Virgin Mobile recently launched an ad campaign in Australia built around photos found on Flickr, the popular Yahoo!-owned photo-sharing site. Flickr offers its users the option of tagging their photos with one of six Creative Commons licenses:

  • Attribution
  • Attribution-NoDerivs
  • Attribution-Noncommercial-NoDerivs
  • Attribution-Noncommercial
  • Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike
  • Attribution-ShareAlike

Millions of photos have been posted under CC licenses, and advertisers are starting to make use of this rich store of content. Virgin Mobile did just that. Without contacting the photographers, the ad team added captions that disparaged the subjects of photos that had been given commercial-friendly CC licenses. For example, a picture of a 15-year old girl appeared over the words “Dump Your Pen Friend.” As you might imagine, the usual “I’m not a lawyer, but…” debate quickly brewed up across several blogs. Beyond the obvious comments about Virgin’s lack of class in this scenario, several points of contention arose, some having to do with who was most at fault for the confusion, and some having to do with whether a model release was required. Distilled, these arguments center on one question: Are Creative Commons licenses too confusing for users, and therefore doing more harm than good? The question is not new. Richard Stallman’s critique of Creative Commons licenses is well known in Open Source circles:

I no longer endorse Creative Commons. I cannot endorse Creative Commons as a whole, because some of its licenses are unacceptable. It would be self-delusion to try to endorse just some of the Creative Commons licenses, because people lump them together; they will misconstrue any endorsement of some as a blanket endorsement of all. I therefore find myself constrained to reject Creative Commons entirely.

The opposing view, as articulated by Ars Technica’s Ken Fisher, is that the variety of choices provided by Creative Commons is a strength, not a weakness:

As a historian, I look at the balkanized state of Creative Commons licensing and cannot help but see something rather exciting: everyday people have different expectations of how their work should be valued, protected, and distributed. This manifests itself in different licensing decisions made by content producers, which on the ‘net includes anyone who wants to create.

Flickr is not alone in encouraging users to upload content under Creative Commons licenses. Dozens of sites, from Jamendo and Magnatune to Revver and IntraText Digital Library now carry CC-licensed content. This isn’t the last time a Creative Commons licensing issue is going to become big news. So is giving content creators more licensing choices a good thing, or is it too much for them to handle? Posing the question that way makes the argument against CC licenses seem a bit paternalistic, doesn’t it?