Openverse: Why This Project Is Good for WordPress and the Web

In today’s WP Briefing podcast episode, The Commons of Images, host Josepha Haden Chomphosy discussed the Openverse project with WordPress lead Matt Mullenweg. Automattic recently paid the non-profit Creative Commons organization for their Creative Commons Search engine. However, will host it, and there will be a community-run team. Openverse will be the name of the new project when it launches.

A more official announcement of the Openverse project and team is expected shortly. However, it is an ideal time to begin exploring what this means for WordPress and the web.

Over the past few years, theme authors have watched as their favored image services offered problematic license and terms changes. The domino effect of services not wanting competitors to build upon their collections of open-source media shifted the landscape. Pexels, Pixabay, Unsplash, and others began adding limitations to how their images could be used. Such limitations meant images from those services were not allowed in themes.

For theme creators, this meant the pool of potential open-source images became smaller in a time when it should have been growing.

“What happens today is there’s stock photography sites, some of which used to be Creative Commons-based, but many have moved away from that,” said Mullenweg. “So they essentially relicense their user contributions.”

It is not just an issue for creators on the theme directory. The burning question of where to find free images without fuzzy license agreements crosses the spectrum of the WordPress community. Even users should feel safe dropping a decorative or featured image into their post without digging through the legalese.

Image search results for beach photos on CC Search.
Creative Commons Search for beach photos.

The web is full of content under Creative Commons licenses. However, it is often tough to find them. Mullenweg said that image, audio, and video files are each “a little bit of an island” in his description of the problem. That discoverability issue is part of what the Openverse project intends to solve.

Sites that have changed their terms or licenses did so after becoming players in the stock photo space. However, their growth was on the back of the open-source world. They should have expected some backlash. And, WordPress is the ideal type of community to make a truly free alternative.

Potentially Revolutionary

The Openverse project can be a game-changer in two regards. The first is the direct integration into the WordPress media library. The second is it provides another avenue for people, even those who are not developers or designers, to contribute to the open content of the web.

The platform’s built-in media library is due for an overhaul. Uploading and adding images to a post is a relatively simple affair — if you have them on hand. Going to a stock photo site and choosing an image is often the course of action when users need to find the perfect photo to plug into a post. However, this takes users outside of the WordPress experience, creating a blockage in the content-creation flow.

The plan for Openverse is to integrate its search feature directly into the media library. This puts millions of media files into the hands of creators without ever leaving WordPress.

Some plugins already do this for various stock photo sites. Automattic’s Jetpack offers access to the Pexels collection.

Media library view of Pexels photo search via the Jetpack plugin.
Pexels image search via Jetpack.

Pexels has its own license similar to Pixababy and Unsplash. However, it does distinguish between CC0 (public domain) and the Pexels License on a photo-by-photo basis. Unfortunately, that license info is not shown via the Jetpack integration. I hope the eventual integration of Openverse and WordPress is more robust, offering a clear view of what users are getting when they find an image they like.

There are still some things to copy from Jetpack’s Pexels integration. Automatic photo credits and alt text are welcome features that generally make the web a better experience. Adding the credit to the image caption is a nice nod to the creator, and the oft-forgotten alt text is necessary for users with screen readers.

Screenshot of inserting an image via Jetpack's Pexels integration with pre-filled photo credits and alt text.
Inserting image with photo credits and alt text from Pexels.

One of the biggest takeaways from the podcast is what Openverse can be for the web. “We’re going to try to bring the WordPress philosophy to this space,” said Mullenweg.

He acknowledged that there is and should always be a market for professional media creators. There are sites aplenty for people who want to offer commercial access to their images and more.

“But we just want to make an alternative, so those who want to donate their work to the world, much like engineers, and designers, and translators of WordPress, donate their work some of that effort to the world, they can do so,” he said.

Openverse must become more than a media search engine. It needs to be a project where the Average Joe can upload a nice nature picture he took over the weekend barbecue. A place where Average Jane can share a video clip of the ocean waves hitting the shoreline from her beach trip. And a place where professionals can pay it forward to the world.

My excitement is mostly about having a trusted place for theme authors and designers to grab free media. I am already imagining what this could mean for the upcoming block pattern directory, a place that will need quality images without restrictions.

The project is 100% open source too. Developers can fork the search engine and create their own. Competing content management solutions will also have access to the public API, offering open-source media to their users.

Bringing the WordPress philosophy into the stock media space is a plan I can get behind.


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