CC-BY Image Trolls

A Troll

A pre­sen­ta­tion with­out images sucks. There­fore, we are some­times tempt­ed to take some from the Inter­net for beau­ti­fy­ing our work. There are so many excel­lent pic­tures on the World Wide Web. But to legal­ly insert­ing a for­eign pic­ture in one’s own pre­sen­ta­tion is not that easy. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, a new type of troll has emerged recent­ly, the CC-BY image trolls:

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If we reuse pic­tures from the Inter­net, we have to respect the copy­rights of the painters or pho­tog­ra­phers, just as we have to pay license fees to the patent own­ers, if we use their tech­niques, or as we have to ful­fill the license require­ments if we reuse open-source soft­ware. Recent­ly, a new type of troll has emerged, the ‘image troll’.[1] It is good to know how they work and how we can pro­tect our­selves from falling vic­tim to them:

Often, free pic­tures are released under one of the Cre­ative-Com­mons Licens­es. They are sim­i­lar to Open-Source Licens­es: both fol­low the prin­ci­ple of ‘Pay­ing by Doing’. Instead of pay­ing for get­ting the right to use licensed objects, you have to do some­thing. Which rights you get and what you have to do depends on the license. There exists a com­plex sys­tem of cre­ative com­mons licens­es[2], but near­ly all of them have a ‘BY’ clause indi­cat­ing, that you must give the pho­tog­ra­pher’s name, state the license ver­sion, and include a link to down­load the image and a link to down­load the license text.[3]

These BY-con­di­tions are — as the dis­cov­er­er of the image trolls said — “[…] easy to get wrong”.[4] That’s the one ingre­di­ent an image troll needs: the eas­i­er it is to miss the con­di­tions, the more poten­tial vic­tims he has.

The sec­ond ingre­di­ent is, that ear­li­er ver­sions of the CC-licens­es — like the license CC-BY 2.0 or the license CC-BY 3.0 — con­tain a “Ter­mi­na­tion” clause: “This License and the rights grant­ed here­un­der will ter­mi­nate auto­mat­i­cal­ly upon any breach by You of the terms of this License.”[5] The mean­ing of this clause is, that you ‘lose’ the rights of use the moment you fail to ful­fill a con­di­tion.

One can rec­og­nize the explo­sive­ness of such a clause from the fact that the license CC-BY 4.0 also con­tains a ter­mi­na­tion clause, but addi­tion­al­ly pro­vides the pos­si­bil­i­ty to heal a vio­la­tion: It says that the ter­mi­nat­ed rights “[…] rein­states auto­mat­i­cal­ly as of the date the vio­la­tion is cured, pro­vid­ed it is cured with­in 30 days of Your dis­cov­ery of the vio­la­tion […]”.[6]

As a third ingre­di­ent an ‘image troll’ needs a method to auto­mat­i­cal­ly find the users of his pic­tures and to ana­lyze whether he failed to ful­fill the require­ments. Mean­while, the inter­net offers a very well-estab­lished tech­nique to auto­mat­i­cal­ly search for sim­i­lar images on the Inter­net.

The fourth ingre­di­ent an ‘image troll’ needs is a legal sys­tem grant­i­ng him large com­pen­sa­tion pay­ments for rights vio­la­tions. The USA has such a legal sys­tem.

So, how does an image troll work? He only must cre­ate nice pic­tures and pub­lish them in a well-used image data­base under any CC license with a ter­mi­na­tion clause. That becomes his “hon­ey­pot”. After that, he must auto­mat­i­cal­ly crawl the inter­net for his pic­ture and ana­lyze whether his ‘cus­tomers’ have ful­filled his con­di­tions. If not, he can file a law­suit against the respec­tive user — his next vic­tim. And at least in the USA, we talk about “statu­to­ry dam­ages” up to $150.000.[7]

What can we do to pro­tect our­selves from such attacks, which are legal but at the very least go against the spir­it of free soft­ware and doc­u­ments?

  • The best method to pro­tect your­self is a) to per­fect­ly know under which terms the pic­tures you are going to reuse are licensed, and b) to thor­ough­ly ful­fill all license require­ments.
  • A good method is to focus on CC0 licensed pic­tures[8] as — for exam­ple — offered by[9]: a license, which does not require any­thing, can­not be mis­used to file a law­suit against you.
  • Anoth­er good method is to focus on CC-BY-xyz 4.0 licensed pic­tures.[A] While you must also thor­ough­ly com­ply with all licens­ing require­ments, at least you have a chance to iron out your mis­takes.
  • If you want to use CC-BY-xyz 3.0 or ear­li­er licensed pic­tures, you should read and apply the license text, not only the sum­maries, offered by cre­ative com­mons.

But ignor­ing image copy­rights alto­geth­er and just grab­bing off the inter­net what you think you need is the most cer­tain way that any copy­right own­er will catch you up in a law­suit. Just as using Open Source Soft­ware with­out ful­fill­ing the license require­ments or using patent­ed tech­niques with­out pay­ing the license fees.

And in what way is this …

… part of the over­ar­ch­ing top­ic FOSS Com­pli­ance? For ful­fill­ing the require­ments of FOSS licens­es, we have to con­sid­er spe­cif­ic indi­vid­ual cas­es as well as side effects — for soft­ware, pic­tures, or doc­u­ments. We should unhide trends and write guide­lines. Above all, how­ev­er, we must dri­ve for­ward the automa­tion of license ful­fill­ment, make our licens­ing knowl­edge freely avail­able, cast it into small­er tools, and bring it into larg­er sys­tems: Because FOSS thrives on free­dom through license ful­fill­ment, large and small. That’s what also this arti­cle is about.

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