A Copyright Tale

My friend @robwall sent me this tweet a couple of days ago:

The image that (currently) previews in that tweet isn’t the original photo that was posted to this Ars Technica article. Originally, the article featured an image of my three children engaging in a Facetime conversation with my dad. I released this image under a Creative Commons license (BY-NC-SA), one that requires attribution, non-commercial use, and that the license remains the same even if someone adapts the photograph. Below is a screenshot of the original photo placement in the article, and you should notice that attribution is not provided. This seemed particularly ironic as the content of the article deals with intellectual property, and the author writes prolifically on these topics.


Shortly after I received the tweet from Rob, I sent the author a tweet and posted a comment on the article. Essentially, I was fine with Ars Technica using the photograph, was happy to provide permission for non-commercial use, but urged Ars to provide proper attribution for the image. While it took several hours for a response (which I think is quite reasonable), I eventually received this tweet from the author, @joemullin.

I was pleased with the response. I don’t see this as theft. I recognize that this could easily have been an oversight. And apologizing publicly is not easy for many. So, I respect Joe for that and appreciate the transparency in his response.

Shortly after this tweet for Joe, I also received an email from the editor. I have pasted the text of this email below, and respond to it here.

Hi, I’m the creative director for Ars. First off, let me apologize for the oversight on your image credit. Our policy is always to credit and link all CC licensed photos, a quick glance at some other stories on our site should show the credit below the image. This was simply a mistake, didn’t mean for you to feel ripped off or cheated in any way.

Thanks Aurich. I’m happy with your swift response. Personally, I do not feel ripped off or cheated as I don’t feel a strong sense of ownership for the content that I create. However, the lack of attribution cheats your readership (the general public). While it may not seem like a big deal in the case of this single photograph, I feel that proper attribution is essential in providing others with the origin, adaptions, and travels of an artefact or idea. I love seeing that my work is useful for others. But, without attribution, we silence potential conversations around the matter and the context of ideas/artefacts being shared.

Let me also apologize for using an image that must resonate with you emotionally right now, definitely not our intention. I prefer that our writers not use photos of people from Flickr, even when licensed clearly for use, they’re not professional models and it can sometimes come out badly. Better to stick with licensed stock art for that kind of thing when possible.

If you missed it here’s the public apology from the author:

I appreciate that Joe has made this statement publicly.


Our policy is to just immediately pull any image if someone claims the rights to it and objects. We don’t even verify they own it, better safe than sorry. So in this case your photo was immediately pulled once your comment was seen.


The response was as timely as could be expected on a Saturday.


I also want to address the non-commercial license issue, it’s a bit of a mess as far as sorting out what it means. My understanding from lawyers (I’m certainly not one) is that CC licenses under “non commercial” are fair use for editorial purposes, even if the site in question also operates as a for-profit entity (so banner ads etc). Understandably some people might be 100% fine with that, and others might object because it doesn’t meet the spirit of what they thought they were putting up under that license.
So Joe wasn’t ignoring your license, he was just doing what he was told is fair game.


The NC licensing is clearly tricky. I’ve written about it here. The comments on the post also demonstrate how confusing NC licenses may be.


I really mention this though to say that it’s a pretty common industry practice, and if that bothers you then you might want to reconsider what CC license you use for some of your photos. I would hope that everyone would pull a photo down immediately if requested, but you still have to find out they’re using it first.


I continue to license all of my content, personal and professional, under Creative Commons licenses. My professional work typically falls under BY/SA licenses. However, I add the NC clause to my personal photos. In doing this, I find that people are more likely then to a) use my works under clearly non-commercial circumstances, b) avoid these works because of the uncertainty, or c) ask permission (as in the case of Nokia in the post I shared). This seems to provide me with a bit more control of the work in my personal domain.


If I can help with anything else please let me know, I wanted to reach out to you directly once I was made aware of the issue. We’re grateful for people who share their photos for use, we don’t have a photography staff or art department, and we’d be poorer off without that generosity. Any time there’s any kind of issue with the system I want to make sure all parties feel like we take their concerns seriously.
Thanks for your time, and sorry for the mixup.


I am very appreciative of your thorough and thoughtful response. I do believe it was just an oversight as it seemed unusual for an Ars article. I know that several educators have voiced their interest in using this story to discuss copyright and public/Internet discourse  in their own classrooms. So, I am actually quite glad this happened. Thanks.


  • Great response from all parties involved, professional and courteous indeed.

    As the grade nine ‘Media’ class begins tomorrow with an in-depth examination of digital citizenship, the timing of this post is perfect.

    I respectfully request permission to show this exemplary model of resolving online issues. Further, would you be willing to talk with any student that may have questions regarding your thoughts surrounding the use of your family’s photos online?

    Thanks again for posting such a superb example of real online problem solving!


  • Hey Stephen,
    Thanks so much for your comment. Yes, it would be great if you were able to use this example with your students. And sure, let’s set up a time where I can connect with your students. That would be a lot of fun!

    I hope you are doing well. Take care.

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  • Debbie Tebovich

    Hi dear Alec,
    I was part of “unforgettable” ETMOOC. This MOOC, has changed my vision about teaching and learning. I learned so much from the speakers and from the community, even when I was not able to do all the assignments.

    I have been reading your blog since then, yes I have been a lurker. But the time has come, and I’m ready to leave that comfort zone, I need to thank you for this post very especially.

    Last January I was part of the EVO Crafting your perfect ebook and as part of the program moderators presented a topic each week. I chose CCL as most participants were struggling with this topic. I love storytelling and thought that I could turn your post into a story to show the importance of CCL and how you ended up getting funds for your daughters college seemed like a perfect ending for the story.

    This year I presented at iTDi Summer MOOC on “Why we need stories” and again I told them the same story to show how a story can help us learn and remember.

    Thank you for being so generous Dr Couros. Sometimes teachers don’t know how much they touch another teacher’s life. You and your band of conspirators have touched mine and I will be grateful forever.