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When I was writing a blog post about Mark Cuban and his ShareSleuth site, I wanted to illustrate it with a good photo of Cuban but didn’t like the photo he sent me. So I turned to an invaluable source of photography for a non-commercial blog like MediaShift — the Flickr Creative Commons pool. On that site, you can search through 22 million photos for shots that are being legally shared by photographers, under flexible copyrights licensed through Creative Commons (CC).

Instead of the typical “all rights reserved” default copyright for photos, music, video, writing or other artistic works, Creative Commons lets you share your work under licenses that ask for an attribution or web link rather than payment, and restrict whether people can remix or change your work. (This helpful cartoon explains the various CC licenses.) You can actually search for photos on Flickr that have specific Creative Commons licenses, and through that search I found a great photo of Cuban shot by Kris Krug (pictured above). I used the photo with my story, and added a credit to Krug, linking to his site.

Not too long afterward, I got a nice email from Krug: “Thanks for using my pic (and for crediting me). Please feel free to do so in the future… Always exciting to come across my Creative Commons pics being used in new and interesting places. High-five.” Not long ago, it would be hard to imagine using someone else’s photos for your site and having them give you a virtual high-five for doing that. But Krug is a true believer in the power of Flickr and Creative Commons.

Krug is president of the online community management company Bryght, based in Vancouver, but has been moonlighting as a photographer and blogger for the past few years. He told me that he gives away almost all his photos on Flickr — except when a paying client asks him not to — and that it has resulted in various paid gigs shooting concerts and events, and even interest from photo agencies.

“I think Creative Commons is a huge thing and I attribute a lot of my success to it,” Krug said. “Since the beginning I’ve given all my photos away on the Internet and they’ve been used by other bloggers and people all along the way and it’s gotten my name out there. So without going to photography school, and just networking with other photographers, and giving my stuff away with attribution, I’ve got my name out there, I’ve got a lot of incoming links to my website…I didn’t realize that I could make money on photography by giving away as much as I could, that I could build up a portfolio and reputation so I could get paid work.”

Krug says it’s sometimes difficult to explain the concept of Creative Commons to friends, who are used to holding onto their work and not giving it away. He admits it takes more than one conversation to convince someone to try it out. But Krug even tells musician friends to give away their music for a chance at better success in the long run.

“If [the music is] good, people will be turned on to it and go to the live shows and buy merchandise there,” Krug said. “The next thing you know, they’ll have 10,000 fans and they’ll be courted by record companies. You’re not going to make much money selling 100 MP3 singles on CD Baby…It’s a paradigm shift, man. There are a lot of people that don’t get it and they get upset at the suggestion that they give it away. But there’s a moment when they clue in.”

Explosion of CC Licenses

Many folks online are getting clued in to Creative Commons now. Eric Steuer, creative director at Creative Commons, told me that Google found 200 million “link-backs” to Creative Commons licenses online — meaning that there are probably 200 million pieces of content on the Net that are under various CC licenses. Steuer says that number has “grown incredibly” over the past two years. Last year at this time, there were just 40 million link-backs, which grew to 150 million six months later.

When you consider that 22 million CC licenses are for Flickr photos, you can see how the popular photo-sharing service is helping raise awareness of Creative Commons to the general public. Now, more journalists, editors and photo editors are aware of Creative Commons photos at Flickr, meaning that more of these photos are getting a chance at wider circulation.

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JD Lasica (pictured here), a colleague of mine who blogs at New Media Musings and helps run the Ourmedia grassroots media site, has noticed more people inquiring about his photos at Flickr. He told me he tries to share all his Flickr photos via CC licenses except when he has an exceptional shot of an exceptional person, which he might be able to sell to a media outlet. Lasica explained why he thinks more people are becoming aware of CC licenses.

“More websites are using these photos, and people are becoming aware of the power of Creative Commons to share material without feeling guilty about it,” Lasica said. “It’s a way of fine-tuning copyright. A lot of people think it’s about giving up your copyright, but it’s not. It’s fine-tuning and tailoring your copyright to your needs. The other thing is that journalists and editors are becoming aware of the power of Flickr to find some amazing, amazing photos. And you can do searches for Creative Commons photos. You know right up front that here are the ones you can use and take.”

As for convincing content creators to try out CC licenses, Lasica says that Ourmedia lets people choose a CC license if they want when they upload material onto the site. But the concept of giving away your artistic works in order to get paid at a vague time down the line isn’t an easy sell to everyone.

“There’s something Zen about it,” he said. “You let go and it’ll come back to you. Visibility and attention are the cornerstones of success on the web. The more people know about your work, the more you can steer them to other things that can derive income, whether it’s to drive them to your blog or creating new contacts to sell your work directly.”

Success Stories and the Blog Mob

Creative Commons’ Steuer says that there are a lot of success stories to tell from the various people who have opened up their content through CC licenses. The Creative Commons home page includes some of those stories under the title, “Featured Commoners,” though they will be beefing up content on an improved site coming soon.

One of those stories is about the Gift Trap board game that uses more than 600 cards with user-submitted photos under CC licenses, many of which come from Flickr photographers. You can even print out a Creative Commons-licensed trial version of the game from their website.

Steuer also mentioned the popular Flickr photographer Rebekka Guoleifsdottir, who got a contract to shoot and appear in Toyota car ads (such as this one).

Flickr is owned by Yahoo, and the Internet giant is showing an interest in expanding into Creative Commons licenses for its video-sharing site, according to Lasica. He has been disappointed by YouTube’s stance on copyright, which grants the video-sharing site a non-exclusive royalty-free copyright to the video you upload there.

Of course one of the biggest complaints about Creative Commons licenses and anyone who posts photos or media online is the ease with which people can steal your material. That’s true, but it’s difficult to make a name for yourself using other people’s photos, according to Krug. He should know, because Krug was the victim of photo thefts by a photographer who tried to pass off photos of Krug’s girlfriend and vacation photos as his own.

After Krug publicized the theft, the photographer threatened Krug with legal action, and Krug posted the cease and desist letter to Flickr, resulting in a “blog mob” that hounded the offender until he removed the photos and his own profile from Flickr.

“I believe in the whole self-healing power of the network,” Krug told me. “If you’re out there and prolific and doing good work, you can make it to the top. And if people are stealing photos, they’re not going to make it very far.”

What do you think about the growth of Creative Commons licensing and the idea of giving your work away in order to get paid work later? Have you had success with CC licenses or have you shied away from them? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

[The story couldn’t be complete without a couple Creative Commons photos. The photo of Kris Krug is by Sarah Pullman. The photo of JD Lasica is by Scott Beale.]

UPDATE: One part of my story that I didn’t get to was the effect that CC and Flickr might be having on the stock photography industry. Many of the people I interviewed, including Kris Krug, believed that the spread of CC photos might hurt that business. Markus, who blogs at AU Interactive, has a great piece explaining why he believes the time is running short for the domination of stock photo agencies such as Getty Images. Here’s a key quote from that:

Flickr and other services that make it easy to search large databases of photos and contact the photographers directly are far more cheaper and efficient than the old system. The stock photography oligopoly is being replaced with socially distributed systems and I’m happy about it. More people will see my work, I’ll be able to get the work of others more easily — everyone wins! (Well, almost everyone.)

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