Preliminary Findings from a Qualitative Study on iNaturalist Users License Choices Show There is a Substantial Portion of iNaturalist Users Who Have "All Rights Reserved" by Mistake

There is a barrier limiting the full potential of iNaturalist contributions to be utilized for conservation research. This barrier is that many users do not know what their license is, how to change it, or how and why to pick a Creative Commons (CC) license in the first place. I am an M.E.S. student at The Evergreen State College. I have produced a qualitative study on iNaturalist users’ motivations and their choices of licenses.

My research question has been: Do the motives of iNaturalist users influence their copyright decisions? What are the factors affecting their choice of license? I want to know why iNaturalist users participate and why some iNaturalist users have “all rights reserved” (no CC license). Of the users who chose to reserve all rights to their observations, what are the reasons for these reservations? I pose this research study objectively with the mindset that any reason is neither good nor bad, it’s just a reason and I want to know what it is. What I found is that when users do give consideration to their license decision, the factors influencing the decision are almost always align with their motives, however, there is a sizable portion of users with all rights reserved who chose this by mistake (or default). This shows a disconnect between many users’ license settings and their intent, caused by the lack of information they need to make the decision. This disconnect is preventing lots of well-intended biodiversity data from being readily utilized!

I distributed a survey to 114 iNaturalist users who all had “all rights reserved” on their observation. I received responses from 26 people. Fifteen out of 26 did not know that they had all rights reserved on their data and admitted that this was a mistake and that they did not know how to fix it. All of these users assumed that they were contributing data for research use but in actuality they were not. While there will always be users who reserve all rights for many reasons (reasons such as photograph ownership) my research shows that over half of them do not have any reason for reserving all rights and this is a real problem. The frequency of mistakenly reserving all rights to an observation is preventing very large amounts of data from being shared with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and other data repositories. This directly contradicts many users’ goals as participants (and I believe it somewhat contradicts iNaturalists’ mission and vision too). More than half the time that all rights are reserved by a user it is not a decision at all but a result of default settings. Based on this survey the fraction of individuals with strong reasons for reserving all rights is less than those who gave it no consideration at all.

I also analyzed the discussion around this topic in many iNaturalist forums. Forum texts provided more evidence of the frequency at which users chose a license based on their participation motives. These were not limited to users with “all rights reserved”, thus giving examples of why people chose CC licenses. Most forum participants who voiced their license decisions did have some sort of CC license (very frequently but not always, one that shares with the GBIF). Other users explained their decisions to reserve all rights, and, similarly to the survey, photographs are the most common reason for choosing to reserve all rights. These users choose to reserve all rights to their photos because of their value, though they also tend to say that they are still willing to share data and photos on request. What was far more rare in the texts were responses from users who did not know they had reserved all rights (iNaturalist forum users are not a representative sample iNaturalist users in general). I attribute this to the fact that users who participate in forums are more active on iNat in general and therefore have made more informed decisions (and have received the information needed to make the decision).

This analysis revealed that there are lots of open-license activists working to share the information people need to make an appropriate license choice. Some users are very active about promoting CC licenses and encouraging other users to adopt a CC license. I found that this discussion does not seem to be reaching the intended audience because the portion of users who mistakenly reserved all rights are not reading the forums, therefore the information is not being viewed by those whom it actually pertains to. For further research I intend to quantify the amount of users who have made the mistake of reserving all rights and attempt to find the best way to share this information with them. This new leverage point could potentially open up millions of observations that are supposed to be getting shared but are currently not.

Something else to add: for all those users who have all rights reserved simply because you want people to ask before using the data, I just want to make a point that might inspire some to make more modest CC choices. When someone wants you to ask for data on an individual data point basis this is a very unrealistic workflow in reality. I distributed my survey to 114 people and heard back from 26 of them. It took hours to send all these messages (you have you message these users individually). As you can see if you had to go through over a thousand observations this would simply take too long. It is very likely that these users who expect a scientist to “just ask” for the data, where never contacted for their data in the first place because of how unrealistic that workflow is in reality (this is the whole point of utilizing the GBIF). Furthermore, this “just ask” workflow presents numerous citation issues down the road (whereas the GBIF creates the citation for you).

For all these reasons it is in everyone’s best interest to have the most modest CC license possible for their purposes.

Previous forum discussion I posted:

Information about licenses can be found on many forums, one example being:


When you say default, what are you referring to? When you create an account, the default photo and observation licenses are Creative Commons / CC-BY NC (the box below is checked by default):


I can see that. For one thing I don’t think the average user understands what this means. Also the “read more” tab only explains one CC option not all 8 of them.

What does it default to if this box is unchecked?

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All rights reserved.


That may be the answer: people who don’t quite understand the meaning of that check box, but see that it is only “recommended” and have heard so much about online privacy, so they uncheck it for the same reason I turn off nonessential cookies.


I’m the main identifier of fungi in New Zealand and we don’t have many others. I’m also a professional mycologist and I use iNat data a lot for my work, usually via GBIF data-extracts. I don’t offer identifications for records with restricted licenses on observation data, or photos, or who obscure their locality. I want to maximise the flow of data to GBIF, and that includes on-going access to photos because they are the essential evidence for iNat occurrence records. Quite often newbies are told by others that they won’t get identifications from me unless they change their settings. Most have no idea what the license settings mean or how they were set. Over the last few years I know many people have changed their license when they realised. So, for whatever reason, this is a very real issue and the default setting for new accounts isn’t fixing it.


I agree, and since there are actually 8 CC options that info should be a bit more clear right off the bat. It does not seem to inform you what unchecking the box means or does.

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Thanks, Ben! (@westboundwarbler) :pray:

I just set my observations to the most open licences (basically NO licences). My terrible cellphone pics are my gift to the world! :wink: :joy:


I think it is a problem that this box does not make it clear that it is an option to give different licenses to the observation and the photo and the sound separately. I know that these can be three individual choices in the account settings because I took the time to learn about it. But this default checked (or unchecked) box makes an overall license choice for all three. Someone could accidentally restrict the use of their observation when they were really just concerned about their photo.


For full clarity in this discussion, this is what the “Read more” text says:

Check this box if you want to apply a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license to uploaded content. This means anyone can copy and reuse your photos and/or observations without asking for permission as long as they give you credit and don’t use the works commercially. You can choose a different license or remove the license later, but this is the best license for sharing with researchers.

I think this text could be improved (for example I disagree that CC BY NC is the “best license for sharing with researchers”) but the text is pretty clear to me about defining what the license means and that it can be changed later. It also seems clear to me at least that unchecking the box would mean the opposite of what checking the box does (i.e. people must ask permission to use your media).

There is already a lot of information presented at sign-up (links to 8 other pages to learn about various things) so streamlining it is good in my opinion.

Anyway, I was mainly pointing out that “All Rights Reserved” is not a default setting, so you may want to modify that conclusion in your summary.


Agree that it could be improved and that it really is about trying to find a balance between reducing barriers to sign up (ie lots of dense text which the person is unlikely to read) and also making sure the default isn’t too open (eg CC-BY or CC0).

I’d be intrested to know how many people uncheck the box after reading the Learn More text. I suspect it’s a small number. I think people who care about these things likely see that box pre-checked, see the text “Yes, license my photos” think “heck no, what are you trying to exploit from me?” and uncheck it.

We get a decent number of emails from people who are concerned about the “personal information to be transferred to the United States of America” permission and clearly did not click on Learn More, they just see that text and it raises flags for them (which is understandable).

Probably some sort of email to users who haven’t licensed their observation data, with instrcutions on how to do it, and reasons to do it, might be more effective than doing it all on sign up.


I’ll continue to consider this but I am inclined to still define that as a default.

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I would definitely say that CC-BY-NC is the default. Any user making a new account must take action to choose any other license for their content (or choose to not license their content).


I think another information gap is that the app does not (to my knowledge) tell the user anything about their account settings or how an observation is licensed. Many users only use the app.
Does account set up look the same if you sign up with the app only?
Many users may not know about the licensing if they have never actually used the website.

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I don’t think that unchecking that box counts as making a choice to not license an observation because it does not really explain the results of unchecking the box.

With regard to permissions, it does. Did you not check the app sign up process as part of your research?


I did not check the app sign up process myself but thanks for answering that for me.
What I did do with the app was look through my account and at my observations and unlike the website there is no mention of the license in the account settings in the app and no way to change it and the observations all lack this information too. Could be an area of improvement.


I see that there are some criticisms here of @westboundwarbler’s study, but to me the results seem to fit well with what I’ve experienced about the mismatch between iNat users’ intentions and the licenses they’re actually using.

I could be wrong, but didn’t the default license option for new users change at some point? My recollection is that the default changed from All Rights Reserved to CC-BY-NC several years ago. Or was it maybe it was just that the previous sign-up screen appeared to give All Rights Reserved and CC-BY-NC equal weight?

I’m thinking that a significant portion of iNat’s user base likely signed up before that change and may have chosen All Rights Reserved without much understanding of the implications.

Also, if users sign up via the iPhone or Android app, what is the default licensing option and how is it presented?

I also agree with @westboundwarbler’s conclusions about open-license advocates lacking an effective option to improve iNat users’ understanding of licensing. Few users are likely to visit the forums, stumble across a post advocating open licensing, check their own licensing settings, discover they don’t match their intentions and switch to a CC license.

Clearly, the most effective time and place to communicate licensing options is at sign-up, but even so many new users won’t understand much context around these choices and will be impatient to get started adding an observation.

I would love to see an un-pushy occasional prompt after the login screen that pops up maybe once every 10 logins for users with the All Rights Reserved license setting. It might say something like this:

Photos, sounds and observations you contribute are owned by you. You get to decide how you want to share them. iNaturalist lets you choose to retain all rights to this content (your current setting), but we hope you’ll consider changing your license to a Creative Commons license that allows scientists to use your data in their research.

  • Learn about data sharing license options.
  • Remind me later.
  • Retain all rights and stop asking me.

Just out of curiosity, since there are over 3 million observers on iNat, is a sample size of 114 (or, actually, 26) large enough to generalize from?


Seems true.