New York Times Journalist Takes Heat for Questionable Use of Flickr

Posted on 6/30/2009 by Julia Dudnik Stern | Printable Version | Comments (1)

Flickr continues to be the testing ground for appropriate user practices when it comes to images. When The New York Times’ contributor Sonia Zjawinski wrote about her penchant for printing out images she finds on the photo-sharing Web site and using them as wall art, readers’ reactions were far from favorable.

Zjawinski used her own ink jet printer and inexpensive photo frames. “And if you’re wondering about copyright issues (after all, these aren’t my photos),” she wrote, “the photos are being used by me for my own, private, noncommercial use. I’m not selling these things and not charging admission to my apartment, so I think I’m in the clear.”

The article made no distinction between images in the public domain, photos displayed under Creative Commons licenses or those labeled All Rights Reserved—all of which can be found on Flickr. In her excitement about a cost-effective decorating strategy, Zjawinski forgot to provide readers with even the bare minimum of legal background, thus encouraging copyright infringement among users that may not be familiar with all of the different types of licenses supported by Flickr.

In response to unfavorable feedback, Zjawinski attempted to rectify this shortcoming in a follow-up post. She cited some legal experts, who suggested that her decorating practice would fall under the fair-use provision of the U.S. copyright law. She also told users wishing to follow in her footsteps to stick to Creative Commons-licensed images or those with no known copyright restrictions, as is the case of The Library of Congress.

Yet even those suggestions will infuriate photographers who make a living by licensing images and selling prints. Furthermore, the rules are somewhat unclear even for Creative Commons-licensed or public-domain photos displayed on Flickr.

For example, Creative Commons licenses require attribution. This seems ridiculous to a person who simply wants to put a picture on an apartment wall—yet not displaying the photographer’s name is a technical violation of the license’s terms.

More importantly, Zjawinski’s method seems to violate Flickr’s own image-printing terms. The site advises image owners: “You can control who can order prints of your photos. If you set your preferences to allow another Flickr member to print your photos, the ‘Order Prints’ option will appear when that member looks at your photos.” Flickr stresses having permission, and the site’s spokesperson says that its policy is to seek owner guidance for its own uses of its members’ imagery, even in cases of Creative Commons licenses. In contrast, Zjawinski neither followed the site’s built-in mechanism for ordering prints—which would have cost her more than her own ink and paper—nor contacted the Flickr users who posted the images.

It is easy to condemn her. At the very least, she should have familiarized herself with the basics of copyright and Flickr policies before advocating her decorating approach to unsuspecting users. But can Zjawinski be accused of anything more than shoddy reporting, or is this situation simply part and parcel of technological advancements outpacing the legal system?

Copyright © 2009 Julia Dudnik Stern. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz


  • Ted Spiegel Posted Jul 8, 2009
    It would be interesting to see what response a forwarding of this article gets from the image licensing end of the New York Times and the author of the entry = Zjawinski.

    "That which is hateful unto you do not do unto others" is known as Hillel's Rule. Does it rule at the Times, which is diligently selling its archived images.

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