May 1, 2009 | By Hugh D'Andrade

White House Photos — Does the Public Need a License to Use?

The White House has recently unveiled its Official White House Photostream on Flickr, posting dozens of stunning photos by official photographer Pete Souza. In posting the photos, the White House chose the least restrictive license available, a Creative Commons Attribution license — which means the public is free to download, copy, and re-mix freely, so long as the original photographer is credited.

While this is certainly better than releasing the photos under the usual copyright rules (no use without permission, specific license and compensation), the license made us wonder: if these are official photos by the official White House photographer, aren't they government works? If so, they aren't copyrightable, which means they needn't be licensed at all, but should instead be flagged as public domain. (All the photos we've looked at were by the official White House photographer; however, to the extent that any are provided by non-governmental third parties, we've no quarrel with the CC-BY license for those.)

So we did a little investigation. As it happens, there is a kind of public domain option on Flickr. Photos in the Flickr streams of other public institution such as the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress are accompanied by text that reads "No known copyright restrictions," with a link to a page explaining that the photo is either public domain or is owned by an institution that is not exercising control over the image.

The White House should reconsider its licensing approach, and work with Flickr to flag these government works in the same way. This Administration is pioneering the use of the Internet to reach out to citizens — and part of the precedent it should set is a clear recognition that publicly funded government works should be free to the public, without the burden of copyright and licensing restrictions.

Flickr, for its part, should open up the "no copyright restrictions" option to the rest of us. As it stands, it appears that is only open to specific institutions. Flickr has been a pioneer in this area, and deserves credit for helping people put Creative Commons licenses to use. We hope they'll consider allowing the public access to the same "non-license" being used by the Smithsonian and other institutions, or at the very least add a public domain license certification to the list of options.


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