Yahoo’s Flickr: Selling Your Snapshots

You take a snapshot of a sunset and decide to share it with the world. Naturally, you decide to upload the image to an online photo sharing service.

But which service do you use? Do you select Facebook’s Instagram? Or Adobe’s PhotoShop? Or perhaps Yahoo’s Flickr?

Most people would make this decision on the basis of personal habit. Some might consider the site’s target user group. Hardly any one, though, would consider the “business use” terms that are maintained by the owner of the service.

Nevertheless, if you’re considering Yahoo’s Flickr, you should keep in mind that the folks at Yahoo might sell your snapshot without your permission. And if they do, they might keep all of the proceeds of the sale for themselves.

Why are such sales transactions legal? Well, if a photographer intends to engage in non-commercial file sharing, he might choose the Creative Commons terms that are available on the service. Those terms permit others to utilize the snapshot for their own purposes, albeit with certain restrictions.

And what if the photographer does not read Flickr’s “tiny print” carefully? He may then neglect to impose restrictions on the utilization of the snapshot. Yahoo — or any other entity, for that matter — is then free to sell the image for its own commercial profit.

It may not be surprising that an enterprising firm would take advantage of the generosity of photographers by downloading and reselling snapshots from an independent web service without the photographers’ consent. But Yahoo is attracting photographers to its own service, and is then mining their snapshots to earn profits.

Oddly enough, Yahoo is a declining (though once dominant) firm that is desperately trying to recapture the goodwill of a consumer group that has moved on to competitors like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Is the uncompensated sale of user snapshots really a practice that will endear Yahoo to these consumers?

History is full of tales of businesses that squandered durable consumer reputations in pursuit of short-term profits. General Motors, after all, was once the largest automobile company in the world. And Sears Roebuck was once America’s largest retail store and mail catalog organization.

But now General Motors is reeling from lawsuits and government investigations involving inexpensive (and defective) parts. And as the owner of Sears increasingly focuses on extracting value from the organization’s real estate holdings, the financial performance of Sears’ retail business becomes more deeply mired in losses.

Indeed, General Motors and Sears are learning that short-term profits often lead to long-term losses when consumers lose faith in the quality, reliability, and trustworthiness of a product or service. As Yahoo proceeds down a similar path, it may come to regret its decision to adopt an analogous strategy.