News organisations miss opportunity to build community with online photo use

As Charlie Beckett, the director of the politics and journalism think tank POLIS at LSE, points out, the Daily Mail is getting a lot of grief for using pictures, mainly from photo-sharing site Flickr, without the permission of the users or in violation of the licencing on those pictures. Charlie’s post is worth reading in full, but here are some of the questions he poses:

At what point does material in the public domain become copyright? the people who published these images didn’t do so for financial gain. There is a genuine, if very slight, news story here which feels worthy of reporting. If I link to those photos am I also infringing people’s copyright? Might it be possible that they will actually enjoy seeing their work on the Mail’s website where it will be connected to millions of other people?

I don’t want to dwell on the copyright issue too much, apart from saying that if the newspaper industry is fuzzy on copyright on the internet, it undermines their arguments with respect aggregators, ‘parasites’ and ‘thieves‘ online. I’d rather make the case that there is a benefit to news organisations in not only respecting the copyright of others but also in being good participants in online communities like Flickr. Here’s part of the comment that I left on Charlie’s post:

Leaving (the copyright) issue aside, this is another example of the news industry missing an opportunity to build community around what they do. When I use Creative Commons photos from sites like Flickr, firstly, I honour the terms of the licence. Secondly, I drop the Flickr user a note letting them know that I’ve used a photo on our site. It’s not only a way to use nice photos, but it’s also a way to build goodwill to what we’re doing and do a little soft touch promotion of our coverage. It takes a minutes out of my day to create that email, but instead of a backlash, I often get a thank you. They let their friends know that the Guardian has used their picture. It’s brilliant for everyone. Their are benefits to being good neighbours online, rather than viewing the internet as a vast repository of free content. As a journalist, I wouldn’t use a photo on Facebook without permission. Besides, the photos on Flickr are very high quality, and with the common use of Creative Commons, I know exactly what the terms of use are. As a user of Flickr who licences most of my photos under Creative Commons licence, I also feel that whatever photos I use, I’m also giving back to the community. It’s a much more honest relationship.

Last year during the elections, I found an amazing picture of Democratic candidate John Edwards on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution licence that allows commercial use and used it on a blog post on the Guardian when he dropped out of the race. I let the photographer, Alex de Carvalho, know that I used his photo, and he responded:

Thank you, Kevin, for using this picture; I’m honored it’s in The Guardian.


  • Great picture.
  • Credit where credit is due.
  • Mutual respect for copyright. Creative Commons clearly states the rights wishes of the photographer.
  • Light touch outreach to promote our work at the Guardian.
  • Building community both on our site and on the broader internet.

That’s what we mean at the Guardian about being of the internet not just on it, and this is why I believe that social media is about creating great journalism and building an audience to support it.

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