Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Last month, I blogged about one of my new "missions" - to take photographs of people and post them under a CC-BY license so that Wikipedians and other people writing articles have access to photographs that they can use in articles. There is a problematic lack of usable photos of most people as any Google Image search will prove. I've been talking about this a bit more and Larry suggest we start a "freesouls" movement to encourage people to post take and post their photos under a free license.

I've started tagging any decent quality images of people on my Flickr stream tagged with their name and the tag "freesouls". If you're interested in joining, just start using the tag.

I did a workshop about photography at the iCommons Summit and discussed freesouls. One of the issues that came up about portraits was the issue of moral rights, model releases and privacy. We've decided to make the photography discussion at iCommons a permanent thing and will be setting up a "node" for this. If you're interested in discussing these issues, please join the node and the mailing list I'm setting up. For now, you can just sign up on my wiki or the Flickr group until we have a more permanent place for the node.

We'll mostly be discussing norms and legal issues around taking and sharing portraits as well techniques, tools, services and events. We'll also try to put together a tutorial online. We're planning to do the workshop again at iCommons Summit '08 in Sapporo.

Update: You can sign up for the Photo Commons mailing list here:


flickr? Are you kidding?? Are you aware of what's going on at flickr? See here. And here. Here, here...

Cem: Yeah, I've been watching the stuff on Flickr. I'm going to give Flickr/Y! some time to respond some more and work things out before I take a position on it.

I'm not sure exactly what that has to do with making portraits of people available under a free license...

Also, I'm not saying we should only use Flickr. That's just where most of my photos are.

Joi, do you usually ask if people mind having their picture taken and being published? A picture taken in a public place is probably legal, but I'm sure everybody isn't comfortable with the idea.

ER: My current working process which is subject to change is...

Don't do anything that piss people off. If I know the subject or can make logical assumptions, while risky, I guess if they would be upset if I take a picture or not. When I'm posting picture, I try to post picture that I assume they wouldn't get upset about. I make assumptions based on what I know about their personality.

This clearly isn't perfect, but it's a working model that is generally OK.

Lately, I don't take too many pictures of strangers, but when I do, I only post stuff that is neutral or flattering and not incriminating in any way that I can think of. I try to make eye contact so that they know I'm taking a photo and can signal their discomfort if necessary.

It's a very hard issue. It would really not be practical to ask permission from everyone I shoot. However, I don't want to break any norms. That is one of the things we're going to talk about.

On the other hand, some people I know have very different rules including posting pictures of people who don't want their photos published. I'm not necessarily against this because there are various arguments for why this is OK. In my current response, I'm just stating my personal process, not trying to make judgment on others.


At least in the United States there is a long and detailed precedent when it comes to the use of someone's likeness and name. Generally speaking (as a photographer, not a lawyer) the legal aspects of this fall under the privacy torts--in usual cases under the tort of appropriation. You may not appropriate someone's image in a commercial way (i.e. an advertisement) without his or her permission, but for editorial and non-commercial use you may. At least that's my understanding.

Of course the ethical question is trickier. Since it is so easy these days for anyone to post their own image online I would assume that since they haven't, it is because they have chosen not to. Why should another person such as you or I take it upon ourselves to do this for them. To make assumptions about how flattering or neutral or incriminating a photo is folly--your assumptions are bound to differ with you subject's. Does it bring enough good to the culture to warrant trumping a persons right to have some control over their image in the public record. It sounds like you would like to do the right thing and not piss anyone off, but your current working process makes too many assumptions which are unlikely to be shared by your subjects unless you actually talk to them about it. A better working method might be to build some means to encourage people to do this for themselves and ask those who don't want to if they would mind if you did it for them.

Mark: I agree. I definitely take into consideration what sorts of photos the person has posted and if they have posted their name, fullname, pseudonym, etc. when I think about whether they would want their picture posted. Also, I try to make sure that they see me taking the photo so that they have an opportunity to tell me if they don't want their picture taken.

My point about flattering vs no still makes sense to me though. The extremes are a photo where the subject is smiling into the camera vs a picture of the subject drunk or passed out. I don't think most people like pictures of themselves in embarrassing situations while photos smiling into the camera or on stage in a public places are pretty safe I think.

I agree that this isn't the only think we should take into account.

I heard that there was a well publicized case in the US of a Rabbi who had his picture taken on a street and ended up in a street photography book. He sued and lost I think. I think that the US prohibits mostly using someone's image to sell a product, but as you say, journalistic or artistic uses are relatively free.

I think the US has the least protection for the subjects because of relatively lax privacy rights. Japan and Europe are much more strict.

Joi, I was just browsing Flickr for pictures tagged with "freesouls" and found out that there's a user "pikkus", who seems to tag all his/her pictures with "freesouls". I guess that wasn't your idea?

ER: Good catch. I just posted on the Flickr group where Pikkus has joined us.