Unsplash.com, a site that provides high-resolution photos for free, updated its license and the change has people in the WordPress community concerned.
So unsplash images are no longer public domain. No longer gpl compatible. What does it mean for #WordPressThemes that uses these images?
— Carolina Nymark (@carolinapoena) June 9, 2017
Prior to the change, Unsplash’s license stated the following:
All photos published on Unsplash are licensed under Creative Commons Zero which means you can copy, modify, distribute and use the photos for free, including commercial purposes, without asking permission from or providing attribution to the photographer or Unsplash.
According to GNU.org, the CC0 or Creative Commons Zero license is compatible with the GPL.
CC0 is a public domain dedication from Creative Commons. A work released under CC0 is dedicated to the public domain to the fullest extent permitted by law. If that is not possible for any reason, CC0 also provides a lax, permissive license as a fallback. Both public domain works and the lax license provided by CC0 are compatible with the GNU GPL.
If you want to release your work to the public domain, we recommend you use CC0.
Unsplash’s new license states (emphasis mine):
All photos published on Unsplash can be used for free. You can use them for commercial and noncommercial purposes. You do not need to ask permission from or provide credit to the photographer or Unsplash, although it is appreciated when possible.
More precisely, Unsplash grants you a nonexclusive copyright license to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use photos from Unsplash for free, including for commercial purposes, without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash. This license does not include the right to compile photos from Unsplash to replicate a similar or competing service.
The inability to compile photos from Unsplash to replicate a similar or competing service is a restriction on how the photos can be used, calling into question its compatibility with the GPL.
Luke Chesser, co-founder of Unsplash, explained on Twitter that individual photos are still CC0-licensed and therefor GPL compatible.
“The Unsplash license doesn’t violate GPL and can still be used in WordPress themes,” Chesser said. “There are no restrictions on the individual photos.
“There is only a restriction on the collection of photos, which doesn’t even apply unless your intent is to create a similar service.”
For example, it’s ok if someone creates a site that displays the best photos of bridges from Unsplash. But if the site makes those photos available for download, it would violate the license.
On its FAQ page, Unsplash explains why the restriction was put in place:
The fuel that drives Unsplash is the exceptional images that are generously contributed by people from all over the world. Without them, none of this would work. Unsplash would be nothing. We owe everyone who’s contributed a photo not only a thank you but support and empowerment for the gifts they’ve given us.
Out of respect for our contributors and our ability to uphold our value of empowering creativity, we added this sentence to the Unsplash License.
We don’t support the mass duplication of Unsplash photos with the purpose of replicating a similar or competing service because it leads to confusion which negatively impacts both the spirit of open creative use and the celebration of Unsplash contributors.
Mass compiling of photos from Unsplash to distribute on other sites has created legal issues in the past. “Sites that mass duplicate and compile Unsplash photos point support and legal issues back to Unsplash, while continuing to redistribute photos that may be removed on Unsplash,” the company said.
The reasons cited by Unsplash for putting the restriction in place are some of the same reasons WordPress plugin developers register trademarks. The GPL allows the following freedoms.
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
- The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions, giving the community a chance to benefit from your changes.
Over the years, there have been many instances in the WordPress community where businesses have taken advantage of these freedoms merely to profit from the work of others.
The reselling of commercial plugins causes confusion in the market and resellers typically point support and other inquiries back to the plugin’s developers.
Trademarks give commercial plugin authors measures to protect their brand without violating the GPL. A good example is the GravityForms Trademark page which clearly outlines how its brand can be used and displayed.
For now, it appears that most people who use Unsplash will be unaffected by the licensing change. However, as long as there is one license that governs the use of images and it has at least one restriction, its compatibility with the GPL will remain in doubt.