the use of Aaron Swartz photographs

After Aaron Swartz committed died by suicide in January, and in the months since then as issues of internet freedom and his own tragic story have continued to make news, there’s been a lot of demand for photos of Aaron. I had three photos of him up on Flickr and Wikimedia Commons, from a 2009 Wikipedia meetup.

(I went back to my archives and found several more from that meetup.)

When I got contacted by photo editors who wanted to use these photos, I tried to get them to follow the terms of the CC-BY-SA license. In two cases, Rolling Stone and New Republic, I got a chance to explain how to use a Creative Commons license in print. For most photo editors, free licenses are a big unknown, but lately (in my anecdotal experience) they’ve been more willing to use and follow the licenses than in years past. Here are the spreads.

Top: The New Republic, 11 March 2013. Bottom: Rolling Stone, 28 February 2013

I’ve tried to follow how these photos have been used online, as well, to understand how–and how well–freely licensed images are used by news websites. Of the 42  uses I’ve looked at there are:

  • 6 that follow the license, or come close enough. (If they include a link to the original on Commons or Flickr, I count it as close enough, since others will be able to find all the attribution and license info, even if the reuser isn’t following the license to the letter.)
  • 9 that provide attribution to me, but do not follow the license (ie, there’s no indication that the file is freely licensed).  Among these is the long Slate profile that is also sold as a Kindle ebook… but with no attribution in the ebook that I can tell.
  • 9 (most of which credit me) that add an illegitimate attribution to photo agencies: DPA/Corbis, DPA/Landov and such. Among them: Business Week, New York Magazine, New Scientist, and Two from did not initially credit me, only the photo agencies, but the credits were updated after @wikisignpost contacted them. A few others still don’t. I’m not sure how the photo got appropriated into (I assume) DPA’s collection, but they seem to be distributing it widely and internationally.
  • 18 that provide no attribution. In addition to the Amazon ebook version of the Slate piece, the more significant places that don’t use any attribution include the Boston NPR station, Democracy Now, and a Fast Company piece by the project lead of Creative Commons Brazil.

Probably the most interesting use is this mixed media derivative (unattributed, and with no free licensing that I can tell) from a Hungarian website. If anyone knows the language and wants to try to get them to release it under a free license, please do.


The writer put me in touch with their photo editor, who sent me a screenshot from the Landov website, showing how my photo appears in the photo licensing database.The last part of the Caption section reads:

Photo: Sage Ross (Editor’s note: usable only under consideration of Creative Commons Lizenz CC-BY-SA 2.0 and will full reference) DPA/LANDOV

But the Comments/Restrictions section is blank, and the Photographers/Source line that news orgs would typically use just says SAGE ROSS/DPA/LANDOV. So basically they are charging news organizations for this photo and hiding away the fact that it’s not their photo to license in the normal way, and that if their customers want to use it, they actually have to follow the same rules as everyone who gets it for free from the original source.

325 thoughts on “the use of Aaron Swartz photographs”

  1. This is exactly why I hate copyleft, and hate, hate, HATE that some people want to make sure that the non-free licenses (like BY-NC, BY-NC-ND, BY-ND, BY-NC-SA) are deprecated (as if Copyleft is perfect). Copyleft has all sorts of restrictions that forces people to follow them, thus removing everything that makes them “free”. Even CC-BY forces attribution.

    That’s why in situations where Copyleft is required (à la Wikipedia) I go all the way and declare my work in the Public Domain. No half-measures. I have even done so here, here, here and here. Even Nina Paley saw the light and changed the © status of her work from BY-SA to Public Domain.

    If you’re gonna be free, be completely free.

    1. I see your point, this is one option.

      On the other hand, and this is not a troll, I think about the contractual obligations I commit to, with or without any knowledge, when I access content and use services provided by many (probably all) of the sites who used one of Sage’s images.

      As many users, I constantly negotiate territory on their terms, sometimes unenforceable, other times reasonable, and yet others outlandish.

      The cc-by-sa, the share-alike clause, or copyleft itself are simple contractual obligations that work in the opposite direction from creator, even reader, to institution or firm. These licenses aren’t mere toys, but they also aren’t the best of all worlds. Copyright reform is sufficiently impossible or far away that these licenses permit certain types of exchanges in lieu of a better world.

      If you contend that access to information and knowledge is a moral obligation and a political struggle, then copyleft systems are tactics to share under terms more consistent with a moral fabric that supports a culture, and a society, that are more free.

      The public domain, and use of CC0, are absolutely vital, and in some contexts extremely appropriate, but I stand in solidarity with cc-by-sa, and all users of this license, because we are engaged in a complex negotiation for a world where copyleft is unnecessary. Until then, to expose how these negotiations fail is more important for the community supporting a creative commons than it is for institutions that may not adapt and may thus be deprecated.

      Just my 2 cents 😉

      1. Fair enough. If you want BY-SA, I respect that. My point is that some people (like the Students for a free culture) want to deprecate the ND and NC conditions which–like you said–offer boilerplate contractual obligations. Fortunately, they were unsuccessful, but had they been successful, people like me would have had less options for licensing media.

        Also, I believe that imposing an obligation to license the same terms is paradoxically taking away one’s freedom. I believe that true freedom should allow derivative works to be locked up. After all, the original is still free, isn’t it? For example, as much as Disney’s derivative films didn’t contribute to a shared commons, not one of them had any effect on the public domain status of the original.

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