Flickr Commons photo archives will survive profitability push

Also off the hook: 400 million photos shared under Creative Commons licenses.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote 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
3 min read
The Flickr Commons is filled with images from libraries, museums and governmental organizations like the Senado Federal do Brasil.

The Flickr Commons is filled with images from libraries, museums and governmental organizations like the Senado Federal do Brasil.

Flickr; Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

When Flickr announced this month it will limit free accounts to 1,000 photos and delete any that cross that threshold, it wasn't immediately clear what happens to the Flickr Commons, the tens of millions of freely shareable photos from museums, governments and other archives.

Well, now we know: Flickr will keep them.

"The historical photos up there are just priceless. I'd hate to lose them and i'd hate for the world to lose them, so I'm going to do everything in my power to protect them," said Don MacAskill, chief executive of SmugMug, the photography site that acquired Flickr earlier this year from Verizon's Yahoo.

The move is good news for institutions like the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, George Eastman Museum, New York Public Library, and NASA. The Flickr Commons is filled with photographs of everything from the execution of the Lincoln assassination conspirators to Australian teachers' physical training in 1923 to an English woman seeking the right to vote.

But it's potentially more important for lesser-known organizations like the Finnish Broadcasting Company or San Diego Air and Space Museum or Galt Museum whose archives might not otherwise come to light. Flickr Commons is like a giant, searchable museum on the internet.

Flickr's ups and downs

Flickr, founded in 2004, grew in popularity as a hub for photography enthusiasts who could share their daily lives through its "photostream" and join groups devoted to things like animal photography or "lomography" photos taken with the Russian Lomo film camera.

Yahoo acquired Flickr in 2005 and struggled to keep it relevant as people shared snapshots on Facebook, embraced social-savvy photo services like Instagram and experimented with other photo-centric sites such as 500px.

A free terabyte of storage for all Flickr members during Yahoo's years under the leadership of CEO Marissa Mayer was one of several efforts to revitalize the site. SmugMug is doing away with that plan, steering serious users to the $50 annual pro subscriptions.

Creative Commons also preserved

In addition to the Flickr Commons archives, Flickr will keep the 400 million photos that ordinary photographers have shared at Flickr for others to use under Creative Commons licenses, too.

That's good news, said Ryan Merkley, CEO of the Creative Commons project, in a Wednesday tweet. "I'm really grateful to Don MacAskill and [Chief Operating Officer] Ben MacAskill at SmugMug who see the value of the commons, and are honouring their commitments as stewards," he said.

Merkley had voiced optimism when Flickr announced its move to the 1,000-photo limit for free users and the $50 annual subscription for Flickr pro users on Nov. 1. 

"We want to ensure that when users share their works that they are available online in perpetuity and that they have a great experience. At the same time, I think it's fair to say that the business models that have powered the web for so long are fundamentally broken," he said in a blog post.

Merkley decried "surveillance capitalism," a disparaging term for the business of harvesting personal data for advertisers. MacAskill has also criticized the approach, though even under SmugMug Flickr shows ads for non-paying members.

Every CC-licensed photo uploaded before Flickr announced its new policy on Nov. 1 will be preserved, MacAskill said -- though free members will still have non-CC photos deleted if they have more than 1,000, and they won't be able to upload new ones. Given the Nov. 1 cutoff, don't expect you'll be able to preserve a mammoth archive by now switching it to the Creative Commons.

How exactly to handle newly uploaded photos governed by CC licenses "is a big of a gray area we are figuring out," MacAskill said. "We can't have people just go flag tens of billions of photos to CC and we find ourselves in an entirely new world."

Flickr also committed to keeping its service free for nonprofit organizations. They can fill out a form that grants them free, unlimited use of Flickr, MacAskill said.

"SmugMug always offered nonprofits unlimited, free use," he said. "We'll do same at Flickr."

First published Nov. 7, 8 a.m. PT.
Update, 9:26 a.m.: Adds more background and comment from Ryan Merkley.

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