Making money with free photos
Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons are home to a number of expert photographers who contribute professional-quality freely licensed photos (see the 2009 Picture of the Year candidates on Commons, for example). But while free licenses make it easy for Wikipedia and other projects to use, distribute and modify these photos, they still allow the original authors to derive income from their work. Copyleft licenses—in particular, the GFDL and the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike licenses—have significant requirements that come with the right to freely use licensed works, and many people and organizations are unable or unwilling to meet these requirements. This is where entrepreneurial Wikimedian photographers step in, licensing their work in other ways—for a fee.
I spoke with two such Wikimedians to learn more about what it's like trying to make money through photography while contributing to Wikipedia. Diliff and Muhammad are both prolific contributors of Featured Pictures on the English Wikipedia, and have similar perspectives on the financial issues surrounding free photography.
Muhammad Mahdi Karim, who signs his posts Muhammad
, is another familiar name at FPC. He specializes in macro
Commercial opportunities and limits
For both artists, the commercial limits of Wikimedia photography are readily apparent. Neither considers himself a professional photographer in the strict sense, and photography revenue makes up only a small portion of their income.
Both Diliff and Muhammad receive occasional inquiries about licensing through Wikipedia and Commons, mainly through placement in articles or searches on Commons rather than Main Page exposure for Featured Pictures. However, stock photography sites provide a more reliable source of income for each. According to Diliff, "most people actually find my work elsewhere (mainly stock sites) in terms of sales, although it would be fair to say that I earn more on a per-sale basis from Wikipedia, as I am able to negotiate a better price than I get from stock photography sites,... anything from £25 to £200 [$40 to $300] depending on what the images is, who is interested, and what their use/requirements are." Muhammad averages around $100 per sale through a stock photography site.
Increased visibility through Wikipedia is probably a net benefit commercially, these photographers estimate, but not enough to be the primary reason they contribute. "I'm grateful that Wikipedia gives my photography commercial visibility," says Diliff, "but I see it is a two-way street. Wikipedia/the public benefit from higher quality images than they might otherwise have had, and I receive commercial interest from people who might have otherwised used stock photography sites to find what they wanted, so I don't feel like either Wikipedia or myself is being exploited." He adds, "I'd almost certainly still be uploading my photos if they weren't attracting any commercial interest." For Muhammad, "there are few better feelings than sharing with others the great sights one has seen".
Concerns about exploitation
Compared with other kinds of contributors, photographers often have different attitudes toward Wikimedia's requirements for free licenses, which include the freedom to use contributions commercially. Diliff explains:
I have always been loathe to allow big-shot corporate, commercial entities to take advantage of what Wikipedia offers to the public, so when I get enquiries about whether the intended use of one of my images would be okay with me, I do remind them that they must provide attribution and refer to the license text (ideally with a hotlink or URL); but if they are gracious enough to do that, I am happy to let them use the image without paying for it. I will happily remind them, though, that if they want me to waive these conditions, they would have to pay for the privilege.
Text contributions can be mirrored and served with ads, printed and sold, or adapted and built on for commercial projects, but the copyleft provision of Wikipedia's license prevents most commercial uses that contributors would view as exploitative. Perhaps more significantly, commercial use of Wikipedia articles remains relatively insignificant; it's hard to make money by inserting ads next to the same articles Wikipedia provides clean, without major investment to build something better from them. Photography is a different matter: individual photographs are easily deployed in commercial contexts, from advertisements to illustrations accompanying non-free text to magazine and book covers to commercial artwork. The reuse of pictures from Wikipedia and the Commons is widespread—sometimes in accordance with the relevant license, but more often not.
Muhammad reports that the "Illegal use of my pictures is quite vast. There are those who only partly follow the license and others who completely ignore everything and consider the images public domain." Diliff is similarly concerned that "most people seem to think that Wikipedia = free to do whatever you want with the content", but he is "not actually sure how big the issue is, as I think what we're aware of is only the tip of the iceberg." Some Wikimedians use the reverse image search service TinEye to monitor unattributed use of their images, although its incomplete web index reveals only a slightly larger piece of the proverbial iceberg. Contacting offenders is usually effective in either getting them to follow license requirements properly or removing images. Some Wikimedian photographers also report converting cases of infringement into opportunities to charge for usage rights, although neither Diliff nor Muhammad pursue that strategy.
One strategy some Wikimedian photographers use to gain more control over print use (Muhammad does this, Diliff does not) is to release photos only under the GFDL Version 1.2, which is very similar in spirit to the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license, but requires that the full license text
be printed along with licensed works in media where a hyperlink to the license text is not possible. Effectively, this acts as an "online-only" license, creating more opportunity for directly selling licenses for print publication. The GFDL lets Muhammad decide on a case-by-case basis whether to charge for print use:
I do not mind my pictures being used by those who cannot afford to buy them. What I despise is rich organizations who can afford to buy pictures being cheap and using them.
A preferred option for many Wikimedian photographers, including both Diliff and Muhammad, would be a non-commercial license such as the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial license. Fir0002, an aspiring photographer who retired from Wikimedia projects in 2009 to focus on commercial photography, cited the lack of a non-commercial license option as a major factor in his retirement. Wikipedians have also noted that some professional photographers would allow their work to be used on Wikipedia if they could disallow commercial uses.
- For more on the perspective of these photographers, read the full interviews with Diliff and with Muhammad.