Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

How Wired Turned Creative Commons into a Link Marketing Scheme

Wired is giving away its library of images under a creative commons license because it believes information wants to be free—right?

  • November 8, 2011

Full disclosure: I occasionally write for Wired.

Steve Jobs as captured by Jon Snyder for Wired.com

Wired is giving away a huge library of images snapped by its staff photographers. This is an unalloyed good that will benefit everyone who is ever in need of a picture of a sad-looking Michael Arrington or a candid image of Tron Guy wearing street clothes instead of his suit. OK, so that’s mostly bloggers and news outlets.

At first blush, it looks like Wired.com is striking a blow for free culture. And they are! I really don’t want to underplay how cool this is. Except: why would their overlords at Condé Nast, a successful privately held company, authorize such a move?

Here’s why: This is one of the greatest link marketing schemes ever. We all remember that Google search rankings work in part based on how many incoming links reference a story. Well imagine that suddenly, you figured out a way to have hundreds or thousands of news outlets – websites that have very high Google rankings already – regularly pointing links at articles from your archives, for free.

Well that’s what some genius at Wired just figured out. Almost all Creative Commons licenses come with at least some conditions on how a piece of content can be used. Check out this one, which is attached to all the images Wired is making available:

Photos must be properly attributed to the photographer and Wired.com, and we ask for a link back to the original story where the photo first appeared.

Now, every time someone uses this soon-to-be-iconic image of Steve Jobs, they’ll have to link back to the story announcing Wired’s Creative Commons / link marketing scheme.

Best of all, this steady stream of high-quality incoming links will go on and on forever. The more staff photographs Wired uses to accompany articles on its site, the more the rest of the tech infosphere will repurpose those images and link back to Wired.com.

It’s also notable that by mandating a link to articles on Wired.com and specifically prohibiting use in advertising, the license on Wired’s images automatically disqualifies all uses of their photographs in print, where they would be useless for link marketing.

I’m not saying there’s anything sinister about this scheme – in fact it’s brilliant. What’s more, in an era in which the price of a photo is rapidly approaching zero, thanks to ultra-cheap stock photo sites and the tons of great images already available on Flickr under a Creative Commons license, Wired may have just found a way to justify paying photographers fair wages for full rights to their work.

In other words, what if other outlets catch onto this scheme and adopt it as their own? What if the new justification for original photography is that it becomes a fantastic way to market your website and build links and traffic to your content?

That is, as long as everyone plays by your rules. Cory Doctorow’s breathless announcement on BoingBoing of Wired’s Creative Commons launch doesn’t even include, as specified in Wired’s license, a caption that links back to the original article. So I guess technically he stole it? Perhaps Condé’s lawyers can set him straight.

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