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.

lens attachments part 2: 60x microscope

After becoming enamored with the pair of cheap phone lens attachments I bought, I decided to try out the common “60x” microscope. Although it doesn’t use the same magnetic ring attachments and is supposed to go with iPhones (it uses a form-fitting case to attach), I saw a review where someone mentioned gluing the ring magnet from another lens onto it to make it work with other phones. So I ordered one to give that a try.

A bit of superglue and a spare ring magnet makes it quite usable on my HTC One XL. Here are the same pixels from my television, shot with the microscope and with the macro lens. The fine structure of individual pixels resolves a little better with the microscope.

Here is an ink and paper drawing (a closeup of this) illuminated with the LEDs that come with it.

The main downside with this lens is that the visible area makes up only a small portion of the sensor. The shots above are “zoomed”; the visible area is actually about 1/3 the width of an uncropped image. Still, the design of the barrel along with the built-in lights makes it easier to get a good, well-lit image than it is with the macro (which creates disruptive shadows over the subject in most lighting). So, $5.23 well-spent.

phone + lens attachments = win

Fisheye lens with magnetic ring attachment. Teh awsum.

Phone lens attachments are my new favorite thing. I got a pair of them (this fisheye and this macro/wide-angle) for around $11, and they are delightful. You put a little stick-on metal ring on your phone’s camera, and the lenses attach magnetically. In the first shot from the gallery you can see the field of view for the macro, the un-augmented camera, then the wide-angle and fish-eye.

Enough chatter. See some highlights of the fisheye and macro from my first few days with them (using my HTC One XL).


How much should I charge for use of my photos?

That’s a question that’s been tough for me, as it is for a lot of amateurs with decent cameras who occasionally get the chance to make a bit of money through their photography. So just to provide some points of reference, I’ll share a few of my experiences.

This is the first photo I made money from:

Education, a stained glass window at Yale created by Louis Comfort Tiffany

An editor from New Scientist contacted me through Wikipedia. (I had actually released it public domain, but they wanted to license it directly.) I had no idea what to ask, which I think I told them, and I think the $300 I got for it was their first offer to me. (Actually, when the wire transfer came through, it was only $275, minus an additional $10 bank fee.) It was used as a half-page illustration in the middle of the 19 July 2008 issue. Given that this was their first offer, it was probably toward the low end of what I could have gotten.

In 2009, made $100 from another public domain photo, of a painting of the Great Fire of London. Parthenon Entertainment contacted me through Wikimedia Commons, and I explained that, in the US, my photo wasn’t even eligible for copyright, but that I would license whatever rights I might or might not have in the photo for $250. They said limited budget was why they turned to Commons in the first place, and they could just offer $100. I said yes and counted myself lucky.

Also in 2009, I got $50 for a shot of a Loring peach from Macore, a company that makes plant tags and labels for nurseries. They would have used the CC license if I was okay with with a website only credit, but they didn’t want to put a credit on the actual plant tag they made with it.

“Austin Joseph”, perhaps

In 2010, I discovered using TinEye that an digital textbook company was using an image I took of a sign-holding protester from a health care reform town hall meeting for one of their videos, without following the license. I sent them an email asking them to release video under the appropriate license… or alternatively, I’d take $400 for permission to use the image. They took that option. Unfortunately, I don’t know who the young man in the photo is (and of course, have no model release form, although that shouldn’t be necessary for the types of editorial use in an educational context that they are using it for). An anonymous editor tagged it on Commons as “Austin Joseph”, but that’s not much help.

Later in 2010, the journal Science published a portrait I made of historian Steven Shapin in a review of his book, crediting the image as “SAGE ROSS / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS” but without mention of the license. Since they really ought to know better (and they are pay-walled, and subscriptions are very pricy), I explained in an email to the editors how they had neglected to use a free license and attached an unsolicited invoice for $2000. I never heard back.

In early 2012, after I sent an email to the Pittsburgh Zoo about some photos of their beautiful infant gorilla, they put many of them up on their blog, and then the photos spread to ZooBorns. Then, I got contacted by; I ended up asking for and getting $200 for the use of four shots on their (then new) Animal Tracks blog. (Tragically, the baby gorilla died a few months later.)

In March 2012, I got a cold email from Envision Communications, a political ad firm that had seen a Tea Party protest photo of mine on a random blog. (Incidentally, the blog credited me by name, but didn’t follow the license.) They wanted to use it in a campaign commercial they were producing (for a Democrat). I figured it was time to aim higher with my pricing (and hey, TV!) so I think I threw out $1000. They said their budget would allow more like $150, and I ultimately got $175 for it (for use in only one commercial). The producer said he’d let me know once it aired so I could see it, but that must have fallen off his radar during the hectic campaign season. (UPDATE: I pinged them, and it turns out the spot didn’t end up running.)

UPDATE – 2014-06-07

I got contacted earlier this year by Cengage Learning, who requested to use three of my photos from tea party and health care protests for a journalism textbook. They asked for an invoice in the first email, so I said I would send one shortly for $1800. They said the maximum budget was $350 per photo, and corrected that to $300 shortly after. It took a few months, but I finally did get $900 for the three of them.

One trend I noticed is that I’ve gotten a lot of photo inquiries to my (now out-of-date) work email, even though it’s not the account associated with my photos on either Flickr or Commons. The takeaway, I think, is that people will use whatever email they find when they google your name or look at your profile, so if you want people to randomly offer to pay you for photos, it’s good to add your human-readable email address somewhere easy to find.

UPDATE – 2014-09-12

Since the previous update, I’ve licensed another photo, of my grandpa’s old hinny, for use in the 2nd edition of Carl Zimmer’s book Evolution. I asked for $300, and the photo editor said her per picture limit was $150. I wanted to test the supposed limit, so I said I could do $200; that apparently needed to be run by the publisher, but I ultimately got $175 (after a few weeks). Probably it wouldn’t be worth the risk for just the extra $25, but it was good to get that data point; in cases where I think it could fetch considerably more than the stated limit, I’ll definitely hold out in the future.

Kindle screensavers: Karl Blossfeldt

Inspired by Parker Higgins’s set of Kindle screensavers, I’ve put together one of my own featuring the botanical photographs of Karl Blossfeldt. It has 17 images so far, most of which I scanned from the set of 10 double-sided Blossfeldt prints I won recently on eBay.

Download the full set (zip file, 1.6 MB)

Having a set of screensavers that suits your taste definitely makes the Kindle experience a fair bit better.  If you like these, let me know; I’ll add more whenever I find more suitable Blossfeldt images.  (I stuck to vertically-oriented prints with light backgrounds that could be burned to white, since mottled gray backgrounds  tend to look posterized on the Kindle.)

Vignette for Android keeps getting better

cross-processing, vignetting, color gradient, film grain, in a square instant frame

I’m not usually one to get effusive about software, but Vignette, my main camera app on my Android phone, is just awesome.  Every time my phone alerts me to app updates, I get excited at the possibility that there’s a new Vignette feature.  Since I reviewed it in September, Neil and Theresa have added some awesome new ones, really opening up the creative potential of the app.

The most powerful new features are the strip and grid modes, which create composites of four consecutive shots:

A strip of shots with the Holga effect

You can make photobooth-like strips, and you can even do four quarter-frame shots to simulate a Supersampler.  My favorite approach is to use that mode to make a panorama:

Four quarterframes make a lo-fi panorama.

Just the other day, a new update added a double-exposure mode.  I haven’t done much to explore the possibilities with it yet, but here’s my favorite one so far:

a double exposure: Brighton, and portraits of him on the wall

I’ve put up over 200 Vignette-made shots so far since late July, about 2 shots per day.

Review of Vignette, the best Android camera app

I see all the cool 20-somethings running around the interweb these days, posting hipster photos taken on iPhones with the Hipstamatic app.  I got a new Android phone recently, a dinc.  The camera hardware is good, but the default camera app is pretty terrible.  Fortunately, there is one good Android app for artistic photography: Vignette, by neilandtheresa.

The list of effects is large and growing, and they are generally really well-implemented and tasteful.  The “normal” effect, which is intended to be film-like, usually produces better results than the default camera: good color balance (with no blue cast like the default often has), stronger contrast, subtle vignetting to emphasize the center of the frame, and nicer grain texture than the harsh pixel noise of the default.

“Normal” processing, 3:2 rounded frame

Vignette has a wide assortment of vintage photography effects: strong vignetting, light leaks, cross-processing, several varieties of toy camera effects, faded old photo effects, sepia, platinotype, bleach bypass, overexposure and underexposure (which work nicely in combination to create dramatic contrast) on and on.  These kinds of things are often done badly, but Neil and Theresa have done an excellent job with almost every effect.  The set of retro color effects is especially good; I’m partial to the “retro cyan” effect, which I use as the baseline for a lot of my favorite effect combinations.  (You can save your favorite setting combinations.)

“Retro cyan” effect; film grain, vignetting, overexposure and underexposure; instant square frames

One of the best things about Vignette is that you can change the effects around however you like after you take a picture.  You can save a copy with one effect, then change things around or go back to the unaltered photo and save another copy.  If you exit the app without saving (even if you kill it), your latest picture will still be there waiting for you when you open it up again.  You can also import picture to process with it.

Sometimes it takes a while to find just the right options for a good shot.

Vignette has improved quite a bit since I bought it, with some new effects and technical options.  The developers also respond personally to feature requests and suggestions, and have been quick to fix new bugs.  There’s a “Fake HDR” setting that is listed as in development; it doesn’t seem to do anything yet, but I’m looking forward to the Vignette take on HDR.

There a few other things I’d like to see added:

  • More frame options that have some character, like some dirty and scratchy instant camera borders
  • Randomized effects for scratches and blotches on the photos
  • A variety of cross-processing effects with variable intensity.  (The main cross-processing effect is pretty heavy-handed for my taste.)
  • Composites
  • Fish eye
  • Photochrom effect
  • A better gallery, with the ability to scroll/flick from photo to photo
  • Better EXIF data

There are a few other camera apps in this vein, but none are worth using.  The free version of Vignette, which is limited to .3 MP images, is the second-best camera app I’ve found next to the full version.  I’ve tested the high-rated competitors, Camera ZOOM FX (which I promptly uninstalled for a refund) and the free version of Camera 360.  Each of them has a few interesting features that Vignette lacks (e.g., sound-activated shutter), but the quality of the effects just doesn’t hold a candle to Vignette; most of the effects are just cheesy and unattractive.  Vignette also has a better interface, although it takes a while to figure out how to access all the different settings.

Check out what I’ve done with it so far on Flickr.

Flickr, Getty Images, and revoking CC licenses

Flickr started a program earlier this year with Getty Images, in which Getty staff find great photographers and ask them to put some of their work into the Flickr Collection on Getty Images, so that Getty can sell rights to the images and pay the photographers when their photos get licensed.  As the Flickr blog explains, they are now expanding this program: photographers can submit portfolios of their best work to be considered for inclusion by Getty.

When I first came across this Getty Images-Flickr program a few months ago I noticed something interesting in the terms of the program, and it might be a lot more significant now that this program is ramping up.  The FAQ specifically addresses the issue of CC-licensed photos:

There is a chance one of your Creative Commons-licensed photos may catch the eye of a perceptive Getty Images editor. You are welcome to upload these photos into the Flickr collection on Getty Images, but you are contractually obliged to reserve all rights to sale for your work sold via Getty Images. If you proceed with your submission, switching your license to All Rights Reserved (on Flickr) will happen automatically.

If you’re not cool with that, that’s totally cool. It just means that particular photo will need to stay out of the Flickr collection on Getty Images.

But what happens if, say, Wikimedia Commons already has those CC images?  Are Getty and Flickr basically just looking the other way about the fact that in many cases it wouldn’t be possible for photographers to” reserve all rights to sale” on their freely-licensed works that are circulating in the wild, even if they wanted to?  What about intentionally making sure your CC images have been added to Commons and verified by the Flickr review bot before submitting them to Getty?

How freely licensed photos generally get used (a sequel)

Last year, I blogged about how freely licensed photos are used and misused across the web.  Figuring out how my photos are being used (as long as I’m being credited by name) is much easier now with the Google search options (rolled out in May 2009 and with more options added just this month), which let you limit search results to newly indexed pages.

I have over 3500 CC BY-SA photos on Flickr (including lots of family photos, abstract shots, and other stuff unlikely to be reused) and probably around 1000 original photos on Wikimedia Commons, generally available under both GFDL and CC BY-SA (and a good portion of which are not duplicated on Flickr).  At this point there is a fairly steady stream of reuse, most of which I’m not directly aware of (except when I go looking, like now).  I estimate that my ~4000 photos are put to new uses at  rate about 15-20 times per week.  Let’s see what types of uses my photos have been put to recently.

Searches (limited to results first indexed within the last week) for “ragesoss” and “Sage Ross” ought to turn up nearly all of the new cases where I’m being credited for photos.

As before, the most active user of my photos is World News Network (, a set of algorithmically-generated sites that are titled like local or special interest newspapers but basically just link to offsite news stories, add free photos, and run ads against the photos and headlines.  For example, this story about pesticides in peaches links to the actual story from The Oklahoman but adds my picture of peaches.  The credit reads “(photo: GFDL / Sage Ross)”.  Although I think a link back to the source or my Commons userpage (which is where the attribution link at Commons points) is appropriate, it probably doesn’t violate the letter of the license (which is already stretched thin when applied to photos and other things very dissimilar from software manuals).  In another example, they use a CC license instead of the GFDL for my photo of coffee beans.  In this case, the credit reads “(photo: Creative Commons / Ragesoss)”, with no link to the specific license or the source.  This violates both the spirit and the letter of the CC BY-SA license.  World News Network has used my photos hundreds, maybe thousands of times, and I’m sure many other photos from Commons by other Wikimedians are being systematically (mis)used similarly.

Another common type of usage is from the many sites that are trying to monetize user-generated content and share the ad revenue between writer and website owner.  In these cases, it’s the individual writers who are responsible for obtaining photos (and rights thereto), so compliance with free licenses varies widely.  I found my photos on articles from and  The suite101 article, “Free Instructions on How to Make an Apple Pie“, uses a series of photos I took while my sister was making pie.  All the photos but one are credited to me and link back to the source on Commons, although no license info is indicated at suite101; this violates the letter, but not the spirit, of the CC licenses.  Oddly, the lead apple pie image is misattributed and links to an entirely different pie photo from a quasi-free stock photography site; the writer probably used that image first but then replaced it when she found my photos.  At HubPages, the article “Health Insurance Rescission and How To Fight It” uses my photo but merely credits it as “Photo by ragesoss” with no link or license information.  AssociatedContent is another site like that where my photos show up frequently; they seem to be better than most at following the provisions of free licenses.

Blogs use my images somewhat less frequently.  Recent uses include this entry in the Utne Reader “Science and Technology” blog (which does a great job with the credit line, linking to both source image and the specific CC license) and this one from the Choices Campus Blog (which has the mediocre credit line “Photo Credit: ragesoss at” with no link).

A final significant category of uses is in articles from professional news and content sites.  Overall, these sites are somewhat more likely to use freely licensed images properly, but sloppy or improper uses are still common in my experience.  The only recent credit I found is from the CNBC story “GE, Comcast Continue Talks Over NBC Stake“.  The unlinked credit line simply reads “Photo: Ragesoss”, but the photo is one of my few early photos on Commons that I released as public domain rather than a copyleft license.  So CNBC doesn’t have any legal obligation to give a more precise photo credit (or even to credit me at all), although if only for the sake of journalistic integrity they probably ought to do better.

Conclusion: People use freely licensed photos liberally from Flick and Wikimedia Commons, but there isn’t much indication that most reusers understand what the licenses mean or what they require from reusers.  The free culture movement has a long way to go; cultural change is a lot slower than license adoption.

On a tangent, it’d be nice if Wikimedia Commons was equipped with something like refbacks combined with image recognition to automatically discover and collect web pages that are reusing Commons media.  I think I’ll make a proposal on the Wikimedia Strategy Wiki when I get a chance.

Wikipedia and Olympics Committee heading for collision?

CC-BY-SA photo of Usain Bolt, by Richard Giles

It looks like Wikipedia is  actually at the center of the recent copyright kerfluffle of the photographer (Richard Giles) who got a legal threat from the International Olympics Committee (IOC) over licensing his images from the Beijing Olympics under Creative Commons licenses.  Giles explains the situation on his blog:

It turns out that my Usain Bolt photo was being used by a book shop in the UK to advertise the launch of the Guinness Book of Records 2010. This was being done without my knowledge, and as they pointed out, in breach of the license granted on the Olympic ticket.

That photo was the only one of 293 in the set on Flickr that was licensed with a ShareAlike license (allowing commercial use) rather than a non-commercial license, and Giles had relicensed that particular photo at the request of another Flickrite so that it could be uploaded to Wikimedia Commons and used on Wikipedia.  And Wikipedia is probably where that UK merchant found it and, assuming the license to be legitimate, used it (so it would seem) under the terms of the free license.

Giles reports that it looks like the IOC really just objects to licensing that allows commercial use.   Depending on what the IOC says in response to his request for clarification, Giles may be changing the license on that Usain Bolt photo and asking the UK merchant to stop using it.

What happens now?  By buying a ticket to the Olympics, Giles’ appears to have (implicitly at least) agreed to terms and conditions that say he won’t use photos from the games except for private purposes.  But he does own the copyright to the Bolt photo, and therefore ought to (except for those terms and conditions) be able to license it however he likes.  Will the fine print of an Olympics ticket be strong enough to force Wikimedia (which agreed to no terms and conditions) to stop using the photo and offering it to other downstream users?