What happened to millions of Creative Commons-licensed photos in Flickr?

UPDATED: it was a bug, and the Flickr team fixed it.  All’s well.  Read on for the story:

Something weird and potentially bad just happened to the Flickr photo-sharing site.  Specifically, their page listing photos published under Creative Commons licenses now shows far, far fewer of them.

Where once there were tens of millions, there are now 400,000 and fewer.

What happened, Flickr?  Yahoo, do you know anything?

Here’s a bit more background.

Anders Sandberg, "Disappearance"

A fine photo, Attribution-only license, found using this method.

Flickr is one of the oldest, great social photo sharing sites.  I joined it way back in 2004 (my photos), pretty soon after it launched, and found the service extremely useful.  It’s a fine place to share my images, an unusual place for getting feedback, a terrific site to discover other images, and good, even unique, at a bunch of other functions everyone should know.

One of its fine aspects is supporting search for non-copyrighted photos.  We can look just for images uploaded under the Creative Commons license suite (which everyone should know about; here’s a starter).  It’s a grand way to find materials for your next movie, PowerPoint, blog post, or whatever.  I found Anders Sandberg’s photo above that way, using this search.

Last I looked (a week ago, maybe) I recall seeing tens of millions of photos under the leading licenses.  Back in December Alan Levine spotted 58 million under the Attribution header.

Now the larger collection is of photos shared under Attribution-NoDerivs, and that numbers merely 499,963.  That’s a cut of around 98% at the worst.

Flickr Creative Commons landing page

Other licenses show photos in the hundreds of thousands, except Public Domain Dedication with 59,689 photos and Public Domain Mark with its 68,507.

Diving into the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, I see that these low numbers first appear on April 2.  That’s when the change first appears.  On April 1st the old, huge numbers are still there:

Flickr Creative Commons directory, April 1, 2015

More than 58 and 16 million photos.  What happened?

(I don’t know why the Machine saved this page with text in Indonesian.  That must be where they have an active web scraper, I suppose)

Looking for help, I saw that Flickr didn’t have an answer on their site, and really wanted me to ask a question in its fora (I did).  They really didn’t want me to contact them directly.  Starting two hours ago I took to Twitter, tweeting at the main Flickr account, the Flickr Help feed, and Yahoo Customer Care for good measure.  They have not responded as of this writing.

So what’s happening? It’s not something local to my machine, since others have duplicated this elsewhere.  Most likely there’s a glitch in the CC landing page.  Or, worse, there’s a flaw in the Flickr/Yahoo indexing system, so they only recognize a tiny proportion of CC licenses.  Or, worse still, there’s been a policy change that they haven’t announced.  Was the change tied to adding these two new CC licenses?  Worst of all, have so many photos been deleted?

Whichever one turns out to be the case, this is bad news for those of us who support open content.  Because this is a serious cut to the open content richness once available on Flickr, if it’s serious.

Does anyone have any thoughts?

EDITED TO ADD: I submitted this post to Hacker News for yet another venue.

Adding an Internet Archive snapshot was Martha Burtis‘ idea.

UPDATE: it seem to be a bug on the Explore page.  Flickr Help tweeted back:

Flickr acknowledges a bug

They recommend searching for images using the main search bar, not the Explore ones.

No word on bug fix timeline yet.

(thanks to Barbara Ganley, Tom Haymes, and Alan Levine, amazing photographers all, for help with this; disappearance photo by Anders Sandberg)

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16 Responses to What happened to millions of Creative Commons-licensed photos in Flickr?

  1. CogDog says:

    I also asked (and have yet to see an answer among the fora)

    It’s a rather sad sign for such a supposed major player for Yahoo to not monitor nor respond to social media. You’d think they were still thinking it is 1999.

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  4. jessamyn says:

    They’re terrible at communicating transparently. But this is so funny because I’ve been scanning that page relentlessly for the past few days watching the number of Public Domain and CC0 numbers going up.

    • I would have thought they’d try harder to communicate more effectively, given the stresses Yahoo’s under.

      • jessamyn says:

        Their help people are wonderful but I get the feeling that there’s diminishing returns communicating with “squeaky wheel” types (even when they’re right) beyond a certain point. There’s not a lot of money to be gained in an ROI sense by better communication with users most of the time. And if they’re anything like the Archive, they are probably in constant triage mentality with their coders who have very little communication with front line help/support/community people.

      • That makes sense.
        Thank you for sharing your expertise.

    • Matthew Roth says:

      Hi Jessamyn, I’m sorry you’ve had bad communication in the past. I hope Andrew’s Help Forum discussion with was useful? You can always find us there and you can always reach out to me directly for any Community issue. I’m the primary community person, the guy behind @FlickrHelp, @Flickr, and this account: https://www.flickr.com/photos/matthewalmonroth/

      • jessamyn says:

        Thank you — things have been better now (2015? Six months) than in the past for sure, but since the big redesign and the “Hey we’re selling your CC stuff” there’s also a lot of bad communication that needs patching up. I really appreciate your responsiveness.

  5. Pingback: Flickr Creative Commons site bug fixed | Bryan Alexander

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