An Update on the International Olympic Committee’s Threatening Letter to Flickr User Richard Giles
Usain Bolt Image by Richard Giles, used under a Creative Commons license.
Earlier this week I blogged about a threatening cease and desist letter that Australian photographer Richard Giles received from the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The letter had objected to Giles’ “distribution and licensing” of Olympic photos in his Flickrstream.
Among other things, the IOC noted that “any reproduction and distribution of images of the Olympic Games and IOC identifications by any means, including over the World Wide Web, without the consent of the IOC is unauthorized.” They further claimed ownership over the Olympic rings and actually over the word “Olympics,” itself. Perhaps most offensive to me personally, the IOC had written in their heavy handed letter to Giles that any images of the Olympic Games actually “belonged” to the IOC.
The letter was signed by Howard M. Strupp, the IOC’s Director of Legal Affairs and suggested that Giles needed to conform with their requests (which were a bit vague) by October 8th. Rather than remove or relicense his images on Flickr, Giles instead posted his letter to his Flickrstream. It was first picked up by Duncan Riley over at the Inquisitr. I blogged about it. Boing Boing picked it up. TechDirt blogged about it. It started going viral. Giles also got in contact with both Electronic Frontiers Australia and Creative Commons Australia to try and figure out what his best course of action might be.
From the tone of the original heavy handed letter, it initially sounded like the IOC was actually objecting to Olympic imagery appearing on Flickr at all, having cited the images as unauthorized and saying that the images belonged to them (contrary to U.S. copyright law at least).
The IOC after receiving a bit of heat from the web though quickly back pedaled and clarified that their position was not that they wanted Giles to remove his photos from Flickr, but rather they wanted him to relicense his image from Creative Commons to all rights reserved.
After writing in to the IOC I was contacted myself by Mark Adams at the IOC who clarified that position and Giles was also contacted by the IOC with this information as well. To their credit, I found Adams very professional in his email correspondence with me. Adams told me that the the main objection that they had was that Giles’ image had been used for a major commercial book promotion in London. On his blog Giles confirmed that his image had been used (without any compensation to him) as an advertisement at a book store in London in conjunction with the launch of the 2010 Guiness Book of World Records.
As of tonight, the issue is still not entirely resolved. Although the IOC seems much more diplomatic at this point than they did in the harsh C&D letter that they originally sent Giles, they still seem to be insisting that he change the license on his photos to all rights reserved.
Giles, on the other hand, would like to retain a Creative Commons non-commercial license on his photos. All of his Olympic photos are licensed CC non-commercial as it stands now, with the exception of the Usain Bolt photo (the same photo used by the bookstore in London) that is licensed just regular CC. Giles had removed the non-commercial restriction on this license originally at the bequest of wikipedia so that they could include the image on their site.
To me Giles’ position to retain his CC non-commercial license on his images makes perfect sense. I think he should not cave in to the IOC and change his Olympic photos to “all rights reserved.” The Creative Commons non-commercial license is perfectly suitable to protect the IOC against unauthorized commercial use as the non-commercial portion of CC would prohibit this. If the IOC is going to insist on Giles making this change, this move would worry me for a number of reasons.
First, the CC license (despite the fact that Flickr allows you to change back to all rights reserved) technically cannot be revoked. it is an irrevocable license. From Creative Commons:
“Creative Commons licenses are non-revocable. This means that you cannot stop someone, who has obtained your work under a Creative Commons license, from using the work according to that license. You can stop distributing your work under a Creative Commons license at any time you wish; but this will not withdraw any copies of your work that already exist under a Creative Commons license from circulation, be they verbatim copies, copies included in collective works and/or adaptations of your work.”
Further, it seems like an uphill battle to me for the IOC to go after this popular license. At present there are almost 140,000 images licensed as CC images on Flickr for the search term “Olympics.” While admittedly, many of these images are not of the Olympic games, when you restrict a CC search to “Olympics” and “China” you still get almost 20,000 CC images. Many of them of very high caliber, professional type images of the games.
Even if the IOC gets Giles to relicense his photos, this does nothing to stop other people from using these other images. Unless the IOC is prepared to play a lengthy game of whack-a-mole, this problem is only going to reappear again and again.
Especially in light of the fact that social media is more popular than ever, future Olympic Games will only mean a far greater number of CC Olympic Images make their way online. And we haven’t even gotten into all of the CC Olympic images available at other places like wikipedia — for example, this image of sprinter Michael Johnson from the 2000 games in Sydney.
Rather than try and fight the CC license, the IOC should take a deep breath, relax and learn to accept it. The liberal nature of the CC license means that images of the games receive even greater distribution. This is the best free PR that money can’t buy.
Trying to stomp out every single photographer with a CC license will only backfire against the IOC. Can they hunker down and take an RIAA approach to images of the games? Sure they can. But if they do, they ought to expect the same sort of hatred that is shelled out to the RIAA when they go about threatening photographers the way the RIAA threatens grandmothers.
Might the IOC miss out on a few dollars here and there because some publisher chooses to go with a free CC image rather than try and license one from them? Sure. But it’s a small price to pay to ensure the goodwill of photographers and fans all over the planet.
The Olympics belong to all of us — to the fans, to the athletes, to every person on the planet, and yes, this even includes photographers like Richard Giles. I think the IOC has taken a good first step to try and diffuse this messy PR case that they’ve made for themselves. They should take the next logical step and tell Richard Giles that they’ve rethought his situation and are willing to accept a CC non-commercial license.