Once You License Your Work with Creative Commons, the Cat’s Out of the Bag

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 I checked back and, sure enough, the Creative Commons license had been replaced by All Rights Reserved!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:

Who: Anyone
What: The item under the CC license
Why: Noncommercial
When: ???
Where: United States
How: With attribution as specified and no derivative works

The basic information on the license can be seen on the Creative Commons Web site here The full license information is available here, where the termination section provides:

7. Termination

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.

7 Responses to “Once You License Your Work with Creative Commons, the Cat’s Out of the Bag”

  1. ImageStamper.com is a great resource for tagging Flickr photos as licensed at a particular time. You signup for an account on there and start collecting "stamps" that establish an image was licensed in a particular way.

    We used it for all of the photos in our 'A Shared Culture' video:


    Good luck!


  2. The Creative Commons license would be pretty useless, and pointless, if it could be revoked.

  3. Wow. That's a good interpretation. I stopped licensing most of my photos after I found significant abuse (and probably more I didn't find) of the licensing format. This just makes it more concerning!

  4. Thanks for that post, Fred. I enjoyed your video. The table you have on that page is a nice tool for handling images. I'd say the same for imagestamper, except in their terms of service they reserve the right to start charging a few for their service. Imagestamper is not an open source initiative in itself. cheers

  5. drewe, I'm curious as to how you prevent abuse by simply changing the license. It seems to me that people who would ignore the CC license terms are going to ignore an All Rights Reserved license model as well.

  6. Hi, very interesting article and thanks for mentioning ImageStamper in the comments! I built the tool to prevent exactly the kinds of problems the author mentions in this blog post. I also wanted to confirm that the long term goal of ImageStamper is to provide its basic functionality for free for the foreseeable future.

  7. I Live in Canada and I made HEADBANDS using LED light strips from CHina. After doing research online
    I noticed someone in California made a multicolred HEADBAND called Too-cool Rainbow Headband. Along with a full page display of how to make his version of the LED headband which is not an original idea nor is it on the market. Also there is thousands of LED headbands on the market in general with the conventional LED LIGHT on the front.and Then i noticed He had some kind of icon badge that said license. it said

    Attribution Non-commercial Share Alike (by-nc-sa)
    This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. Others can download and redistribute your work just like the by-nc-nd license, but they can also translate, make remixes, and produce new stories based on your work. All new work based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also be non-commercial in nature.
    Read the Commons Deed | View Legal Code
    this botyhered me because i want to make my version of LED head bands in Canada and now i don't know If I am within my rights to do so especially when noone is making them so i can buy one for myself.

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