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500px photo site abandons freely shareable images with commercialization push

New management, new priorities: Bye-bye Creative Commons licensing.

The 500px site for photo sharing and licensing is getting rid of the ability to offer or retrieve images shared under the liberal terms of Creative Commons licenses.

The 500px site for photo sharing and licensing is getting rid of the ability to offer or retrieve images shared under the liberal terms of Creative Commons licenses.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

500px, a photo-sharing community that's been transforming into an image-licensing business, has backed away from a framework that let people freely share their photos with others.

On an FAQ website, the company said it's disabling the ability for people to upload or download photos shared under Creative Commons licenses. That framework lets people share images without many of the usual restrictions of copyright licensing, which is why Creative Commons licenses are so useful for sites like Wikipedia that rely on free contributions.

Some are distressed to hear about the Creative Commons cutoff.

 "It's over 1 million CC-licensed photos. Gone. Tomorrow," tweeted Jason Scott, who works on the Internet Archive, a repository that catalogs Creative Commons and public domain images. "No warning," he added in his Thursday tweets, saying there's not enough time for the archive to make copies.

For its part, 500px said Friday that it notified the Creative Commons project of the changes in mid-May and said there isn't much activity involving Creative Commons photos on its site. And the decision may not be final.

"There may be an opportunity to integrate Creative Commons back into our platform in the future," 500px said. "We'll be monitoring the feedback we receive from our community when this offering is removed over the weekend."

The move comes amid big changes for 500px, a site with more than 90 million often high-quality and eye-catching photos. In recent years, 500px added a licensing that let photographers sell their own photos. In February, Visual China Group, which runs the photo-licensing company Corbis, acquired 500px. On June 1, the company announced it'd shut down its own licensing business on June 30 in favor of a partnership with licensing powerhouse Getty Images. And last week, it promoted its strategy vice president, Aneta Filiciak, to chief executive.

"500px has always been, and will continue to be, focused on encouraging, celebrating, and rewarding incredible photography," Aneta in a statement. "We continually work on creating the best experience for our community members."

What is Creative Commons licensing?

Creative Commons is a cousin to the open-source software movement that blossomed as an alternative to proprietary methods. You can license text, photos, videos and other works under various Creative Commons licenses that let others do things like freely republish the original work, modify it or combine it with other works. Some CC licenses are more liberal than others. For example, some only permit resharing unmodified versions of the original work or prohibit commercial use, but others offer carte blanche.

CC-licensed photos are useful for publishers, students, artists and sites like Wikipedia that can't or don't want to pay to license imagery from more traditional sources like stock photo agencies. People offer their works under CC licenses to get greater exposure or to contribute to the world's freely available body of information.

500px was a major Creative Commons backer, though not as enthusiastic as Flickr, which helped popularize the idea. Other big backers include video sites YouTube and Vimeo.

Archive Team retrieved the photos

A digital preservation group called Archive Team managed to download the roughly 1 million CC-licensed images before the shutdown, and Creative Commons plans to link to them with a search tool it's developing, said Creative Commons CEO Ryan Merkley.

"We're grateful to the founders and leaders at 500px for their support for Creative Commons and for empowering a talented community of photographers to share their works with CC," Merkley said. But he thinks CC images didn't thrive at 500px in part because the company didn't focus on them.

"Their focus is obviously now monetization, but it's disingenuous to suggest CC works didn't fare well on the platform when they weren't given the same priority other platforms like Flickr give them," Merkley said.

Reasons 500px dropped Creative Commons licensing

500px said three factors led it to scrap Creative Commons images:

We don't have a lot of activity or usage of CC images, although we still have a number of photographers adding the CC licenses to their uploads.

We still have a number of bugs with the search experience for CC content, a pain point for customers trying to use CC images.

We have outdated CC licenses (3.0 or older).

One person baffled by 500px's move is the site's founder, Evgeny Tchebotarev, who no longer works for 500px.

"Creative Commons is critical to the growth and support of the open web," Tchebotarev tweeted. Of 500px's moves, he added, "The decisions of the last few years perplex me greatly."

First published June 29, 4:11 p.m.
Update, 11:50 p.m.:
Adds comment from 500px.

Update July 1, 7:45 p.m.: Adds comment from Creative Commons.

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