facts themselves can’t be copyrighted (date, time and location of a species observation) and so this license applies to comments and notes. But it’s not 100% clear, and GBIF takes a precautionary approach by not accepting even the bare metadata for observations with more restrictive licenses. I put CC0 for my observation license and CC-BY for photos and sounds.


How does it work if a person changes the license on their photos? Is there a “memory” of license changes–what it was originally, when it was changed, etc?

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Why not make this debate moot by just making the CC0 license mandatory within iNat for observation metadata ?


That’s a good question. I think in theory, someone can use it under the terms of the license that it had attached when they downloaded it, even if that license changes later. But as for trying to track down or prove what license it used to be under, that depends on whether the website keeps records of that and lets you see the previous versions. Wikimedia Commons does that, but I don’t think iNat does, at least not in any publicly-accessible format. For content on other websites (maybe here too, sometimes?), you might be able to find the previous version in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.


I’ve suggested at least making CC0 the default observation license, but the idea was not taken up. Might be worth a new topic to understand any potential resistance to this idea.

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Yes, the CC licenses are granted in perpetuity/irrevocable. If a user accessed a work published at some time under a less restrictive license, they are not bound by a more restrictive subsequently applied license.

See here:
The licenses and CC0 cannot be revoked. This means once you apply a CC license to your material, anyone who receives it may rely on that license for as long as the material is protected by copyright, even if you later stop distributing it.

A license holder could stop posting a work under that less restrictive license and repost under a more restrictive license, but anyone else could repost it under the original less restrictive license (assuming that original license allowed it) if they had accessed it earlier.

In practice, I think it would be very difficult to prove that someone hadn’t accessed the work when it was under an earlier, less restrictive license, so users should probably just assume that anytime they post something under a CC license, it will be available under that license in perpetuity.

I also don’t know of anyway to tell on iNat if a license for a given photo has changed. Presumably the GBIF data (which can lag iNat by a couple of weeks) might show recent changes in the licenses that allow export to GBIF which might be of use.


Try reading the thread again with an ounce of good faith. We understand how CC licenses work, that doesn’t mean we aren’t interested in how they are being used, how the licenses are being respected or not, or what the practices of publishers are. Plus some of us were just noting who’s photos were used in the book, not complaining that they were being used improperly.


And where you took it from? Most users never use the forum and comments in that thread imo didn’t sound as if people didn’t get how CC works, as said both by you and others, people still can ask when it’s not needed, and that’s why I think it’s polite to notify author when you use their stuff in a big enough deal.

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People tend to not be good at reading closely, although the example in the other thread seems egregious and like the publisher didn’t do the necessary research. However, this is not such a serious and rampant problem that iNat policy should change (nor are they liable for anything at all here).

I suppose if anything more information about CC licenses could be provided- I’ve long thought that iNaturalist should have a tutorial, like a video game, of how to use the site when new users sign up.