Aaron Williamson


White House still confused about Flickr photo licensing

by Aaron Williamson

When the White House first began posting photographs taken by its official photographer on Flickr, it caused a minor kerfuffle about licensing: the photos were posted under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license, even though works of the U.S. government are in the public domain.  It turned out that the White House chose CC-BY because “public domain” wasn’t an option Flickr’s interface offered, and CC-BY is the least-restrictive CC license.  In short order, Flickr added a “United States Government Work” option for the White House and the whole thing was fixed.

Sort of.

A friend just posted about a White House photo on Flickr, which is appropriately designated as a United States Government Work.  However, beneath the photo is the following text:

This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, or promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

Several things about the section in bold are problematic.  The first is that it contradicts the law, and the government’s own statement of the law (linked to from the Flickr page), by prohibiting derivative works as well as, it would seem, many other permissible uses.  The limitation to publication by news organizations contradicts the public’s right to distribute copies of the photos, and to display them.  The release by “the subject(s) of the photograph” may be intended to remind users that some states recognize individuals’ rights to the use of their likeness in certain limited contexts (recall another Flickr-related licensing dispute), but those laws do not justify a broad proscription on use by anyone other than news organizations.

Maybe after one more time around, the White House will figure out what “public domain” really means.

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