The Unsplash License is not GPL compatible

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. Please consider what follows my unqualified opinion.

I’ve long been impressed with Unsplash. From to the quality of the photos, to the sheer size of the collection, to the freedom of the licensing, all the way to the user experience of the website itself.

As a WordPress theme author who strictly complies with the “100% GPL” rules of both WordPress.org and WordPress.com, Unsplash was a godsend.

I knew I could always count on Unsplash for high-quality photography, without any worry of violating licensing-related rules, because their photos were licensed under cc0.

However, Unsplash recently changed their license, which includes the following sentence:

This license does not include the right to compile photos from Unsplash to replicate a similar or competing service.

This should be deeply concerning to anyone using an Unsplash photo from here on out.

But I’m not going to start a competing service

Unsplash has come a long way from its 2013 beginnings as a Tumblr-hosted photo blog that shared “10 new photos every 10 days” for free.

Today, Unsplash is one of the most popular stock photography websites on the internet, thanks in large part to its decision to license under cc0. A stark contrast from entrenched behemoths like Getty, which can charge hundreds of dollars for a relatively restrictive license to use a single photo.

Unsplash has evolved at a rapid clip, and shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, two new Unsplash employees were just hired today.

While Unsplash’s leadership may not competitive problem with you today, who knows how Unsplash will evolve in the future? There’s no guarantee that your existing or future service won’t conflict with Unsplash’s brisk evolution.

While Unsplash’s leadership seems chill about their license now, what if they get acquired? There’s no guarantee the new Unsplash overlords won’t have a more draconian interpretation of what’s a “competing service” and what’s not.

In any case, GPL-compatible licenses cannot contain a “you can’t compete with us” clause.

But Unsplash said the license was GPL compatible

Almost more concerning than the license itself, is the Unsplash team’s own nebulous understanding of the GPL.

As news of the license change spread, they have shifted into damage control mode by repeatedly claiming the new license is GPL compatible.

But want to offer up photos for download? According to an Unsplash cofounder, you need the author’s permission first.

Here’s what the GPL has to say about that:

Each time you redistribute the Program (or any work based on the Program), the recipient automatically receives a license from the original licensor to copy, distribute or modify the Program subject to these terms and conditions. You may not impose any further restrictions on the recipients’ exercise of the rights granted herein

If the license was truly GPL-compatible, then author permission to redistribute (even by offering for download) would already be granted by the license. No supplemental author permission necessary.

Here’s a copy of WordPress 4.8, by the way.

But Unsplash said there were no restrictions on individual photos, just “the collection”

Imagine a world where WordPress, BuddyPress, and bbPress were never licensed under the GPL, but rather, “The Leland License.”

The Leland License declares that you can use WordPress, BuddyPress, and bbPress however you want, except you can’t use them all at once (the collection) to make a blog with a forum and social network attached.

Because Leland.me is a blog and a forum and a social network all-in-one, I’m scared that somebody could use the combination of all three Leland-licensed pieces of software to build a competing service.

In this world, I don’t go around telling everyone WordPress/bbPress/BuddyPress are GPL compatible, because I understand the GPL cannot restrict usage in such a manner.

A far-fetched example, but the point remains: there’s no leeway for “the collection” in the GPL. It’s all or nothing.

In conclusion

While I empathize with the reasoning behind Unsplash’s decision, and acknowledge the Unsplash License grants much more freedom than the typical stock photo license, it is not GPL compatible.

Unsplash has built an incredible community, and they deserve to be commended for that. I just wish they would rethink the Unsplash License, or at the very least, stop spreading misinformation about its GPL compatibility.

And for those that don’t think this license change isn’t a big deal, I’ll leave you with one final thought:

Once a willingness to restrict user freedoms is demonstrated, for whatever reason, how much further will it go?

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