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May 20, 2007

Flickr copyright kerfuffle

Flickr censored comments complaining about copyright violations, the BBC reports.

It all started when popular Flickr photographer Rebekka Gudleifsdóttir found out that the online gallery Only-Dreemin' UK was allegedly selling her images without her consent.

Gudleifsdóttir estimates that the gallery made several thousand dollars off the illicit sale of  her work. The photos were eventually taken down, but the gallery refused to compensate the 28-year-old Icelandic student and single mom for the images.

The gallery claims to have bought the images from a third party who produced false documents to support their claim to copyright.

At this point, events become murky. According to the BBC article, Gudleifsdóttir posted a new photograph to her photo stream to protest her exploitation at the hands of Only-Dreemin'.

That image got more than 450 comments, including some that Flickr's administrator's deemed hostile or threatening towards the operators of the gallery. The article claims that Flickr deleted "the entire post," which I take to mean the image and all associated comments.

The image was reportedly deleted without warning, but not before racking up over 100,000 views.

I don't know what Rebekka's picture looked like, but somehow I doubt the image itself was threatening towards the Only Dreemin' Team. It wouldn't surprise me if individual commenters crossed the line and wrote inappropriate comments that deserved to be deleted. Flickr should have a zero-tolerance policy for threats.

However, I can't see any justification for deleting the image and all the comments.

To its credit, Flickr has since apologized to Gudleifsdóttir and admitted to deleting her image in error.

Gudleifsdóttir accepts the apology and continues to press for a legal resolution of her copyright dispute with Only-Dreemin' UK. I hope she gets a nice chunk of change from those who tried to rip her off.

Hat tip to reader Jonathan.

Update: Here are Gudleifsdóttir's own blog posts on the dispute.


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I am disappointed in Flickr. This story is troubling. Increasingly, our society is dependent on social interactions that happen through these online social communication forums: MySpace, TypePad, Blogger, Flickr. It is worrisome that they hold for themselves the right to censor posts. This is one way they differ from older communication technologies, such as the telephone system. The telephone companies were truly neutral carriers, they did not censor phone calls.

What troubled me about this BBC article - if the details are correct - is not that comments were removed if they included personal details but that Flickr did not take Rebekka's side and take legal action on her behalf. They presumably have the finances to do so and it is very much in their intrests to show that third parties can not just pirate material from their site and expect to get away with it -- or who is going to upload there in the future.

"but that Flickr did not take Rebekka's side and take legal action on her behalf"

Copyright violations are extremely common and no one has the power to tackle the whole problem. I'm sure Flickr is worried that if they defend one of their customers then they must defend them all, and that could easily be thousands of cases a year.

All the same, its shameful they deleted the post.

I don't think it's necessarily Yahoo/Flickr's place to get involved in individual copyright disputes involving its users. It would be nice for us lowly users to have their formidable legal heft on our side, but I'm not sure they're obliged to leap into the fray on this particular case.

We still don't know exactly how the abridgment took place. The gallery said a third party sold them the pictures using forged copyright documents. I have my doubts about that story, but you never know.

Flickr may be hesitating because they haven't definitively established that these images were stolen off of Flickr, or by whom. They might have been pilfered from RG in some other way, for example, from her MySpace page, or wherever.

A trivial, pedantic point about Icelandic names. It's actually good form and not condescending to refer to most Icelanders by their first names. The patronymic (dottir=daughter) is not per se a surname in the sense of most European names. One take the name of one's father, plus "-sson" or "-dottir", but the telephone books list people by first name. It's appropriate to address the President of Iceland as "Vigdis" or "President Vigdis" not by her patronymic "Finnbogadottir." Bjork may be "strange" in some people's opinion but her use of her first name is genuine, not a "Cher" or "Prince" affectation.

Fuck. I'm supposed to be the one who makes pedantic linguistics comments in these parts. I even knew that this is how Iceland's naming language works but forgot it until Bruce reminded me. Oh well.

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