Today the 'Flickrsphere' is up in arms over a blog post by New York Times writer Sonia Zjawinski which encourages people to use Flickr photos to decorate their house. The post has caused a massive amount of feedback, mostly bashing Sonia, the New York Times, and anyone who opposes the angry mob of online photographers. The claim is, printing an image file which is publicly visible online without asking the photographer's permission or purchasing a license is violating copyright law. Even if the image in question is a low-resolution preview of the actual photo. Even if the image is not being sold, modified, or redistributed and no claim of ownership is being made by the user. Even if the intended audience for the printed image is only the user and the other inhabitants of their home.
Most images posted to Flickr are uploaded with an 'All Rights Reserved' state (a user has the ability to choose a Creative Commons license if they desire). Some Flickr users rely on sales of their photos as income, so that 'All Rights Reserved' option is very important to them. To prevent just anyone from being able to have a perfect copy of the photo, Flickr provides the option to hide larger sized images from the general public. Not to mention the fact that photographers can upload their photos at any reduced resolution they choose. No photographer that has hopes of selling prints makes their full-resolution images public, unless they have no business sense whatsoever...
Still with me? Good, because here is where it gets ugly. Under this 'All Rights Reserved' option, you have the right to view the image at the highest resolution available to you, on the photographer's photostream. You have the right to view it on your Flickr contacts page. Thanks to Flickr's community-friendly API, you have the right to view the available RSS feeds of a individual user's photostream or of all your contacts' photos in a number of photo-viewing applications and readers. (This sounds like a lot of rights for a license that gives you no rights to the image, right?) You have the right to use those RSS feeds to view images on any number of devices; be it desktop, laptop, phone, television, or *gasp* digital photo frame. These devices might be in your hand, on your desk, or hanging on your wall at home. But these devices usually display images only temporarily, which may suggest the user is only 'viewing' the image instead of claiming some kind of ownership. So how long can I display a photographer's photo on my digital photo frame before I need the photographer's permission? How many people need to walk by my desk at work before I've created a public art installation?
And for the grand finale: What difference does it make if the image is digital or printed if both came from the same source file? Printing the image does not magically make it higher quality. Thanks to the Flickr API, it's possible for any user to get up to a 1024px-square image, which can create a passable 4x6" print, unless the photographer has limited the size of their uploads. But somehow printing the image is looked upon as the deadliest sin. If I set the image as my desktop background, and I see it five days a week for eight hours a day, is that more acceptable than printing out the same image and throwing it in a drawer where it will never be seen?
I don't advocate stealing artist's work. I don't believe all art should be free. I do believe that Flickr is primarily a photo sharing website, as outlined in their meta description displayed on every Google search result ("Flickr is almost certainly the best online photo management and sharing application in the world. Show off your favorite photos and videos to the world"). Anyone uploading photos to Flickr thinking they can control where and how those photos are being viewed... is wrong. My advice to you is to reduce the size of the images you upload. Limit the original size image to people you trust (Designate them as 'friends and family' instead of 'contacts' and then change your permissions accordingly.) Or consider a different method of displaying your portfolio.
Because I know the nature of the Internet, I'll end with this: Please go ahead and print my images and put them up on your wall. Hopefully, someday when you're in the market to buy artwork (and I'm eventually selling prints), you'll remember me thanks to the longer time you've already enjoyed with one of my photos. Just to be clear, I'm not giving you permission to use them commercially, modify them, or claim you created them, that's a whole other story. I do believe in copyright laws, I just think the majority of Flickr users voicing their opinion today have a different opinion on what constitutes fair use.
And, in the comments (if anyone even reads this), try not to make too many 'If I saw your car on the street and it was unlocked and I stole the car it would be cool, right?' comparisons - they aren't helping your argument. No, you can't take my car. But you can take a photo of it.