License changes that update/remove a permissive license should be prohibited or at least generate a warning

Hey all,

the iNat2Wiki group I am part of—a group of volunteers supporting the reuse of free-licensed iNaturalist observations in Wikipedia and sister projects and other platforms—flagged a recent flurry of deletions of otherwise legitimate photos on Wikimedia’s end that was recently caused by a bot that checks image licenses.

As it turns out, these images were originally released on iNaturalist by their creator under a free Creative Commons license (CC0, CC BY or CC BY SA) but for whatever reason their creator later decided to “update” the license to a less permissive one (for example, reverting to All rights reserved or to the default iNat license that doesn’t allow commercial reuse). See these two examples: 1 - 2

I say “update” because a free license, once chosen by a user, releases rights on the associated resources in perpetuity and cannot be revoked. In other words, if at any given time I come across a CC BY licensed image and want to reuse it with attribution on a Wikipedia page, in a syllabus, in a paper etc, I have the right to do so regardless of whether the creator decides to change the license on the same image at a later time.

We had a number of imported images deleted but were able to rescue them because the Internet Archive keeps a cached version of the original license at the time of the import.

This is a scenario that the legal team at Creative Commons can advise on. However, it would be ideal if, whenever an iNat user tries to change a free license on one or multiple images, a warning was displayed explaining that this is not possible, or at least explaining that the original license remains in effect for folks who had access to this image.

Perhaps a bit of an aside, but I’ve noticed that there tends to be a ton of misconceptions about image licensing by iNaturalist users (as well as curators). As you note, there are all sorts of legal issues tied to licensing, and it’s been fairly concerning seeing licenses not be understood as actual legal statements (as this has frankly resulted in even site curators making decisions that ended up being legal violation s as a result). Again, all of this as a result of misunderstanding what Creative Commons actually is.

But, it’s worth noting, the CC BY licenses don’t only give rights to re-use content. They also require (unless otherwise expressly waived by the author) attribution in order to be re-used. So failure to provide attribution upon re-use results in the re-user’s rights to use automatically and immediately being terminated. This makes it a fairly nice balance, allowing for easy re-use as well as a legally-enforceable requirement of citation. (As an aside, Wikipedia is great at making sure proper attribution is included.) I include this bit for the sake of users who aren’t as well-versed on copyright licenses.

In this sort of case, it’s notable that “the CC licenses are irrevocable” so legally cannot be altered. Personally, I would fully suggest the site (1) not permit any changes to materials licensed under a CC BY license as noted above and also (2) include a distinct warning message at the very beginning that once material has been licensed under a CC BY license, that license is legally irrevocable (so a user changing their default license will affect future materials but cannot modify previously-uploaded materials).

Full support as the current system has too much room for illegal actions by content creators.


This checkbox is likely the cause of most if not all such cases:

This box should at the very least make it clear that these changes don’t have any legal force.


This box should at the very least make it clear that these changes don’t have any legal force.

Changing the license does have legal force, but not in the way users expect. Changing the license means that the user is actually adding a new license, while the original license is still legally usable. If a user changes to a more permissive license, this checkbox is actually quite useful, but it has no practical legal effect when changing to a more restrictive license.


@radrat @jonathan142, I don’t think the link Jonathan provides can be interpreted in the way you are doing, by stating that a photo published under a CC license once must forever retain that license. The owner/publisher of a photo is perfectly in their rights to re-license the photo. This happens frequently, and not just in photography. Software projects, for example, frequently update their license from open to close-sourced.

What it says is that “once you receive material under a CC license”, i.e. when you access or download a photo with a CC license, that photo is forever useable by you under the license that it came with, provided you follow the terms of the license. If someone comes in after you and sees or downloads the non-CC license photo, they do not have the rights to use it as a CC-licensed product (unless, of course, they take the trouble to hunt around for another published version that is CC licensed, for example a cached copy in the Internet Archive or similar). The difference is subtle but imprtant. I myself have some of the same images published as both “All rights reserved” and CC in different platforms, and people are free to hunt around for the CC ones if they wish to use them, but the non-CC versions provide the option to download higher-resolution versions that the CC versions do not.

The bot that crawls the web checking image licenses is checking current licenses, not those that the image was necessarily obtained with in the past.


@mftasp You give fairly different points to what’s noted here, though they make all the difference in terms of the legal codes.

Regarding software, different versions may carry different licenses and typically do not use Creative Commons. CC BY licenses typically aren’t intended for use with software, and open source vs closed source is going to be an entirely different legal code to wade through. Open source does not contain any statement about irrevocability and expressly notes that the license may be changed for a particular work.

If you have a hi-res version of a photo that’s separately licensed, that’s yet another issue. It would be handled as a separate work, so there’s no issue of compatibility there (one essentially is a preview of a larger work). But there would have to be some distinct difference. You would likely have trouble arguing that a 1px x 1px difference would constitute different works, for instance. Consider this as a parallel to the difference between a movie trailer and the movie itself. Only re-sharing one of those on the Internet will result in legal troubles.

The legal terms of the CC BY suite of licenses note that the work, itself, is licensed “to the public”. If the work has been released under a CC BY license, it’s under the CC BY license for the duration of its copyright, even if you, yourself, stop distributing the work. This is covered under the For Licensers and After Licensing of the Creative Commons FAQ. You could enter into a separate arrangement with a particular individual, which would then be binding, but you cannot revoke the CC BY license to “the public” as covered under the Alterations and Additions to the License section. Of specific note in this section, if you end up dual-licensing the exact same work at any point, those who use the work are expressly permitted to choose which license applies and can still opt for CC BY. I really suggest that those interested in the CC BY licenses read through the entire FAQ and legal codes (for example, that of CC BY SA 4.0).


There is a quite detailed explanation on the high/low res issue on CC’s FAQ too: [](http://Can I apply a CC license to low-resolution copies of a licensed work and reserve more rights in high-resolution copies?)

In itself, dual licensing is not the problem. However, it is somehow problematic that a) by default, all the works are licensed CC BY NC (default should be “All rights reserved”, per applicable law) and b) a warning for users that once they choose a license it’s irrevocable, and that the general public will still be allowed to use their work under that license even if they decide to change the license afterwards.

I feel that there’s a lot of education that needs to happen in iNaturalist for users to understand what they are doing when licensing. I’d say that asking folks the basic questions that are being asked in the CC beta license chooser might be a good idea.