Flickr's future under SmugMug control: What you need to know

The venerable photo-sharing website will for the first time since 2005 be run by a photography-focused company. Here's what'll change and what won't.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
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SmugMug will change Flickr, but keep its brand and website separate.

SmugMug will change Flickr, but keep its brand and website separate.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

If your own photos are among the tens of billions at Flickr, the photo-sharing service SmugMug agreed to acquire from Verizon's Yahoo, you might be wondering about now what will become of them.

When announcing the acquisition deal Friday, SmugMug made it clear it's not folding Flickr into its existing photo-sharing business or scrapping a brand established in 2004. But Flickr's future is up for discussion now, and some photographers are uncertain and worried.

SmugMug doesn't want Flickr members to fret about the change in ownership. "We are not planning on Flickrizing SmugMug or SmugMugging Flickr," Chief Executive Don MacAskill said in an interview. MacAskill even donned a panda suit to pay homage to Flickr's mascot and inside joke.

But what about the details? Here's a look at what we know so far, in FAQ form.

What's this SmugMug company anyway?

SmugMug, founded in 2002, is a site where professionals and amateurs can share and sell photos. Unlike many internet sharing services -- Facebook's Instagram, most notably -- it's not free to use. Plans cost between $4 and $30 per month, and those fees have funded a profitable business with no advertising and no outside investments. And while Flickr has adapted to social network trends on the internet, for example by showing your contacts' photos instead of your own when you log on, SmugMug has largely sidestepped the social network frenzy.

Verizon has agreed to sell Flickr, but the acquisition deal won't close until May 25, the company said. "We basically need (and want) to give everyone a fair chance to make sure they like and agree to the new privacy policy and terms of service," MacAskill said.

Should I be freaking out?

No. SmugMug may not be your cup of tea, but it cares a lot about Flickr's core mission, photography. It's not clear how well it will handle its new responsibilities and improve Flickr, but it seems unlikely that Flickr will be worse off than it was during periods of neglect or inattention at Yahoo.

Some informed observers are optimistic. "My first impression was 'Flickr has been saved,'" said Jeffrey Friedl, a photographer and programmer who for years has offered software that lets people more easily send photos stored in their Adobe Lightroom catalog to Flickr. And Thomas Hawk, a photographer who now has 140,268 photos at Flickr, predicts that SmugMug ownership "will allow them to be much more nimble in terms of hacking on and developing the site ... I also think it's great that from what I can tell the entire team at Flickr is being retained."

Will my Flickr photos turn into SmugMug photos?

No. Flickr will continue as its own brand and its own site, separate and different from the SmugMug site. The only immediate change will be to the privacy policy and terms of service. SmugMug will change Flickr, but only as a way to improve Flickr, SmugMug said.

SmugMug costs money. Is this the end of free Flickr accounts?

Emphatically not.

"Flickr's free accounts are foundational to its community of influential and engaged photographers. We are not making any changes to Flickr plans or rates at this time," SmugMug said in a tweet. And in a Quora post, MacAskill added, "We are committed to a huge, healthy, vibrant community of people using the free plan."

SmugMug is acquiring Flickr from Verizon and its Yahoo subsidiary.

SmugMug is acquiring Flickr from Verizon and its Yahoo subsidiary.


And what happens to Flickr Pro accounts?

Nothing, at least not yet. The paid accounts, which cost $6 per month or $50 per year, come with various benefits, most notably no advertisements. There's a new promotion for new or returning Flickr Pro members, with a 45-day free introductory period.

Do I still have to log in to Flickr with a Yahoo account?

Yes, but not for long.

"Customer feedback so far: 1. Fix login. (Knew this, but urgency amp'd)," MacAskill tweeted. It's not clear how long that will take, but once it takes place, you'll no longer have to use a Yahoo email address to sign on. "Over time, Flickr's sign-in will be separated from Yahoo's and when that happens, you'll have the ability to choose how you log in," SmugMug said.

What if I don't want to be part of SmugMug-owned Flickr?

You can take your photos and delete your Flickr account.

Here are instructions on how to download all your Flickr photos. Even if you don't want to delete your Flickr account, it's a good idea to have your own copy of your shots if they're important to you. Unfortunately, you'll have to retrieve your photos in batches of up to 500 at a time. "I suspect there are some thorny technical issues limiting that right now. Something we can likely improve and solve with time, but we don't have a magic wand today," MacAskill said.

The existing Flickr privacy policy and its terms of service apply until May 25.

What happens to Flickr's Creative Commons support?

SmugMug has been more about photographers selling their shots than giving them away, but Flickr will keep its support for Creative Commons.

Flickr has been a major supporter of the Creative Commons, a licensing mechanism that lets people share a photo or other content so others can use it in various ways -- similar in some ways to open-source software. For example, many images on Wikipedia are used through Creative Commons licenses. There are more than 1.4 billion works released under Creative Commons, and 381 million of them are on Flickr, Creative Commons CEO Ryan Merkley tweeted.

Also sticking around will be the Flickr Commons, a collection of royalty-free, often historic images from dozens of libraries, museums, government archives and universities. "So excited to collaborate and grow the priceless world treasure that is CC-licensed work at Flickr, especially the Flickr Commons," MacAskill tweeted.

Will programmers be happy tapping into Flickr?

More than a decade ago, Flickr pioneered the ability for outside programmers to tap into Flickr's massive image library, for example letting people write apps that would upload photos to Flickr or publish a blog that showed Flickr photos. If you're one of those developers, you'll be happy to know that the tool, called an application programming interface, or API, should be reinvigorated.

"We feel strongly that the open API is one of the strengths of the platform. We will not only support, but invest there," SmugMug tweeted.

But Friedl, who uses APIs from both Flickr and SmugMug, added a note of caution. For example, SmugMug released a new API in beta four years ago and still hasn't labeled it production-ready even though it retired the earlier official API.

Overall, Event photographer Paul Clarke assesses SmugMug's acquisition as giving Flickr "a glimmer of hope." He's tried to drop Flickr several times over the years but found nothing that could match it, he said in a blog post.

"Sure, I can take all my photos to Google Photos or Amazon, but they don't offer the wealth of tagging, grouping, nuanced access permissions and licensing that Flickr does," Clarke said. "Heaven help SmugMug if they muck that stuff up."

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