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One hand Schmapping

If the first Dotcom bubble was all about selling imaginary businesses to stupid venture capitalists, Dotcom 2.0 seems mostly to comprise ingenious new methods of grabbing free photos from gullible amateurs on the wide-eyed web and repurposing them to make a corporate mint. Crowdsourcing is the buzz, and few venues are as crowded with willing sources as photosharing site “Flickr.”

If the first Dotcom bubble was all about selling imaginary businesses to stupid venture capitalists, Dotcom 2.0 seems mostly to comprise ingenious new methods of grabbing free photos from gullible amateurs on the wide-eyed web and re-purposing them to make a corporate mint. Crowdsourcing is the buzz, and few venues are as crowded with willing sources as photosharing site Flickr.

So it’s not altogether surprising that Schmap should view Flickr as a great resource. Schmap offers free, downloadable online travel guides, using thousands of travel images lifted from Flickr. They claim to have viewed 448,000 to arrive at a shortlist of 7,790 photos by 1,949 photographers. And why not? The vast majority of Flickr photos are flagged with a Creative Commons Share-alike attribution required, no-commercial-use licence.

Well, the Schmap guides are free, but that doesn’t make them non-commercial. They’re supported by advertising, lots of it. Moreover Schmap is partnered with TeleAtlas, ‘worldwide leading provider of digital maps and dynamic location content for a variety of navigation, location-based services, geospatial products, and database solutions’, and WCities ‘a globally local multi-platform information service provider for wireless operators, WAP portals, web portals and travel service providers. WCities has operations in hundreds of cities in over 70 countries’. Clearly Schmap is no more ‘non commercial’ than Google. Every page and every guide is marked in a delicate pale-grey-on-paler-grey ‘Copyright © 2007 Schmap, Inc. All rights reserved.’ This is a direct contradiction to most CC licensing which insists any derivative works retain the share-alike terms of the incorporated works.

We’ve seen before that the Flickr crowd can quickly turn into an ugly mob if provoked by the wrong sort of entrepreneur. There have been a few recent small riots resulting from commerce colliding with the Flickr community. Rebekka Guoleifsdóttir’s pics turning up on eBay, and Lara Coton’s self-portrait at 14 turning up on a porno DVD sleeve have created a maelstrom of bile. The community is quite capable of hanging your virtual corpse from a lamp-post if you annoy them. Even if they’re happy to share for free, they dislike having their hopes unscrupulously trampled.

Schmap for Schmuks

It has to be said that Flickr is at least as confused as everyone else by the mayhem that is today’s photography market. Flickr is a mashup of hobbyists who merely want to share snaps of kittens and sunsets and rather a lot of more serious photographers who covertly dream of dumping the day job and becoming pro’s someday. For now, all are content to share for free, but the expectation is that enough exposure and recognition should eventually lead to fees, fame and stardom if you are good enough.

This is of course romantic rubbish : there really are no clear demarcation lines between pros and amateurs anymore except an insistence on being paid that is being rendered untenable by oversupply. ‘Pro’ means ‘makes a living’. Every aspirant pro who gives away their work ‘for exposure’ undercuts their own future by demonstrating to clients that they need not pay for work they consider good enough to use. So they never will.

Schmap read this mindset perfectly: vanity is a misdirection technique worthy of Derren Brown where Flickr users are concerned, so Schmap flattered then into submission. Many – in fact 1,534, 79% of those asked – were delighted to have their work appropriated regardless of the licence difficulty because they were chuffed to be thought worth publishing for free. Or exploiting as that used to be called. They also generated masses of publicity and traffic for Schmap when they all went away and bragged to their mates: ‘look, I’ve had my pictures used, I must be good.’ How cool is that for a business model? Free content and the suppliers throw in free advertising out of gratitude for the deal.

It certainly seems to work. Schmap say over 10m guides have been downloaded since March 2006, and each one contains even more ads than it does photos.

Inevitably Schmap did not escape criticism from the odd anal-retentive grouch drawing attention to the mismatch of idealistic Web 2.0 sharing and Mammon, but Schmap at least had the decency to ask if their usage was OK by emailing punters through Flickrmail. Most Flickrers were happy to comply, but not all including Joe Gratz were so flattered that they entirely lost their marbles: “Your photo(s) shown below have been short-listed for inclusion in our Schmap San Francisco Guide, to be published March 2006. The creative commons license that you’ve assigned your photo(s) provides for non-commercial use. While all our Schmap destination guides will be FREE to download, some photographers might nevertheless consider these to be commercial (advertising revenue will support free distribution to our readers)...”

Says Gratz ‘This strikes me as an exceedingly smart way to develop a pool of free urban photography. Rather than plunging forward and planning to brush off infringement claims from small-time Creative Commons licensors, they decided to ask permission, trusting that photographers’ egos will lead them to grant it.’

Schmoozing with Schmap

Schmap quickly polished their seduction technique further, sending people to a link instead of spelling out the catch in an email they might read. Even so, not all Flickrers were soft-soaped.

‘So the other day I got the following e-mail: Hi Vidiot, I am writing to let you know that six of your photos with a creative commons license have been short-listed for inclusion in our Schmap New York Guide, to be published late March 2006.

Clicking this link (redacted — Ed.) will take you to a page where you can: i) See which of your photos have been short-listed ii) Submit or withdraw your photos from our final selection phase iii) Learn how we credit photos in our Schmap Guides iv) Download and preview a sample Schmap Guide.

‘This is flattering — it’s always exciting when someone notices something you’ve created, and wants to use it. But looking at their terms of service and learning more about the site made my antennae go up. Schmap is not proposing, as best as I can tell, to use my photos under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license (under which terms I’ve made all my photos available to the public.) And, if they were using that CC license, they actually wouldn’t need to contact me at all; I’ve already given blanket permission for noncommercial use, providing that they attribute the source of my images and that derivative works made from my images be distributed under the same CC license.’

Vidiot is a lawyer, so not your average Flickr naif. He actually read the 550 words of Schmap T&C where they require a perpetual, non-exclusive Royalty Free license, submission to Californian law and acceptance of a few liabilities. But even he missed that one of the more interesting aspects of CC licensing is that it’s to all intents and purposes irrevocable. Once an image has been released under CC, you can’t rewind the licence to more restrictive terms. Copies already circulating with CC licence would undermine any that claimed to reserve more rights. You’d never make it stick.

But ahead-of-the-game Schmap also say they will display the photos with their original CC licence terms ‘wherever possible’.

Schitting on your own doorstep

So what we end up with here c/o Schmap’s bespoke and no doubt rather expensive legal advice and 4 screens of legalese is a Creative Commons-licensed image which grants non-exclusive royalty-free rights for use within a Copyright-All-Rights-Reserved commercial context but transfers Creative Commons rights to anyone else who wants to use it. Oh, and you mustn’t look at the site at all if you are under 13.

All this is as clear as mud, but you have to admire the baroque quality of innovative wriggling required to work around a licence designed to facilitate free public sharing, yet keep the Flickrers onside so Schmap can make money exclusively for themselves.

The irrepressibly leading-edge Schmap also had the bright idea of exploiting their contributors still further by offering them ‘The Schmap Picker’ : ‘a tool so you could give Schmap Guides directly to your blog readers or website visitors’.

Yet again this was a bit much for some stick-in-the-mud Flickrers, including a clearly irritated striatic:

‘Just because I let you use one of my photos does not mean I have invited you to spam me in some effort at viral promotion. You’d better seriously watch what you mass mail. Flickr is delightfully spam free and if you continue to push the limits of what is acceptable in terms of promotion .. well .. I suggest you not be surprised if people start reporting your service as a violation of Flickr’s non-commercial clause..’

After a long discussion striatic calmed down and Schmap assured that ‘We’ll do our best to stay the right side of the line throughout all this.’

But since then Schmap seem to have further streamlined the tedious business of asking permission, by not asking permission. Flickr user cobalt123:FYI, my photos in Phoenix and Tucson were Schmapped today, but I got an announcement, not an invitation. They are already “there” in the Schmap guides.’ A user called Viche agrees: ‘I got the same message today saying that four of my photos were included in the new Edinburgh guide. Which is a bit strange, because a couple of weeks ago I removed the CC license from photos on Flickr and went back to full copyright.’ Someone else helpfully pointed out that if they were downloaded with a CC licence, then CC they were.

And here’s the problem with crowdsourcing, that every crowd contains a few awkward buggers who will very publically complain and expose your brave and innovative attempts to make money out of other peoples’ work. No matter how you spin it, you’ll always be on the back foot against these accusations of all manner of unsavoury deceits. Such endless negativity and bad PR must be terribly discouraging and frustrating to entrepreneurs bent on conjuring their dot-com millions out of thin air.

So we at EPUK have put our grizzled, cynical heads together and we believe we can offer a brilliant, blue-sky solution. We won’t even assert copyright, which is most unusual for us: for once, we want to share. It’s radical, it’s totally out there. It would take some getting used to but it might even work. It is this : if you want to make money using photographers’ work, pay fairly for usage then everyone will be happy.

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