Here’s an interesting question from a photography user:
I recently added a Flickr photo by a professional photographer to my blog. It had a Creative Commons Attribution License, so I linked back to the photographer’s page. A few days later, I got an email from the photographer saying the photo was copyrighted and that I couldn’t use it without his permission. I checked back and, sure enough, the Creative Commons license had been replaced by All Rights Reserved! I removed the photo rather than have an issue with the photographer — but what are my rights in this situation?
Generally, a license should outline the “who, what, why, when, where and how” of the use that is being granted. When the details are left out, a court has to try to fill them in. If the license is silent as to the length of time for the license, then a court likely will find that there is no time limit on the use.
Creative Commons (CC) offers several different licenses. For example, the “Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States” Creative Commons license provides:
What: The item under the CC license
Where: United States
How: With attribution as specified and no derivative works
This License and the rights granted hereunder will terminate automatically upon any breach by You of the terms of this License. Individuals or entities who have received Collective Works (as defined in Section 1 above) from You under this License, however, will not have their licenses terminated provided such individuals or entities remain in full compliance with those licenses. Sections 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, and 8 will survive any termination of this License.
Subject to the above terms and conditions, the license granted here is perpetual (for the duration of the applicable copyright in the Work). Notwithstanding the above, Licensor reserves the right to release the Work under different license terms or to stop distributing the Work at any time; provided, however that any such election will not serve to withdraw this License (or any other license that has been, or is required to be, granted under the terms of this License), and this License will continue in full force and effect unless terminated as stated above.
As Larry Lessig, an attorney, one of the founders and former CEO of Creative Commons, explained on his blog, the CC license is not revocable after given, but the licensor can stop offering it to others. The same information is on the CC blog.
Given the parameters of the license, however, it is difficult to control what you have offered under a CC license, even if you change your mind. As Attorney Tim Hadley explains:
A Creative Commons license tells visitors to a website that they may copy material from the site, and that as long as they play by the rules in the license, the author cannot take away that permission. This is what the license means by saying it is “irrevocable.” The “irrevocability” of the license that each visitor gets does not mean that the author must forevermore offer the license to all visitors. It only means that visitors who have already accepted that offer cannot lose permission unless they break the rules…
If I build a website and place the Creative Commons license on the website, have one visitor who copies material, and take the license off the next day, then only that one visitor obtained the rights in the license. As the next section explains, however, this is not the end of the story. Even if the author stops offering a Creative Commons license, there will still be a way for new people to get the rights of the Creative Commons license, because people who get rights through a Creative Commons license pass them on each time they give a copy of the work to someone new.
Thus, once you offer your work under a CC license, then others can share your work (and so on, and so on), even if you stop sharing it. It’s the proverbial “cat out of the bag.”
In sum, the photographer did not have the right to force you to take the photo down. But since many people do not fully understand the ramifications of offering a CC license, you were kind to cooperate.