What happens when you release photos on Wikimedia Commons?

The London Eye at night

I started making my photographs available on Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons licence in 2006. Since then, I have uploaded over 3,500 photos to Commons, and I plan to upload many thousands more in the future. The main reason I started to upload my photos was to illustrate Wikipedia articles, and that’s still a big reason why I have continued doing so. However, only 16% of the images I’ve uploaded are currently used on the Wikimedia projects. So, why am I continuing to upload so many images?

My hope is that, in the long run, my photos will help preserve history. I hope that they will provide a record of the state of things today to others looking back at this time in the future, in a similar way to how we look at 50-year-old photos today. I want to make sure that those looking back on our history don’t have to worry about the copyright of those images, but can freely use them in their own projects.

However, there is a great shorter-term outcome that keeps me motivated to continue uploading my photographs: how people have been making use of my photos today in ways I never anticipated when uploading them. Some examples of this (amongst many others) include:

Michael Nielsen

  • In December 2007 I took a photo of the London Eye; I uploaded it to Commons a month later. I was taken aback in August 2008 when I got an email out of the blue from a couple who had recently gotten engaged on the London Eye – they’d found my photo and loved it so much that they had it printed on canvas. Due to a mistake by the delivery company, they accidentally received two copies of it – so they got in touch with me and sent me the extra copy! To this day this print acts as a focal point for my flat.
  • At Science Online London 2011, which took place at the British Library, I took a photo of Michael Nielsen. The photo was subsequently published by the New York Times, with Michael Nielsen letting me know that this had happened.
  • More recently, I was contacted by Nature Cymru who wanted to let me know that they had used one of my photos in their latest edition – a picture of seagulls nesting in Conwy Castle. I uploaded this photo as part of a series of photos I took of Conwy Castle, and this was the photo I expected to be of least use – but it turned out to be the first of this set of photos to be reused.

Seagulls nesting at Conwy Castle

One of the lessons I’ve learnt throughout this is that, realistically, no-one respects the licence that your photo is licensed under – they’ll simply use it for their purposes. If you try to keep full copyright of your photo and deny people the use of the image, then you’ll be ignored – but if you release it under a free license then you’ll be able to reasonably ask for proper attribution. Also, people will generally go out of their way to let you know that they are using your image under a free license, if you ask them to, but if you restrict the use of the image then they’ll simply use it without letting you know.

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2 Responses to What happens when you release photos on Wikimedia Commons?

  1. Hi Mike,

    Great article – I really enjoyed reading it. It must be so gratifying to have tangible evidence of your images being appreciated so much!

    Anyway, I wanted to let you know that I have used one of your images in a blog post for one of my clients. The blog will be live on the morning of November 11th, and you’ll be able to see it here:

    http://www.france.com/general/armistice-day/

    I’ve also linked the image back to this website. :-)

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